True Life: I've Been Rejected. (You remember that show, right? On MTV? Where they followed around real life people who had real life things happening to them? And it was all dramatic and ridiculous and shocking and incredibly fascinating?)
Okay. I’ll stop stalling and get into the nitty-gritty of this thing.
The headline of this post is accurate. If you want even more accuracy, I've been rejected quite a few times.
There’s a few stages you go through when these things happen:
- Shock. Like, this didn’t really happen. Not me. Perhaps they messed up. This is followed quickly by…
- Anger. How could they do this to me? I’m awesome! I worked so hard! I gave it my all – I really did! They definitely messed up. And then the prolonged…
- Sadness. Fear. Confusion. My goals are unattainable. My plans have been thwarted. (Am I a protagonist in a novel? Probably not. But maybe? Who’s pulling the strings here?!) And the infamous question that never goes away: What am I going to do next?
To be honest, I didn’t think I’d get rejected (I never really do). I always truly believe in my story. I truly believe in the time and effort I put in to drafting and revising. I truly believe I'd finally found it a good home. But, something wasn't right and there's nothing I can do about that.
And yet, it still hurts.
REJECTION CAN DERAIL YOU
This isn't my first rodeo with rejection. It's an ongoing jerk in the writing life. Let me back way way way way wayyyyyyy up and tell you a quick little story.
Once upon a time I was a young girl who fell in love with writing. I wrote stories and shared them freely with anyone and everyone who would read them. Everyone who read them said they loved them and that I was a "good writer", and so, I believed them.
One day, in sixth grade, my teacher thought I was soooo awesome that I should submit my story to be published. (Cue happy music and a nerdy sixth-grader doing lots of dancing). So we submitted the short story I’d written (something about an intergalactic war involving evil pigs) to a kid’s literary magazine and waited. I thought I was the bomb-dot-com.
Can you guess what happens next in this plot? (Really, seriously – guess!). I got rejected.
When this happened, I swore off writing. I would never write another creative story again. I would never write fiction. I would never write for fun. I simply wouldn’t write. School papers and essays? Fine. They were required. But that was it. I was ready to abandon everything I’d ever loved for good.
That worked for nearly four years.
(To be continued... in just a moment).
WHY REJECTION HURTS
There's a few reasons why rejection is so traumatizing to us. We devote ourselves to our work and we truly believe in it. We dream big dreams and then they come crashing down around us. We put forth a lot of effort, and seemingly, don't get what we'd hoped out of it.
But perhaps one of the BIGGEST reasons why rejection hurts so much is that our brain is playing tricks on us. We don't expect the acceptance process to be that hard because if you're anything like me, you've always been told you were a "good writer". Things have come easily to us – words, stories, characters. We focus on ourselves and our work, and when it doesn't go right, we blame ourselves and our work. Now, this may be partly to blame (and you should evaluate your work after rejections); but in reality, there's a much bigger picture your brain is ignoring in the background.
My whole life I’ve been told that I’m a “good writer.” I got passed along from grade to grade, always getting an A in English and always having my teachers tell my parents how wonderful I was and how much they loved my writing. I was smart, loved to learn, eager to please, and this encouraging talk convinced me that I seriously was a good writer.
And perhaps I am a "good" writer. But you have to look at the realistic facts of the numbers.
If you take the best writer in a class full of 30 students, sure, you can label that kid as a "good writer". They're competing against kids who may or may not even be interested in writing, so it's easy to tell who the top performers are. When that "good writer" goes off to higher education and is surrounded by other "good writers" studying the same thing, you can credit them all as "good writers". They compete against each other, but they're peers learning and growing together. But when that "good" (and now also educated) writer gets out into the real world, they're competing against ALL THE OTHER "GOOD WRITERS" that ever existed in every other high school, every other college, every other place in the whole entire world.
There are so many writers and it's likely that most of them have been told they were "good". They probably are. Just as you probably are. But competition is fierce.
Do you know how fierce? Let me just show you how intense this is.
Are you ready?
You should be scared. Seriously. These numbers are INSANE.
PUBLISHING A SHORT STORY:
If you're trying to publish a short story in a literary magazine, you have less than a 1% chance. Of the "top" literary magazines (meaning, the ones with high name recognition and most published stories placed into anthologies such as The Best American), none of them have higher than a 1% acceptance rate. Can you just let that sink in for one moment?
