“It’s good, but…” Reflections on Rejection
By Rory Green
Rejection. Even the word itself conjures up images of arms pushing you out and away. Lips curling in distaste. Eyes averting to avoid meeting. Backs. It’s a nasty word. A cold word. A word we have all at least tasted at some point in our lives, if not at times been forced to feast upon.
I have recently had my first attempt at a novel, Playing Along, rejected seventeen times. My agent is in the UK and I live in LA, so I have had the pleasure of waking up on one too many consecutive mornings to a smoggy sun, and a email reminding me that the book I had laboured over for the last three years is just not good enough. Likeable but not loveable. Has all the right elements but somehow just doesn’t pull it off. Smart, lovely, delightful and heartfelt but… We would be eager to see what she does next. Uneven pacing. Charming characters but you never fully invest in them.
Interesting. I have invested in them. Fully.
Those characters are running in furious circles around my head, begging me to be set free. I’m loathe to tell them that the way things are going, they are fated to be imprisoned in the depths of my hard drive. Shoved in a crowded drawer in my brain where they will likely chew on blunt pencils and play with bent paper clips until the end of time. I’d rather lie to them. I’d rather tell them what my truthful agent is telling me – that we are “working against a market tide”. That it has been hideously bad timing. That it wasn’t my fault or their fault or her fault that the same week my manuscript was submitted to the powers that be, the powers who select what is loveable and what is not, that all the UK newspapers screamed ‘Chick Lit is dead!’. Again.
“Does that mean I’m dead?” asked George, my sensitive leading man. My lanky insecure rock star, who my friends have fallen in love with. “Of course not,” I fumbled. “Do the words Harry Potter not mean anything to you? Don’t you not know that J K Rowling was eating sandwich crusts from under the tables of her local caf and that EVERYONE turned their noses up at Harry twelve billion times before Bloomsbury eventually bit? You spend enough bloody time in my computer. Why not surf the internet occasionally instead of sulking?” Can you blame me for being a little defensive? I didn’t relay to George the email that said, “Nobody’s interested in reading about people in the music industry.” Thank you for filling us in powers that be. Or the one that gushed “I completely LOVED this book but we are already launching an author next year who writes in a very similar vein and therefore will have to pass.” Go someone very similar!
My thirteen year old son scoffed at that one, “They don’t really mean that, Mum. They’re just saying it to be nice. If they really wanted to publish it — they would.”
From the mouths of teens.
I knew exactly what he meant. I had thought the same of the editor at a top publishing house who concluded her refusal with a dramatic flourish, “I’ve no doubt I will regret this when the book goes on to sell a million copies.” That was the one that made me cry.
“Did you hear that?” enthused Lexi, my hopeful leading lady, who tries not to fall for George, but of course does. She was joined by my sisters and my husband and my dog, who talks with her eyes. “She thinks it might sell a million copies!”
Maybe so, but not unless it’s published.
My eleven year old daughter keeps offering hugs. I don’t want this to dissuade her from following her heart. She longs to be a writer too. Apparently it runs in my family.
My mother is baffled. “These are the best rejection letters I have ever seen,” she says, an eternal optimist, who would, if she could, sit down each and every editor and regale them with a list of my merits. “It’s not over yet. Just remember JK Rowling…”
Yeah, yeah, yeah. If I had a penny for every person who has reminded me of that in the last month, I might well have more in pocket than I would have done if an actual contract had been signed. I’ll scream if one more person tells me what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Even if they’re right.
The thing is – I don’t want to be JK Rowling, and the odds of her Cinderella story unfolding elegantly in someone else’s life are improbable. I don’t want to write ten books or twenty books or two hundred and twenty books and I don’t even fantasize about selling them in the millions. All I wanted, for now, was to write one book. One romantic, quirky, funny book that just might leave the reader grinning. I wanted to hold a medium sized novel in my hands. To smell the ink. Smile at the cover. Marvel at my name dancing along the spine. I wanted to tell strangers that I am a novelist, and I wanted that to be true. We all want things we might never get. A soul mate. A fulfilling career. Family. Perfect health. Contentment. World peace.
A novel published.
It seems to be the very nature of being alive – the balance of accepting our lot and being grateful for what is good and healthy and joyous in our worlds versus striving for something beyond. Standing on tiptoes reaching for a dream. Imagining ourselves with another life, or at least our own life with a make-over.
