Kay: Coping with Rejection

RejectionThe Ladies, all of us fine writers and creative thinkers, are no strangers to rejection. All of us have been rejected by agents and editors. Some of us have had harsh or ignorant criticism from contest judges. Even our Golden Heart winner has not yet found a publisher for her winning manuscript.

When our best efforts go unrewarded, sometimes our friends and families think we should stop writing. Sometimes we think we should. We sit alone in dark rooms, struggling with story, trying to find a way to put our imagination on the page that will speak to a broad audience. In doing so, we miss family time, conversations with spouses, and dinners with friends. And for what? Another auto-response rejection email.

The one good thing about those rejections: nobody knows unless we tell them. But what if your rejection were public, your shortcomings and response to loss on view to the world?

American Idol has been on the air for 15 years, and for many of those years, it was the most watched television program in the United States. A few contestants—you can count them on one hand—became stars. But hundreds of thousands of aspiring singers didn’t make the cut. Only two percent of those who audition make it past the first round. (Less than one percent of submitted manuscripts are published.) The rest of the Idol contestants? Rejected. In front of millions of people.

To watch the show is to watch a succession of eliminations, which is why Junhow Wei, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, decided it would make fertile ground for studying rejection. Wei interviewed 43 contestants to learn why, in the face of almost certain rejection, they persevered—often repeatedly auditioning for one of the coveted competition spots. The results of his study are published in Symbolic Interaction.

Wei discovered that Idol contestants persevere because of the idea that success on the show will go to those who deserve it—the singers with the most talent and best work ethic—although they knew the odds were astronomically against them.

However, auditioning subjected the contestants’ talent to scrutiny, which could alter their sense of identity and self-worth. To cope with rejection, Wei found that some contestants vented their feelings (by crying, for example, or unleashing anger or frustration); others minimized the significance of the setback (for example, by framing the experience as being “just for fun”). Many eliminated contestants focused on future auditions, downplaying their rejection as a result of idiosyncratic judging or an off performance and leaving intact their self-perception of being a talented singer. (Of the 43 interviewees, 34 said they would audition again; seven of them already had.)

Probably these coping mechanisms are common for anyone who puts their creative efforts on display, only to have their work fail to meet the approval of critics. I know I’ve certainly vented my frustrations about rejection often enough—and like the Idol contestants, I keep going. I keep writing. I resubmit.

What about you? How do you handle rejection? And how do you stay motivated to write?

11 thoughts on “Kay: Coping with Rejection

  1. I’m afraid of rejection, so much so that I don’t even like to send my stuff out there at all, even to be critiqued. This is a huge problem for a writer; nobody is going to like our stuff all the time, and a lot of time, it doesn’t have anything to do with our stuff! It isn’t their cup of tea, they were in a bad mood, somebody got in first with something that hit the spot slightly better . . . list of reasons could go on and on.

    I would love to have the attitude of contestants who downplayed their rejection. I think that’s the most helpful attitude at their level (just getting on the show is a sign that they have some sort of talent).

    I haven’t seen a single episode of American Idol, but the show is so much a part of American pop culture that I can’t help having heard about it. Pop Culture Happy Hour recently did a summing up and a good-bye (apparently, America has seen the last season of American Idol). They mentioned that there are only a few real stars who came out of the program, and I think at least one of them wasn’t The Winner, but a runner-up. They also mentioned that some people went on to have a niche career. They make enough money by playing to the fans they gained during American idol — they don’t need a huge career with stadiums and millions of crying fans.

    There are such a lot of ways to define success, but it involves getting over a certain threshold, I think. Going the traditional route and being accepted by a publisher, or going the self-pub route, and finding enough paying readers to pay off the office supplies. (Or maybe not even that. Success could just be spending one’s free time in a physically neutral and emotionally healthy writing state — compared to destructive hobbies that risk life and limb.)

    Alley, alley-oop. Over the wall. Into the bed of roses (-:.

    • So true that everyone has different goals for success—but everyone also probably knows the sting of rejection. I would hate to have to be brave and magnanimous on TV in front of millions of people if I’d been eliminated (where even how you handle elimination is later criticized on social media).

      As for you, Michaeline—your writing is terrific. I don’t know how you could overcome the fear of rejection. Maybe we should all write you rejection notices now and then for imaginary stuff, so you get used to coping? I’ll start:

      Dear Michaeline,

      Thank you for offering to help me wash the dishes. However, the soap you propose using does not have a scent I admire, and the methodology you use to hang up the towel afterwards does not conform to my towel rack. Best wishes for success in finding dirty dishes!