NONE of them have a 1% acceptance rate:
- Ploughshares – 63 stories in Best American – 0.28% magazine acceptance rate
- Glimmer Train – 45 stories in Best American – 0.42% magazine acceptance rate
- Tin House – 102 stories in Best American – 0.23% magazine acceptance rate
- The Missouri Review – 14 stories in Best American – 0.19% magazine acceptance rate
THIS IS ALSO LESS THAN .5%. Are we for real right now?
APPLYING TO AN MFA PROGRAM:
If you're trying to get into a prestigious creative writing MFA program, you have less than a 5% chance. Of the "top" MFA programs (meaning, the ones with high name recognition and have previously been ranked as the best of the best in years past), none of them have a higher than a 5% acceptance rate (or to get even more specific, higher than 4.56%).
NONE OF THEM HAVE A 5% ACCEPTANCE RATE:
- University of Iowa – ranked #1 in 2012 – 4.55% acceptance rate
- University of Michigan – ranked #2 in 2012 – 2.20% acceptance rate
- University of Wisconsin – ranked #3 in 2012 – 2.00% acceptance rate
- Brown University – ranked #4 in 2012 – 1.11% acceptance rate
- Cornell University – ranked #5 in 2012 – 1.60% acceptance rate
- University of Alabama – ranked #18 in 2012 – 2.00% acceptance rate
- Ohio University – ranked #33 in 2012 – 3.64% acceptance rate
- Oregon State University – NOT in the top 50 rankings – 4.00% acceptance rate
*These numbers come from the no-longer running Poets&Writers ranking of MFA programs in 2012 and Robin Tung's Acceptance Rates at a Glance from 2013.
GETTING INTO HARVARD LAW SCHOOL:
And, for the icing on the cake, would you just take a look at this little fact below:
The acceptance rate at Harvard Law for 2013 was 15.6%.
In other words, you have an easier chance at getting into Harvard Law than you do at publishing your short story at a top literary magazine or getting into a prestigious program.
So, to summarize all these scary numbers – there's just a fewwww of us "good" writers out there. Right? (Please read this sarcasm).
Of COURSE you're going to rejected! When you have numbers like that, there's no way that you will go through your entire writing life without getting rejected at least once, but likely, a bajillion times. That's just simple statistics! You are going up against the best-of-the-best writers all around the country (and the world) for a very few limited number of spots. It's freaking hard.
But when you apply, you don't see all those writers and you don't see their stories. You see yourself, your work that you've spent so much time with, and a form rejection letter. When you put those together, it doesn't seem to add up to you. What your brain perceives is something like this:
You worked hard + your story is awesome + you're a "good" writer = You should get an acceptance
When you get a rejection, your brain attacks you for not being good enough, smart enough, educated enough (whatever) because you've been consistently told that you're a "good writer". And so rejection hurts. It really really really hurts.
But your brain is wrong and you have to remember the rest of the equation: There's all those other writers in the world too. What this (weird) formula actually looks like is something like this:
(You worked hard + your story is awesome + you're a "good" writer)
all the other "good writers" and their stories" in the whole world
Perhaps you'll get accepted, if you really really really really really stand out from all the others and statistics are on your side. But, this competition is SO fierce, that you're simply going to face rejection sometimes, and that's okay.
HOW TO get over REJECTION
So back to that story I was telling you, about me abandoning writing for four years when in sixth grade. A few more years passed of me avoiding my writing. But I couldn’t fight this for long. (If you know me at all, you know I can’t breathe without at least thinking something about writing all the time). When I recommitted myself to my craft, it wasn’t just because of having fun or because people thought I was “good.”
It was when one teacher, Mr. Kurt Dinan, told me I could do better.
I’d turned in a required personal essay that I thought was passable. I’d used nice description in the beginning and made sure to add imagery throughout. It met all the requirements on the rubric and was even an enjoyable read. I expected an A.
What I got was an essay covered in comments of where to improve. This section was too long. This sentence was awkward. This was a mixed metaphor. (And I DEFINITELY catalog this moment of learning the definition of “mixed metaphor” as a defining moment in my literary career). I got my A; but I also got advice on how to do better. I got told I was good, but not good enough. I got the motivation to work harder and try again.
And it all happened because I'd reframed my perception of failure. It wasn't about getting "accepted" or "validated" or told you were "good enough"; but rather, about learning from your work, continuing to grow, and becoming the best you could possibly be.
