Sunday, October 24, 2010

Acceptance and Rejection--Balance in the Creative Life

One spring, I was wallowing in the discontent of rejection letters. I’d sent my first novel to agent after agent, publisher after publisher. No one wanted it. This new novel crossed genres—it was written from the point of view of a young woman but it was meant for adult readers.

I believed in the book and wanted to see it in the hands of potential readers. But my disappointment was so great that
all I felt was discouragement—no energy to keep trying.

A friend talked me into attending a presentation at Wisdom House, a spiritual and teaching center near where I lived in Connecticut. The director of the University of Connecticut’s writers project had gathered six artists—an actress, a sculptor, a painter, a poet, a composer/musician who worked with Broadway shows, and a writer—to discuss acceptance and rejection.

Perfect, I thought. Misery loves company.

But the panel wasn’t about misery at all. Although most of the artists talked about the hardships of receiving rejections for their work, many went on to discuss the meaning of rejection in the life of an artist. And they went even deeper—into self-acceptance and self-rejection. How that comes first, and how belief in your work is paramount to success.

Two comments stayed with me. One point was made by a composer: It isn’t the writing that scares him. It is thinking about it. “When I’m actually doing it,” he told us, “I’m completely happy.” The act of making art gives pleasure. The thinking and writing afterward was what was hard.

As creative artists, we want our work to be viewed and appreciated, but this by itself won’t keep us going. We need to do it for the love of it.

What if you wrote something and it got accepted right away? asked a panelist. Would you be as happy as if you struggled to earn it? The others said no, not in their experience. Most agreed—and these were quite well-known, well-respected professional artists.

Easy or unearned success can destroy your future successes, even prevent you from producing any work at all.

The other important point the panel made: Always try to retain an amateur spirit with your work. Write for the freshness and the vivacity that it gives you.

One panelist told us that the word amateur comes from the French word, amour. Amateur means “out of love.” If you can keep putting love into the process, you’ll be fed from it. So love becomes the most logical reason to keep going despite rejection. As Robert Henri, artist and author of The Art Spirit, said, “Do not let the fact that things are not made for you, that conditions are not as they should be, stop you. Go on anyway. Everything depends on those who go on anyway.”

Getting Past Discouragement
The word discouragement comes from the root word coeur, or heart. It’s the process of losing heart, losing perspective. It happens to all writers, over and over again, no matter how often we've been published.

It's a terrible moment when your work gets rejected. It’s hard to imagine how you're going to move forward, especially when you read other (wonderful) writers and sigh with the impossibility of being that good.

I reminded myself that writers never really get completely clear of blind spots. We all will always have them, and they are unseen until we get perspective, often through the process of rejection or acceptance. Seeing anew is a sign of growth.

I went back to my desk and began making the manuscript changes that made sense to me. Some of them were so big they caused tremors throughout the chapters but I reminded myself this rearrangement was growth, and I wanted my book to be the very best it could be.

I felt grateful now, not discouraged. And curious--would this learning translate into changed skill? Would my attempt at the next chapter come out better because of what I'd just learned?

This is the goal—to learn new skills from the rejection. Yes, there's discouragement, losing heart, but there's also the joy of developing skills--if you keep on keepin' on.

Eventually my novel did get accepted by a publisher, and the story of that particular book's acceptance and rejection concluded. But there's always the next one, and the next. The lessons we learn about how much we're willing to love our creative work, no matter what others think about it, never end.

This Week's Writing Exercise
The inspiration for this week's exercise comes from writing teacher Rosanne Bane, who offers classes at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Self-care lets us survive the swings of acceptance and rejection.

1. Brainstorm a list of things you love to do for fun and/or things that nurture you. They may include:

getting a massage
meal out with a friend
trip to an art museum
curling up for an hour with a great book
taking a hot bath
nap on the couch
movie or concert
phone date with a close friend who lives far away
sports event
manicure or pedicure
long walk in the woods with the dogs
playing basketball
Saturday fishing trip with buddies

2. In your calendar or datebook, choose an hour a week and assign yourself one of these self-care activities. Make it a serious date—block out the time.

3. Do this for one month. At the end of each week, write for ten minutes about the effects of this self-care date. What obstacles did you encounter? What benefits did you notice?

This week's blog post is excerpted from Mary's forthcoming book, Your Book Starts Here, to be released in December 2010.  


  1. Mary -
    Very nice post. Constructive and insightful.

  2. Thanks for visiting, Tom! So glad it was a useful post.

  3. Loved this post, I remember writing something to this vein, I have not been rejected yet, I havent even tried, but discouragement is usual :(

    Thanks for sharing this!

  4. Thank you.

    This is exactly what I needed to hear. I had been feeling a bit the same way...

  5. Thanks for visiting and sharing your blog, Emily!

  6. Okay, here's my concern. I agree early acceptance may compromise the reaction to earned appeal, but doesn't the continual process of rejection create a vulnerability to mediocre conformity? Do we compromise our artistic talent to gain commercial recognition?

    I welcome a debate on the merit of my work, but often find I'm rejected by the misconceptions brought out in query letters or samples of writings. Often these episodes are not given the chance for explanation and sometimes I find compliance to the concerns distracting from the intent of the writing!

  7. Good point, John. It depends on the writer, I guess. Continual rejection can be a wake up call to look at your writing from the reader's point of view instead of your own. That's what it's been for me. I don't accept all the rejection comments as truth, but if enough of them say similar things, I take a serious look at my own blind spots.