Literary essayist, editor, and writing coach Lisa Romeo writes:
Writers tend to think of rejection as something done to us by outsiders. We paint it as something we cannot control, as something to be feared and avoided, when in reality, rejection begins with ourselves. Early on.
Even before we start writing, we reject our own creativity. We dismiss our ideas, our skills, our imagination before we give them a chance to work themselves out on the page. We squash the excitement that might otherwise go along with beginning a new project. We self-censor before we have words to delete.
Pre-writing — that period from the moment an idea first enters our consciousness until we put words on paper — takes many forms. It can be notes scribbled on the edges of a calendar, a photo we keep fingering, dialogue that springs into our minds just before we wake in the morning. It is the sometimes mysterious, occasionally frustrating, often exciting or scary time when we are reading, thinking, imagining, and mentally tinkering with a writing project.
It can also be debilitating. Because rejection is a big part of pre-writing. Not the formal rejection associated with a “no thanks” email notification, but rejection that comes from having one-sided conversations with ourselves:
… Nah, it’s been done … so-and-so did it better than I could … it’s silly (stupid, dumb, derivative, old, weird, unusual, boring) … no one but me would want to read it … I don’t have the skill/craftsmanship/knowledge to write it the way it should be done … I’ve never written in this genre before … who would care? … I’ve written about this too many times already … I’ve never written about this before … my agent/last editor/mentor/MFA adviser/writing buddies won’t like it … this will take too long … the reviewers will hate it … what makes me think I can pull this off? … I’m not the right writer for this … it doesn’t fit in with the rest of my writing career or goals … I’ll never earn any money with this … I’m not even sure how to begin ….
I once thought of myself as a workmanlike writer of the light, straightforward personal essay: good enough for some markets but not nearly good enough for certain literary venues. Then one day, swimming in grief and loss and angry with the world, I sat down and started what turned out to be a long, braided, literary essay. I’ve written and published many since. So much for all the self-rejection banter previously bouncing around my brain.
We need to think of rejection as something organic to the writing process, something we can manage. Popular advice to writers on handling rejection runs along the lines of growing a tough skin, ignoring it and moving on, learning from it, and – if you like symbolism and ritual – doing something tangible like printing out and lining the hamster cage with all the “no thanks” emails. Many writers have talked about the positive impetus provided by agent or editor rejections, an “I’ll show them” mindset.
But what about self-rejection? Try this: the next time you contemplate a new writing project, instead of entertaining that idea in a hostile atmosphere (see list above, and add your own mean-spirited recriminations), why don’t you consciously nurture a different kind of mental environment – an incubator of sorts, a place where ideas come to be nurtured and not nixed?
This shift in perspective can help us put rejection from the outside into a different context. If we recognize that we are constantly in a push-pull with rejection, that rejection is something inherent in and inextricable from the work we do, that it is something we can positively control during a major segment of the writing process, then the whole specter of rejection with a capital ‘R’ loses its power. Imagine what could happen with your writing if only you stop treating yourself with the kind of harsh, frequent, and final ‘No’s’ that come from the outside.
Go. Write. Do not reject.
Lisa Romeo has been published in the New York Times, O-The Oprah Magazine, literary journals, and several essay anthologies. A freelance editor and writing instructor, she is also at work on a memoir of linked essays. Her blog, Lisa Romeo Writes, has more on topics of interest to writers.