Sadly, in the western world we have established a culture of success based solely on external validation. Our destinies are left in the hands of ‘experts’ – seemingly presided over by the venerable Simon Cowell – an archetype for the noughties, resplendent in white v-neck t-shirt and jewel encrusted crown.
We rely upon a hierarchy of evaluators to guide us towards what to buy, what to watch, what to read, what to reflect upon, what to listen to, even sometimes what to think. The Editors. The Studio Heads. The Record Execs. The Critics. The Curators. The CEOs.
Perhaps Simon Cowell even writes those gruesome standardized tests we enforce upon our children year after year?
Of course, the results of relentless evaluation in our childhoods often define the grown ups we become. Will we enter adulthood feeling full of potential because we’ve experienced “Yesss!” or will we shuffle nervously forward, wondering if we can ever make the grade?
Over the years I have read enough books (that have been given the green light) to know that the happiness I seek needs to be found within me and should not be dependent on an editor who might have been up the night before arguing with her husband, or whose cappuccino was too weak on the morning she read my manuscript, or who simply doesn’t like my style of writing.
I touched that elusive inner happiness while I was writing the book. It gave me purpose. I loved my words. I loved my characters. I told myself and others the same story over and over, “It doesn’t matter if it gets published. It’s the act of completing it that counts.” But I didn’t really mean that. It did matter and it still does.
Because rejection hurts. A lot.
I need that editor. Another adage I’ve heard endlessly since I’ve exposed my fragile mental state to the world at large is “It only takes one.”
I need that one.
That one stranger who has my fate held precariously in his or her hands. I need them to say Yes. To not say No. I need them to believe in me. To tell me that my book is good enough instead of telling me that it is not. Enough.
The business of rejection is a slippery one. Each email has the magical ability to grab my hand and slide me recklessly, thoughtlessly backwards. Back to that first friend who didn’t invite me to her party. Back to that first boy who didn’t want to kiss me as much as I wanted to kiss him. Back to that part in my school play that I very almost had in the bag, but didn’t get. Back to the college writing professor who sneered at my ‘unremarkable’ outline. To the universities that turned me down. To the competitions I entered and never won. To the moody boyfriend who slept with his ex.
I could go on. And on. We all could.
When it comes to rejection it’s almost impossible to remain in the moment, no matter how hard I try to breathe from my solar plexus and plant my feet in concrete. My positive list, my page of past acceptances and present joys, is instantly eclipsed, leaving me in a blackness where it is just too dark to read.
I am determined to keep my humour, as well as desperately attempting to add layer upon layer to my delicate skin, to try and make it thicker. I haven’t managed that one just yet, despite living in Los Angeles – a mecca of resilience.
Would I prefer to live in world where everyone got a yes? Where we were inundated with every creation, every performance, every piece of writing produced by every person without any filter system in place? I do.
The Internet has rapidly become that forum. A cacophony of images and words and fact and fiction. A bog of blogs. A soap box that seems to span all corners of this earth. A virtual hustling, bustling souk where, if you look very carefully, a myriad of treasures can be found.
I ask that you do look carefully for me and George and Lexi when you’re browsing in the future. The web might well be the only place we end up, as the crystal ballers have all told me that books are heading in the direction of dinosaurs and vinyl. I sincerely hope not, but I’m hearing stories daily.
The tales of the writing renegades who have bypassed the gate keepers and are finding their bank accounts and self esteems soaring. Still, I am waiting patiently for the scattering of editors who have yet to respond, because I have been indoctrinated to rely on someone else’s stamp of approval. Someone who I believe has the insight to decide whether or not you, the reader, will enjoy my book.
Unless my ‘one’ shows up soon, now might be the time to reclaim that stamp. It won’t result in rustling pages to lose yourself in, or a book to sign to my grandchildren, but it might result in a bright red heart on the back of my hand.
A brazen validation.
A sweet tasting yes – from me to me.
Rory Green is an architect for internal landscapes. She has a split personality, English and American, and has a Masters Degree in Integrative Arts Psychotherapy. She currently lives in Los Angeles, where she is working on her second novel, alongside facilitating Write To Be You Therapeutic Writing Workshops. She’s a lovely listener and has created a very supportive blog, packed full of prompts and plenty of encouragement to nurture self reflection and writing practice. www.writetobeyou.com
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