While I’m on maternity leave with Baby Milo, a few dear friends have written pieces just for you all. I know you’ll enjoy them, and I hope you’ll find some new writers to follow and add to your community. Today’s post is by the gifted Dorcas Cheng-Tozun.
There’s a narrative about rejection that writers like to tell. It often starts with a number: how many rejections they received, either from publishers or publications, for a particular manuscript.
Then the tale quickly moves to how they embraced those rejections. They took those letters and emails, printed them out, and pinned them on the wall. They used those nos as inspiration, as fuel, as a much-needed kick in the butt to work harder and longer. They read and re-read those rejections, and then they turned around and wrote incredible, world-changing words.
I have never understood those stories. After being a full-time writer for more than six years, I still have a hard time receiving rejections.
The first time my agent submitted a book proposal of mine to publishers, a budding hope rose within me and lodged itself in my throat. The dream was happening. Any day now, I was going to get the email or phone call that changed my life.
A few weeks of silence passed. And then a few more weeks.
“How long before we’ll hear back?” I eagerly asked my agent.
“It should be soon,” she promised. “I’ll follow up.”
Her next email began with a gentle introduction about the “passes” we got. A list of feedback from various editors followed: “Not a fit.” “Didn’t connect with the voice.” “Not what we’re looking for.” “The narrative arc needs work.” “Not a market for this content.”
As a skimmed through the email, I waited for the exhilaration to set in. I was now part of the esteemed group of writers who had experienced rejection! I waited for my competitive, can-do spirit to flourish, for my creative juices to start flowing.
Instead, all I felt was heartache. And, if I’m honest, a measure of humiliation. I had spent the better part of two years working on this manuscript, and now a dozen people were telling me that it simply wasn’t good enough.
It was a painful reality to swallow—even if those editors were absolutely right. I could do better, and I had to do better if I wanted to get published.
So I hunkered down and revised and rewrote and reconfigured. And more rejections came in. And still more. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t shake the feeling that every no was proof of my failure.
Now a few years wiser, I have come to understand that rejection is an inevitable rite of passage for the writer who wants to be published in a competitive marketplace. To some degree, we need rejections because they tell us that we have a little more work to do. We need to hone our craft, or improve our storytelling, or more carefully edit our manuscript. Or perhaps we simply need to do more research to find the right home for our stories.
In their own way, the dozens (maybe hundreds? I don’t keep track) of rejections I’ve received over the years have done their part to make me a more effective writer. I’d like to think they’ve even provided valuable lessons in character development—keeping me humble, pushing me to persevere, and teaching me gratitude for the doors of opportunities that do end up opening.
To this day, though, rejections still smart. I don’t despair in quite the same way I used to when I first started out as a writer. Deep in my rational thinking brain, I understand and appreciate the benefits of the pruning, refining process of hearing no.
Yet I can’t help but feel something when a “pass” lands in my inbox—disappointment, discouragement, dejection.
For a long time, I tried to suppress those emotions, willing myself to be invigorated by the nos. I’ve finally come to realize that I’m never going to be the kind of writer who relishes rejections and revisits them for inspiration. I will feel what I feel. And that’s okay, because in the end I will still put my head down, sit myself in front of the computer, and keep working hard.
Today I give myself permission to do what I need to do when I get a no that I desperately wanted to be a yes. I let myself mourn for a day or two. I take in the feedback that is helpful and allow myself never to look at those rejections again. And then I try again.
The resulting story of my writing journey doesn’t sound quite as heroic or impressive as that of the writers who are able to laugh in the face of rejection, who enthusiastically defy those nos. But it’s honest. It’s who I am. I regularly feel pain and grief, even as I pursue the soul-nourishing work I love so dearly.
This path of both hope and heartache continues its pruning process in my writing and my character. And out of that, perhaps some incredible, world-changing words may yet emerge.
Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is an award-winning writer, a columnist for Inc.com, and the author of Start, Love, Repeat: How to Stay in Love with Your Entrepreneur in a Crazy Start-up World (Hachette Center Street). She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her entrepreneur husband and two adorable hapa sons. Connect with her at www.chengtozun.com or on Twitter/Instagram @dorcas_ct.