October 13, 2011

How to survive rejection and carry on carrying on

Fiona writes: Here is my dilemma. As a writer, I need to be able to handle rejection. I also need to be able to process negative feedback, in order to improve my writing. But I need to feel good enough about my work to not throw in the towel altogether.

My experience of being a writer is that I walk a constant tight-rope between thinking my writing is sheer genius, and thinking I’m the worst writer who’s ever lived. There have been extreme highs and extreme lows over the years, and I’m not expecting things to get easier as time goes on – as my career progresses the challenges will just be different.

My guess is that this balancing process isn’t just a challenge for writers. How can we remain positive about ourselves when the going gets tough? How can we incorporate advice without letting our negative thoughts overwhelm us? Here are a few suggestions on how to support yourself through the inevitable rough patches.

Find your ground

We all already have ground underneath our feet. We can breathe in and out. We usually have enough food and shelter, and access to beauty (look outside your window). Nurture the things in your life that don’t depend on anyone or anything else. You might enjoy running, or golfing, or listening to the birds. You might have a religious faith or a spiritual connection with nature or classic cars. Re-connect with the fact that we already have everything we need. Any praise or success will only be the icing on the cake. Sometimes this is easy, and sometimes it’s the most difficult thing in the world. This is why they call it a spiritual practice – the best we can do is continue to PRACTISE!

Learn more about your own relationship with success and failure

Although there are similarities between different people’s relationships with their success and failure (i.e. most of us like to be ‘understood’) we all have different idiosyncrasies and ‘weak spots’. I’m prone to get caught up in judging my success by listening to the outside world, rather than focussing on what I believe is important. As I began to realise this, I wrote about it in my journal, asked for advice from friends, and did reading around the subject. When this happens nowadays I’m much more likely to catch myself before I get too dispirited. What kind of feedback or rejection is particularly likely to floor you? What might be behind this? What work could you do to lessen the blow, and to support yourself through it?

Manage the feedback you do receive

When I finished my second novel and I was sending it out to various publishers, a work colleague asked if she could read the manuscript. I kept forgetting to bring it in for her, and eventually realised that I just didn’t feel strong enough to hear her opinion on it at that point in time. I couldn’t guarantee that she’d like it, and I felt too wobbly to hear anything less than glowing. I explained this to her, and several months later I was in a completely different place and handed the book over to her happily. There’s no rule that we should be on the look-out for feedback at all times, and listen to everything that everyone says. Think carefully about who you ask for feedback, what kind of feedback you ask for (e.g. please can you tell me three things you liked and one that could be improved), and when you ask for it.

Turn off your internal critic and allow yourself to enjoy what you’re doing

There is a time and a place for our internal critic. I ban mine from the first drafts of novels, because if I listened to it I’d never finish a page (never mind a hundred pages). It comes into its own during the second and subsequent drafts, telling me exactly what it thinks about that weak characterisation, or how bored it is by that paragraph. I also try to turn it off again when the book is ‘finished’, so I can read it through once more and just enjoy it, and feel smug about what a skilful writer I am.

Create a ‘hurray for me’ file

Harsh words about our work are much sharper and stickier than words of praise. I could repeat word for word an entire rejection slip I received a few years ago, but my memory of recent positive feedback isn’t so clear. For this reason I collect the best of the positive feedback I get (emails from people who enjoy my books, positive reviews etc.) and keep them in a ‘hurray for me’ file.  When the going gets tough I can re-read these words to remind myself of the things people have liked and get a little perspective again.

Enjoy doing for its’ own sake

This one is crucial. If I can find a way to enjoy writing, then it doesn’t matter to me (so much!) whether other people enjoy reading my books or not. I have already gained the satisfaction of getting to know my characters, and telling their story. I can feel pleased about putting down all those words in the right order. This can apply to anything. When washing up, relish the heat of the water and the lemony smell of the bubbles, and notice how a sqeaky-clean plate makes you feel. Enjoy the challenge of seeing all those figures line up on your tax return. Some tasks are more difficult to engage with than others, and some days we need to be very kind to ourselves when we struggle. Like the first suggestion, this isn’t an instruction but an invitation to practise.

Add to this list with a few ideas of your own

You’re the one who will learn how best to sustain yourself through the sticky patches. Try out different ideas – have ‘mutual fan-club’ meetings with a colleague, collect stories of other people who have successfully faced rejection, copy out the best bits of inspiring books… Keep going until you find some things that work, and then keep on doing them. You, and your work, deserve nothing less.

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