This week, I received a rejection from a writing conference fellowship I’d applied for. In addition, I haven’t heard from an editor I submitted to, and the deadline for hearing from her is drawing very close (and as with so many editors these days, no response equals No).
Hearing No is never fun, but it’s a fact of any working creative’s life. Sometimes it feels like one No after another. It can be very discouraging, even when you know it’s not personal. And that is the truth - it isn’t personal. It just isn’t the right project, for that person, at that time. The reality is, you will likely hear No a lot more than you hear Yes. We have to develop inner resilience to carry us through those times when we’re the universe seems to be sending us more Nos than Yeses.
It’s okay to feel disappointed. If we didn’t, that would mean the goal - however we’ve put ourselves out there - is meaningless to us. In which case, why do it at all? Our instinct, when we feel an uncomfortable emotion, is to push it away, and tell ourselves we shouldn’t feel that way. So, take a deep breath and sit with the disappointment. Maybe journal about it - what you hoped would happen, how you feel now that it didn’t turn out. Get it out of your system. Sometimes, as I’m writing in this way, my thoughts start to take a more positive turn. I start to think of other ideas - new possibilities for this project, or new projects all together. It gets boring to whine about the same thing for too long.
Maybe sleep on it. Things often look better with some distance.
Then, get up. When one project doesn’t work out, you have to decide: do I give up on it? Do I figure out how to change it? Do I resubmit it? Do I work on something else? Generally, if it’s a writing piece you’re submitting, the best combination is to immediately turn around and submit it to the next person on your list. Then, get to work on the project in progress you’re working on. Have more than one thing going at once, so a rejection of one doesn’t stop you in your tracks. Sometimes, if you get a number of similar comments on one project, it’s worth going back and thinking about what they’re saying, and seeing if the changes make sense to you. In the case of my fellowship proposal, all I can do is try again next year, with a different topic, and see if they like that better. It can be difficult to keep going, after many rejections. It can lead to all kinds of wondering if it’s all worth it, if this is really what you want to do, if the chance at the dream is worth the constant heartbreak. Because although we can rationalize and intellectualize our responses to rejection, it still hurts.
At these times, what keeps us going?
- The creative habit - our day to day practice.
- Our creative community - the people we can go to for advice, inspiration, commiseration (and celebration!).
- Ask yourself, Why am I doing this? Take the time to answer, and connect with that answer.
- Ask yourself, What is the next step I need to take to achieve the outcome I envision?
- Realize that the only way out is through. The only option, other than moving forward, is to give up. When you embrace that truth, you may find the energy you need to begin again.
These work because they remind us that we aren’t powerless victims of an unfair system. We have agency, and we can develop what social psychologists term an internal locus of control. This means we can determine our actions and reactions in the face of challenges and disappointment. We look to our own resources rather than looking outward for praise or blame (conversely, this is called having an external locus of control). We may have to practice this mental habit diligently so we don’t get sucked into a whirlpool of negativity every time we hear a No.
We can develop good mental habits that can keep us working, instead of paralyzing us so we don’t create for days (or weeks, or months, or years). As writers and creative people, we might be especially sensitive - but we can’t let that be the excuse that takes away our agency. Part of being an artist is to develop both the sensitivity to do the work, and the mental toughness to deal with the challenges that come from putting that work out into the world. This doesn’t mean being a Pollyanna, or dealing in so-called “magical thinking,” but consciously developing the mental habits that reinforce an internal locus of control. Use the 5 Steps above to help you develop this habit, and enjoy greater productivity.
What are your tactics for overcoming rejection, and the inevitable No?
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