No one likes rejection. I’ve been told that some people handle it better than others. It depends on your baggage.
I had my first official manuscript rejection when I was nine years old. I received a very nice letter from an editor at Doubleday, telling me how much she had enjoyed my manuscript, “The Horse That Went to Madison Avenue,” but that they weren’t able to publish it. She encouraged me to keep on writing and to feel free to send her anything new.
Those were the days. An actual letter, with a stamp, from a real person.
To be fair, my mother had worked in the production department at Doubleday, and I’m sure the editor was a friend doing a favour. I was nine, and we had just moved to Toronto, and I was feeling very disoriented. Much as my horse must have felt on Madison Avenue.
Had I been a different person, this anecdote might have described the beginning of an illustrious and successful writing career. However, I was, even at that age, a person with baggage who didn’t deal with rejection very well. Clearly, I thought, I am a terrible writer. I won’t ever embarrass myself like that again.
I discovered acting in high school. When I was accepted into a student-led drama club, to create a subversive play with Canadian love poems and songs, I felt like I’d found my tribe. I rode that acceptance all the way to theatre school. Acceptance was like a drug I wanted so badly that any setbacks just increased my determination. I had only auditioned for two theatre schools. One accepted me right away, and one held me on a waiting list. Which did I choose? The one that put me on the waiting list, of course. They had dangled the carrot and made me want their acceptance even more. I am the opposite of Groucho Marx, who apparently said, “I refuse to join any club that will have me as a member.” Any club that rejects me is the one for me!
For someone who has issues with rejection, being an actor is about as masochistic a choice as you can make. You put yourself out there again and again and never hear back. It was natural to think I was doing something wrong. If I did get feedback, it was useless. “I’m looking for someone less pretty/taller/older/younger/sexier/less intelligent/more blonde/less blonde.” I loved being an actor. But it was hard not to take the rejection personally. Those years were pretty brutal.
Flash forward to transitioning into being a writer.
In becoming a writer, I thought that I was in control. It didn’t matter what I looked or sounded like. I could do what I wanted, to the best of my ability, and get some supportive and meaningful responses.
I can hear those of you who have sent out submissions laughing hysterically. I have now learned that receiving letters at all is unusual. Many writers tell me they long to receive a rejection letter instead of heavy silence. But I was initially shocked at the brevity of rejection letters I received. After all, I’d put a lot of work into my novel, far more than I had for “The Horse that Went to Madison Avenue” and that editor had written me a full page letter!
I’ve talked to writers who cheerfully talk about sending out hundreds and hundreds of queries and never getting any responses. They are clearly made of stronger stuff than I am. I’d like to say that the more queries I send out, the easier it becomes. But old habits die hard, and I don’t think I will ever get much better at handling rejection.
But I’m working on it.
I’m trying to let rejections settle and mature, reviewing them later when I can actually see the positive comments. Occasionally I go back and see nuggets of suggestions that make sense. Not always. But sometimes.
What I’ve learned is that just like not being able to control how tall I am, my manuscript really might not fit into every list. It actually isn’t personal. As the editor told me when I was nine, the best thing is to keep on writing.
So now, I focus on my writing, rather than my submissions. I’m trying to treat submissions as an afterthought, a bit of business I reserve for the end of the day after I’ve spent the morning writing something new. The reorientation of my thinking has helped me get back to writing what I want to write.
That reorientation has made all of the difference. When I started to let go of rejection, it started to let go of me.
A lifetime ago, a kindly editor took the time to tell me to keep writing. I wish I could have heard her words sooner. But as I said before, I’m a late bloomer.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Amanda West Lewis is the author of seven books for young readers, including September 17, which was nominated for the Silver Birch Award, the Red Cedar Award and the Violet Downey IODE Award. Her new novel, These Are Not the Words, is available from Groundwood Books. She is a writer, theatre director, calligrapher, and drama teacher. She is the founder of the Ottawa Children’s Theatre, and she has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Born in New York City, she now lives in Brooke Valley, Ontario, with her husband, writer Tim Wynne-Jones.