For those of you who love a good horror story, fasten your seatbelts. You’re about to hear a doozy.
I must warn you, there are no guts or high-pitched screams, no axes or dark forests, but there is death. Death of ego and pride, dreams and aspirations…no less bloody but maybe less chill bump inducing.
It begins the way all good horror stories start.
I’m just kidding. It begins in about the most ordinary way you can imagine. With a phone call. A longtime acquaintance called to tell me of her new ambitions writing YA fiction. I knew her to be a fantastic writer. She’d been published before, had gotten involved in other adventures, and was finally returning to something she loved.
We talked for a while and she asked me about some strategies for how she might re-enter the publishing world. It was about as ordinary of an event as you could imagine. But things were about to get interesting.
A few days later I happened upon an agent’s website, a woman I vaguely knew. I took some time to peruse. It suddenly struck me that this agency might be a good fit for my friend who’d gotten into YA. So I contacted my friend and told her, “Hey, I don’t know this agent very well at all, but I noticed on her website that she seems to represent projects similar to yours. It might be worth checking out.” My friend thanked me, excited to have a lead. “How should I submit?”
“Just follow the directions on their website, submit according to their guidelines, and you’ll be fine.”
“Great, thank you!”
And that should’ve been the end of it.
Except, it just so happened that in the next few days, my path would end up crossing with this agent’s. And since it did, I simply said, “Hey, a lady I know to be a good writer may be submitting some material to you. I suggested your agency. I wanted to give you a head’s up.”
“Good to know! Thanks, Rene!”
That really should’ve been the end of it.
But then I thought I’d send my friend some encouragement. So I shot her a quick email. “Hey, I talked to that agent I told you to check into. I told her you might be submitting some work to her and to be watching for it.”
“Thank you!” she said. “This is exciting!”
This is where it starts getting bloody. Real bloody.
I’d just finished teaching a class at a conference, and was walking down the aisle to get to the next event, when I noticed an email come through that looked out of place. It was from this agent. I skimmed the email and noticed some frightening words: “angry…disturbing…strange…”
These were the kinds of words that you don’t expect to show up in an email from an agent you barely know. So I stepped aside so I could read more carefully. My heart sank. Surely…surely…this was not saying what I thought it was saying.
But all evidence pointed to that very fact.
When the agency sent a letter of rejection, my friend handled it with as much grace as a bull in a china shop. Down below in my Inbox was further evidence. Instead of taking the rejection notice with any measure of discipline, she seemed to unleash every bit of frustration she’d built up in her entire life. She’d copied me, the agency, and this agent’s boss, expressing disdain over the rejection in light of the fact that she’d been referred to the agency, and that an author had recommended her. I could barely read it. My stomach did a flip-flop and I went straight into trying to undo the damage that had been done. Not to my friend. But to me.
I’d referred her to an agency in good faith that she wouldn’t lose her mind if a rejection were to come. In fact, it hadn’t even occurred to me that she would. I had known her for a decade. Not super well, but well enough to not have the slightest suspicion that she would ungraciously react.
Man, what a mess. And you might think to yourself, “Well, that’s probably rare.”
You would think. But a few years ago, almost an exact scenario presented itself. I’d worked with this guy on his manuscript. I thought he was good enough that it was time for him to get an agent. I didn’t know many agents in his genre, but I knew one, so I suggested he try him. I didn’t even send a note to the agent.
A few weeks later, I get an email from this agent, demanding to know what’s up with this guy. Same. Exact. Scenario. This guy referenced me in his submission to the agent, and when he was rejected, he unleashed a two-page scathing email describing what an idiot this agent was for rejecting him.
It took me years to get the courage to refer someone to an agent again. And when I did? Well, you read about it above.
So take away number one: Don’t ask me to refer you. It’s going to take me another decade to recover from this.
Take away number two: Rejection brings out the worst in us. But why? I sit here and wonder if I’d ever react like this. I think, well, no, probably not. But then I pause. Am I immune from an emotional reaction in the wake of a stark rejection?
I’ve discovered over the years there’s an art to handling rejection. It’s important for every writer to learn it, because once you “make it,” the rejection doesn’t stop. You’ll be reviewed in prestigious literary magazines. You’ll be judged by readers on Amazon. Even your mother will have something to say about your writing.
And even though you might be getting a hundred pieces of positive feedback, that one rejection carries a lot of weight. Have you noticed that in life? No matter how much acceptance you get, one rejection is a clanging cymbal that follows you around for a while.
The key, I believe, to handling rejection is in identity. And I call handling rejection an art because there are nuances to this journey that aren’t as straightforward as we’d all hope for. If I could say, “Take steps one, two and three and you’ll be fine!” that would be a nice way to remedy all of this.
But it’s harder than that. And it’s because we’re dealing with human souls. And human souls are, after all, the very reason we write in the first place.
We work years if not decades to finally come to a point in our lives when we can say, “I am a writer.” To speak it. Say it out loud. Declare it. I vividly remember the first time it happened to me. I had a book published, my first one, and was invited to teach at a conference. When I arrived they gave me a lanyard. And it read, “Rene Gutteridge: writer.” I remember staring at it in awe. I hadn’t ever been able to say it with such clarity. But there it was. Declared on a lanyard.
It takes us so long to own the fact that we’re writers that when somebody challenges the notion, it cuts deep. So is there a way to be a writer but not make it our whole identity?
I often try to think through a scenario in my life where I’m not a writer. What would I do if I didn’t write? There were some occupations I considered early in my life. I love to paint, but that’s more of a hobby. Criminal justice piqued my interest when I was young. For the most part, I can’t really see myself as anything but a writer.
Even so, I work hard to separate myself from allowing it to become my identity. With or without the label of writer, I’m still my own person. If writing was snatched away from me, it would certainly be an emotional mountain to overcome. I’d most certainly plunge into depression. I’d have to pull myself up by my bootstraps I’m certain a horde of friends would be there for me. But eventually I’d stand there, look in the mirror, and still be me. I’d still have value as a human being.
And there it is…value. That’s where the line is drawn. You can be a writer, but you’re valuable because you’re you. So when the letter of rejection comes…when the bad Amazon review appears for all the world to read…when your mother doesn’t approve, it stings but doesn’t kill.
I don’t hate either of the people who went off the rails about their rejections. I think it’s because I understand how hard it is not to let writing define our value. It’s so easy to slip into it that you don’t even know you’re wearing it until someone tries to strip you naked.
So what do you do when you feel your identity is stripped off you? Well, I personally reach for support from another writer. I have found that supporting myself with writer friends helps me get my perspective back. I’ve picked up the phone in tears and hung up laughing my butt off. Writing communities have helped me remember my identity.
I am a writer. But I’m a valuable human first.
Nelson Mandela once said, “May your choices reflect your hopes not your fears.” When we react bitterly to rejection, I think we’re choosing to react in fear. Fear we are not really a writer. Fear we’re not going to make it. Fear we’re really just a big, fat fraud.
So the art of accepting rejection must include seeing it all through the lens of hope. And we must understand the power of our imagination. Worrying about the future because of rejection is a misuse of our imagination. Save that powerful weapon for the creativity that’s ahead of you.
You’ll need it.