Congratulations! You failed!

If there’s anything consistent about the creative life, it’s that you will get rejected. A lot. I’m sure you know that already, but probably, when you first started sending out work, a part of you assumed that wouldn’t apply to you.

The first time I sent out a story, I had this fantasy–we all had this fantasy–that the very next day an editor would send me an email saying “I love this story, and I’d like to publish it and pay you money for it.”  And then I would tell all my friends and family and they would all run out and buy copies and they would all read it and tell me that they loved it and would notice (accurately) where they’d been slyly included in the story and think it a wonderful compliment.  (I had a counter-fantasy where this lead to a big, destructive argument, because it’s a more dramatic ending.)  That would lead to more stories, and some novels and the editor and I would become best friends who talked about my work over chilled white wine in my fabulous back garden.

This is not what happened.  Nor what happened the second time or the third time or the, I don’t know, hundredth time? (And my back garden is literally a pile of mud and debris.)

You get used to rejection, most of the time anyway.  You remind yourself it’s part of the process.  You remind yourself that you’re early in all of this.  But then, one day, it just stings. You’re not always sure why this one particular rejection stings so much, but it does.  And you start thinking “Why am I doing this?”

At that point, all the stuff about love and joy and creativity seems like much bullshit. You wonder, what’s the point of trying if all you do is fail, fail and then fail again.

The thing is, failure is success.

I know this sounds like DoubleSpeak (War is Peace. Failure is Success.) but what failure is, is proof that you tried.  You put yourself out there.  You gave it a shot.

Cold comfort, I know, until you think about how many people are not brave enough to try at all. How many people have a book in their head that they’ve never tried to write.  How many people have stories on their computer that they’ve never shown anyone.  How many people have paged through an old Writer’s Digest to look up places to send work and never sent out anything.

There comes a point in your writing career where sending stuff out starts to feel a bit routine. We forget what an act of vulnerability it is, to share our creative work with the world to be judged, or worse, ignored.  We forget, in the grind of getting stuff out there, that we are being brave.  That the first time we sent anything out we were scared, nervous, terrified and yet at the same time, enormously proud.  “I’m doing it,” we thought.  “I’m on my way.”

You’re still doing it.  You’re still on your way.  Don’t let rejection make you think otherwise.  Success lies in the process, not the results.



Write anyway

I’m fond of telling people that I come from a long line of accountants. It’s true–I run out of fingers trying to count all the accountants I’m related to.

So it’s quite strange to talk to anyone in my family about writing. We don’t have a tradition of arts or artists in our family.  I used to think this was a huge disadvantage owing to the lack of support and understanding, but then I met a writer who comes from a long line of well-known writers; the pressure to write and write well is huge. What we can learn from this is that some things about family are just family.

The truth is, no matter what kind of family you come from, writing is lonely. That’s not solely because you shut yourself away to write, but it’s that most people can’t quite relate to what we do or why. Encouragement is often well-meaning but misguided. (“You must be so happy spending all this time on a hobby!”) Discouragement runs high. (“Don’t you have better things to do?”) Every writer, I think, has a secret log in their head of things people have told us that made us feel we shouldn’t write, or that we were aliens for wanting to. Our inner critic uses this frequently to beat ourselves up.

But the amazing thing is that we write anyway.

When you are a new or emerging writer, no one really tells you to keep going or that what you are doing is worthwhile. No one really tells you that you are good. Inwardly, you believe you aren’t that good, but no one tells you if you’ll ever get better. You screw up enough courage to send writing out for publication and you start collecting form letter rejections. You let someone read your work and they tell you “It’s nice” (or “I don’t really get it”). You get something published and no one reads it. You spend money on classes and courses and maybe even retreats, you come away feeling energized, but that feeling fades as you find yourself back in that place, wondering if there’s a point to all this time and energy and love and care and emotion and frustration you pour into this.

And you write anyway.  You beat yourself up for not writing enough, or not being more conventionally successful, but you write anyway.

Think about this for a second.  In the face of being misunderstood, discouraged, rejected and unsuccessful, you write anyway. It sounds crazy, right?

But the act of doing it again, of trying again, takes a great deal of personal strength and courage. And that is pretty amazing.

Pat yourself on the back, writer.

You see, in my view a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway. ~ Junot Diaz