Rejection can feel like a firestorm. It burns hot, it swoops in and swiftly fells you. It is confusing. Heartbreaking. Poisonous.
I have just been rejected for a big-deal international opportunity because I am not published enough.
And so, as I always do, when I am faced with rejection I curl up and sulk for a few days and nurse an intense feeling of depression. I allow myself to feel this way for a few days, I recognise it as a direct result of putting my heart on the line and being rejected, and then I move on. But it is getting harder and harder to move on. Where do you move on to when the trail behind you has more ditches than bitumen? You start to look ahead and question the wisdom of the journey.
What is it with writers? Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we continue to slit open our veins and pour our blood and guts onto the page only to be told it’s ‘not quite there yet’ or ‘you were very close to the top of the list’ or ‘it’s not right for our publication’ or maybe even just ‘sorry’. I’ve had all these rejections, and others. Some are kindly, some are blunt, some totally anonymous and generic. However they come, they are always cruel. Very often the publisher is right – it’s not quite ready. So you put it aside, revisit it later, see what the publisher’s fresh eyes saw and you work on it some more.
But what is with this pathological seeking of perfection that we call writing? Writers must be fastidious, obsessive perfectionists. These are not characteristics that make for happy people. Happy people are not perfectionists. Perfectionists are never satisfied, and therefore happiness is always out of their reach.
I want to be happy.
I don’t want to be a perfectionist. But I want to be great at my craft.
I also don’t want to have my feelings of self-worth dependant on the rejection or acceptance of a small piece of my work, by a person I have never met. That is not healthy.
Still I strive. Still I seek perfection, and the more I seek it the further it is from my grasp. The more confusing the idea of ‘perfection’ becomes. What is a perfect story? Who gets to decide that? Is it perfect if it wins an award? Is it perfect if it sells 1000 copies? Is it perfect if it gets you another 50 Twitter followers? Is it perfect if a stranger comes up to you on the street and tells you they liked your story? If it gets made into a short film? If it is adapted into a play?
You see, there are endless ways writers have of reminding ourselves that we are not good enough. You get a story published, but it’s not in the right journal. You get a story read out at an event, but it’s doesn’t get the biggest applause of the night. You get longlisted, but not shortlisted. All these things have happened to me, and all of them have eaten away at me. Just a little bit. And all of them, despite being successes, have left little potholes behind me. I look back on the road and see the darkness, not the light.
This is not healthy. How do you be a writer and be healthy?
I don’t know, but I’m guessing it has something to do with shutting all that out and remembering why you chose to write in the first place.
For me, it all started when I was about 7 or 8. I would spend school holidays filling whatever notebook or scrap of paper I could find with stories. The story would be as long as the paper. If it was a notebook, it would be a long story. If it was an A4 sheet, it would be a short story. That was how I spent all my spare time. That and reading.
There was magic in those creations. I wish I still had them. They were pure, wrenching emotional purges. I was creating, and expressing myself in the most honest way possible. Without the self-editor in my head. Without the knowledge that I have now of what a story ‘should’ be. Of what editors and publishers look for. About what the fashion is right now. None of that mattered. All that mattered to that little kid was that she had something to say that was too complicated for a conversation, or too precious for a conversation, or too risky for a conversation. The page made it safe, made it clear and made it real. That kind of writing made me happy.
I need to find that 8 year old kid again.
So when all else fails, when small accolades are not big enough, when rejection is cutting to the bone, when the ditches and potholes make it impossible to go back and too scary to go forward, I will remember that little girl and forget everything else I’ve learned.