Rejection sucks. There’s no better word to describe the feeling of just having swallowed a vacuum cleaner hose when:
- it’s taken you a year to pluck up the courage to phone The Man and ask him to escort you to a gala fundraiser, and he says no, he’d rather go out with Attila the Hun;
- you apply for a job/fellowship/residency, and the institution writes back to say they’re giving it to a twelve year old who can’t read or write any discernible language other than Code;
- you tell your significant other you’d like to enter a beauty pageant, and he falls into a dead faint or rolls on the floor in fits of hysterical laughter that only wane when you schlep him off to the emergency room.
Then there’s the rejection that most, if not all writers know. It’s the one that feels worse than the hose. It’s the one from an agent that says your baby is sub par, and as any parent will tell you, a mother is the only person who gets to criticize her child. (Even Pa will get a clout if he tries.) It’s the rejection that says Dear Argentina (your name is Angela), I’m sure you’re very talented, but as this form letter illustrates, so is everyone else, and while I didn’t fall in love with your submission, scores of other agents will. Which translates loosely as Your book is drivel, and you’re a clown.
Most of us have reams of these. We wear them pasted on our foreheads, pinned to our backs or wrapped around our wounded souls. No matter how many well-meaning friends and colleagues cajole us into rationalizing that this is just how the industry works; however many blogs we read encouraging us to take rejection in our stride; and however stylishly we gird our loins (ever tried to picture this?), it always stings and most definitely definitely SUCKS.
So rather than advise you how to prevent it (because I don’t have a clue, nor does anyone else, whatever they tell you), here are some tips on how to use a vacuum cleaner:
- Remember, it’s just a vacuum cleaner, and it has a very specific job to do. There are dozens of makes, and if the one you have gets stuck in your throat or anywhere else, toss it and look for a better model. Could be your vacuum cleaner doesn’t like pet hair, in which case it’s of no use to you. Shift the balance of power and understand that the agent who sings arias as she devours romance novels, isn’t going to know what to do with your zombie chef recipe book. Look for someone whose death wish matches your own–key word MATCH. Or: if the man prefers Attila the Hun, he’s not The Man.
- Could be your vacuum cleaner suggests you demolish the house in order to accommodate its preferences. Maybe this is generous advice, maybe not. If you think it’s generous, consult with a new architect, if not, then clean out the bag. Some agents do give feedback that makes sense, and their suggestions will resonate. If they’ve gone to the trouble of reading your novel, odds are something sparked their interest and some, not all, actually do know their stuff. If a few agents give you similar feedback, that’s when to pay attention. Again, there’s not much you can do with a vacuum cleaner that spits out pet hair when you own an orangutan, but you’ll know deep down what advice you can use.
- Maybe you don’t need a vacuum cleaner. What you really need is a plain, old fashioned broom, that does what it’s told if you use it correctly. Most people would choose a vacuum cleaner over a broom, but they forget the story of the tortoise and the hare. But I digress. If you’re a writer, write, and if you want to reach a reader, publish by whatever means you have at your disposal.
- Find a hotel where someone else does the cleaning and check in for at least a night. If there’s no budget for that, let the dust accumulate and go to bed for a day or two. This is possibly the best advice I can offer. Find a good series on Netflix, tell the cat to go hunt for his own dinner, and nurse the wound. Because that’s what it is. Rejection is a wound, whether big or small, and to delude ourselves by pretending it doesn’t hurt is to deny an intrinsic longing in every one of us. We have a biological need to belong, which implies acceptance, and a steady barrage of rejection tends to isolate us. This is when we most need support, from ourselves first, and from friends and other writers who mean us well and know what we go through.
It takes courage to write, and it’s not easy to do. Rejection may be part of what we take on, but it doesn’t have to disable our potential or alienate our dreams. Vacuum cleaners and houses come and go; we go on. We’re the constant, the dreamer, the hero. By honoring ourselves and our creativity through every slump, grind, block, collision, conflict, and melancholy, we lend steel to our bones, wind to our wings and fire to our watered down visions.