      Etc., etc.

      Does that help? 🙂

  2. I’m incredibly glad that most of my rejections happen in private. I can go and hit something, swear, indulge in an ice cream and/or a glass of wine, and then make a new plan and get back down to business. I think it helps to be smart about how you define success. If you use measures that are outside your control (getting a top agent, winning a contest, selling more books than Nora) then you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

    I read an interesting interview this week with a sports psychologist called Juan Coto. Last year he started working with British tennis player Johanna Konta, and her rise has been meteoric. She just reached the semi-finals of the Australian Open and will break into the world’s top 30. This time last year, she was ranked 146th in the world and lost in the first round of qualifying.
    Here are the bits I really liked, and that I think would work equally well for writers (me!):

    “The first thing I work on is to understand what are the thoughts that come?” Coto said.
    “You try to find a number of beliefs – I need to win, I don’t want to make mistakes, what happens if I lose? – and you replace those with more positive thoughts.
    “On court, you have a number of tools you can use to relax. Breathing exercises. Visualisation. You visualise a positive outcome, not winning a match, but a small step like a corner where you want to serve.
    “And trigger words you can say in your head, words that keep you thinking positively – ‘keep fighting’, ‘you can do it’, ‘that point doesn’t matter’.
    “The philosophy is to focus only on things you can control. Not winning or losing or your ranking but your effort, your attitude. You release the pressure of what you can’t control.
    “It’s easier said than done. There is a lot riding on it. You need to really believe.”

    Link to the whole interview: http://www.sport.co.uk/tennis/mental-coach-juan-coto-reveals-secrets-behind-johanna-konta/7271762/#Ok9ZMkkVXShGhxl3.99

    • Thanks for the link Jilly. My primary take-away from that is to “focus only on the things you can control.” I’m going to have to add that to my list of “sayings for writer’s.” It’s hard to do, but if you don’t, you just wind up making yourself crazy over things you can’t change (at least that’s true for me.”

    • It’s sort of like the AA saying, that you change the things you can change and then accept the things you can’t. That’s a great interview with the coach. I agree that just focusing on the present, the small things, and staying positive is a great way to go. Chuck Wendig also had a post recently, I can’t find it now, where he says all you can do is prepare and then you also need some luck. I think venting, and then continuing to write, is really the only option for writers who want to publish.

  3. When I was a younger writer (not in human years, but in writer years, which are counted by the years you actually write something) I couldn’t handle criticism. If I showed a short story or novel attempt to someone and they weren’t impressed (and, believe me, they weren’t and shouldn’t have been) I’d stop wirting. Sometimes for years. This is why I’m 61 in human years, but only about 20 in writer years.

    As I’ve aged, my skin has grown a little tougher. Not impermeable, by any means, but I’m much better at recognizing that my imagination and voice aren’t, as Michaeline said, everyone’s cup of tea. I’ve also grown better at resisting the urge to show my work to people who aren’t likely to enjoy it. It will be interesting to measure how far I’ve come down that road when I self-pub (next fall, I hope) and the Amazon reviews start to come in.

    • It takes a while to build that thick skin and sometimes also to find your voice. I think it’s a smart move to show your work only to people who will enjoy and appreciate it. It’s just not useful to get an opinion from someone who reads, say, only military history. And yes—the reviews of strangers can be eye-opening and more!

  4. Those “coping with rejection” strategies all ring very true. I’ve often thought it takes real confidence to go on a show like Idol where rejection is so public. I don’t think I’d be able to do that. Being rejected privately is bad enough.

    I try to find a take-away from a rejection that I can use to make improvements for next time around, although sometimes, as noted above a rejection can just be “a result of idiosyncratic judging” or whatnot. In those cases, moving on and trying again somewhere else is the next step.

    • Sometimes a criticism or rejection says more about the editor, agent, and publishing house than it does about the work. Editors have a slot to fill for a firefighter with a secret baby—if you don’t have that, you’re rejected. Agents are looking for a writer who has an urban fantasy werewolf suspense to round out their roster—if you have a Regency romance, you’re toast. The publishing house filled met its publishing goals for the quarter—try us later. That’s a little extreme, but it’s all about what they think they can sell upward to their bosses, and what publishers think they can sell outward to an audience. And so on. it never hurts to see if the comments in the rejection resonate with you, but sometimes editor 1 says, too much sex! And editor 2 says, not enough sex! So it’s really not about your work. It’s about finding the right fit.

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