That little push of motivation, that tiny reframing of failure, leap-frogged me into crazy overachiever, writing-obsessive mode. Not only did I start writing again, I signed up for a creative writing class, and then the advanced creative writing class. I took other classes called “Words from the Wild” and “Bestsellers.” I successfully wrote my first full novel during NaNoWriMo (it was terrible, but I still did it). I completed a senior thesis (a 20-page requirement, which I over-achieved on, just a littttttle bit) by self-publishing a 100-page book and workbook on the writing process and the status of the ever-evolving publishing industry. I started a blog. I started a freelance writing and editing business. For the whole summer before my freshmen year of undergrad I got paid to write professionally, both commercially and fictitiously.
I'd conquered that nasty derailing rejection that had paralyzed me for years, and emerged a powerful and confident writer ready to take on the world.
I went into undergrad knowing I’d be an English major with a Creative Writing Emphasis. There was no question that I would commit my life to writing fiction. It was ABSURD to me that I’d sworn off writing as a child. This was my passion, my calling, my life. I was researching MFAs my sophomore year, longing desperately for the time where I could do nothing but absorb and create fiction 24/7. Throughout undergrad I won writing awards, managed and edited literary magazines, studied writing in Greece, gave away books for free to spread my love of literature with others.
And then I submitted my work.
And then I got rejected, again.
Rejections always turn me back into my sixth-grade, childhood-self who swore off writing. The mean internal-editor in my brain asks me terrible, depressing questions:
- What will people think of me?
- What will I say when people ask about it?
- Am I a failure?
- Am I a bad writer?
- What will I do now?
And it sucks. I’m not going to lie. IT FUCKING SUCKS.
It'd be easy to abandon writing when you get rejected. And that's what our emotions, our fears, uncertainties, and doubts, tell us to do. But in fact, rejections are a part of the writing process. Without rejections, you never grow. You never succeed. You never do anything.
Instead of using rejections as an excuse to swear off writing, you have to use them as a motivational push to keep trying and do even better.
With each rejection I get, I could interpret them as you’re not good enough so you might as well just swear the whole thing off. But that’s not what they’re saying.
Reading between the lines, what they’re actually saying is, “You’re good. You’re not a bad writer. But you CAN be better," just like what Dinan said to me my sophomore year of high school. They could also be saying, "Your story is good; but it just doesn't shine here." Instead of looking at it as something bad, you MUST look at it as a bit of motivation to do better. You MUST look at it as a bit of motivation to try again. You must use it as a swift kick-in-the-butt to leapfrog it up and do amazing and crazy new things.
The only way I was able to conquer my fear of rejections was by learning to reframe my understanding of failure. It's not something to avoid and fear, but something to seek and cherish. If you're not failing, you're not growing. If you're not getting rejected, you're not trying. If you let rejections and fears of failing control you, you'll never write.
And what's worse? Feeling upset for a little while, or abandoning something you love?
My newest goal is to shoot for as many rejections as possible (perhaps even 100 in a year – whaaaat!?).
SO, WHEN YOU get rejected:
(and YES, I MEANT "WHEN" NOT "IF")
- Be sad and mad and upset. Let yourself feel those emotions. That’s okay. Get yourself some alcohol and curl up on the couch with some ice cream. You’re allowed to feel pain.
- Stick the rejection in a folder. This isn’t something to remind yourself of when you’re on a roll, but a reminder of the fuel that you have. You have joined the club of rejected people. You’re on your way to being a Real+Good Writer, and Real+Good Writers have to deal with rejection from time to time. This is normal. And when you’re famous, you can be like J.K. Rowling and share them on your Twitter.
- Remember what a rejection really means. What you have to remember is that a rejection likely DOES NOT say "You're not good enough"; but rather, "Your fiction doesn't shine here." Your story may be good. Your story may be amazing. But this time and place was not where it was meant to live and flourish and be shared.
- Evaluate what you’ve done. Could you do it better? Or was this just not the right home for this work? One of the best tips I’ve heard comes from entrepreneur Ramit Sethi, who says, “It’s not a failure, it’s a test.” We often adopt a guilty, woe-is-me mindset when things don’t go right, but this asks to reframe our thinking. So when you “fail,” instead of feeling guilty, you ask, “Okay, what’s version 2?” See if you can enhance your story and make it better. See if you can find a home that’s more suitable to this story. Find a way to move forward.
- Get back to it + do not EVER give up. Period.