If you’ve ever been to a book signing or Q&A with an author, then you’re probably familiar with the following interaction:
Fan: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Author: Get used to rejection letters.
Audience: *Laughs uproariously.*
It’s a cliché that being a writer comes hand and hand with rejection. People tell you that you have to be ready for it, but almost nobody ever tells you the toll that repeated rejection can take. To illustrate my point, I’m going to be a bit of a wanker and share a quote from my play Regression.
“The biggest lie anyone told me was that you get used to rejection. You don’t. It’s easy when you’re fifteen, because you’ve still got so much to learn and look forward to. And hey, maybe at twenty five you still do. But that, that right there is the worst part. Because if you’re still no better than you were at fifteen then really, what’s the point? Why even try?”
This, of course, is very much a pessimist’s view, but on my darkest days it’s pretty close to how I feel. And that feeling can be a hard one to shake. When I was a teenager I was certain I’d get picked up by a publisher and hit the big time by twenty. Since then I’ve learnt a lot about the industry and my own abilities; namely that becoming a working writer is hard and becoming good enough to be taken seriously is even harder. Considering that, the fact alone that I’m paid for what I do puts me in the lucky minority, and for that I’m grateful. But it’s no secret that my dreams are far bigger than what I currently do.
A few months ago, in the midst of a burst of renewed motivation, I started entering every competition I saw. I went for every fellowship, applied for funding grants; all of it. I threw myself at opportunity after opportunity, certain that some of them would have to come off.
But the thing about throwing yourself at every opportunity is that more often than not you miss. Over the last few weeks I have received a deluge of rejection emails, often several in the same day, often for things I honestly thought I had a really strong chance at. This isn’t new; if you’re a writer and you’re remotely serious about making a go of it, you’ll know the feeling of being turned down time and time again. You’ll know the stab of pain and spite every time you read words to the effect of ‘thank you for your application; we were truly impressed by the quality of…’ And you’ll know the anger that comes with those emails that take a full paragraph to get to the ‘unfortunately’ part of their meaningless platitudes. In the end, rejection is rejection, and trying to dress it up with a copy-and-pasted niceties doesn’t ever soften the blow. It just makes you feel patronised as well as rejected.
My first instinct, every time, is to delete those emails when they come in. Because while I claim I’ve got thick skin and, comparative to some, probably do, it still stings and it still affects me. A whole bunch of new competitions have opened up recently, and I just haven’t bothered to enter. When my housemate/Movie Maintenance co-host Kath asked me if I was entering the Academy’s prestigious Nicholl Fellowship for screenwriters, I just shrugged. What would be the point?
The point, when all is said and done, is as tough as it is simple. The world is full of different opinions and different tastes. And when a lot of people vie for one opportunity, there have to be losers, and often those losers don’t lose for lack of talent or weakness of ideas. They lose because their work didn’t match the sensibilities of the judges. Or, more likely, they lose because the winner was just more deserving. There are a lot of talented people out there, and their existence doesn’t limit or cheapen your own abilities. It just offers competition, and competition is what keeps us trying our best.
And then there is the optimistic view of the whole thing; that you have to be in it to win it. If I’d never entered competitions, I wouldn’t be where I am. The ratio of hits to misses might be staggeringly disproportionate, but there is a ratio. There have been wins and shortlistings in there. Tiny encouragements that you have to remember the next time you enter something. Encouragements that remind you that you have worth, even as the rejections remind you how tough the industry you’ve chosen is.
That’s why you don’t delete rejection emails. That’s why you remember the bad reviews and the people who told you you’re not good enough. Because remembering your losses makes the wins that much sweeter. A hard-won victory always means more than a lucky one, and those rejections provide a constant push to try harder.
I’m going to risk doubling my wanker credentials and close with another quote from my own work, this time from Springsteen, a work written at a far better, more hopeful time in my life than Regression:
“You know what differentiates a good artist from a bad one? Persistence. It’s how they respond to that rejection. Someone tells you you’re not good enough, someone feeds you those platitudes you were talking about; you got two options. Let it bring you down, or take it as a challenge. Let it make you hungrier. When you came to me I thought you were good. I wondered if you could get better. So I said the things that I knew would hurt you. Now look at you.”
Skill and success are forged in the fire of failure. Remember that, even in your lowest moments, and you’re already ahead of the curve.
Writing words about writing words.