Monday, June 22, 2009


Last night I saw the heart-breaking documentary EVERY LITTLE STEP, about dancers auditioning for roles in a revival of A CHORUS LINE, itself a play about dance auditions. The movie was terrific. The reason it's heart-breaking is that all these young dancers want the part so badly, and most will not get it. You see the pain of rejection on their faces, even as they bravely prepare for the next audition.

Writers, too, take rejection regularly (although we do have the advantage of not usually getting it in person, or as the result of one off day when your jete collapses you onto the floor). Rejection of a short story, rejection of a novel, rejection of an asked-for synopsis, rejection by reviewers who hated your work, sometimes even rejection by one's established publisher. And it always hurts. Over the years of teaching, I have had students, some of them quite good writers, who are so afraid of rejection that they never submit anything to editors at all.

I think what's called for in handling rejection is the same skill that's called for in successful revision. You have to become two people at once. With revision, you have to simultaneously be the writer making changes and the reader encountering the story for the first time, so that you can see what changes need to be made: Have I provided enough information here for anyone to understand why my character is behaving like that? Will the reader understand that this scene directly follow the previous one but in another location? And so forth.

With rejection, the mental pas de deux is even trickier. You must be both the person who believes in your talent enough to think "I can write, and this is a good story" AND the person who thinks "This editor/reviewer/instructor is, after all, knowledgeable -- is there anything to this criticism that I can use, either for further revision or for the next story?" It's not an easy balancing act, especially when it is your lifeblood you've invested in this story. But unless you can manage this balancing act, at least roughly, you risk becoming (pick one): (1) someone who loses faith in his ability and gives up, or (2) someone who cannot grow as a writer because you think you have nothing more to learn.

In EVERY LITTLE STEP, there is a painful interview with a dancer who did not get the part of Cassie. She ends by saying, "Maybe next time will be my big break." It's the only productive attitude for writers, too. You don't need to "grow a thick hide," as some advocate -- even if you could. You just need to patch up the bruised hide you have, and keep on dancing.


bluesman miike Lindner said...

B&N Lincoln Triangle is a hotbed of performing artists. My friend Sara is a dancer, and she auditioned for a part. Didn't get it. I tried to cheer her up, but she didn't want or need that.

"Michael, I have another auditon on Friday. I'm a dancer. I dance."

That is such an admirable attitude.

And, oh yeah, DUNE was rejected by 23 publishers. And Decca said pass on The Beatles.

TheOFloinn said...

What's a "rejection"?

+ + +
G.K.Chesterton once wrote in an entirely different context, the same notion regarding revolution as you do revision.

In so far as we desire the definite reconstructions and the dangerous revolutions which have distinguished European civilization, we shall not discourage the thought of possible ruin; we shall rather encourage it. If we want, like the Eastern saints, merely to contemplate how right things are, of course we shall only say that they must go right. But if we particularly want to MAKE them go right, we must insist that they may go wrong.

Jennifer Campbell-Hicks said...

I stand among the ranks of bruised, unpublished writers, sending out submission after submission, waiting for the rejections to pour in and hoping they won't. So far my "big break" hasn't come. Rejection hurts, but it doesn't stop me from revising that story and sending it out again. I sure don't have a thick hide and probably never will. What I do have is hope and determination.

Steven Francis Murphy said...

It is a funny thing. Out of all the rejections I've ever received, only one ever hurt. The story in question had been selected for rewrite by one prominent editor and sent back. I was unpublished at that time and many said this was it, I was about to get my first publication.

I took my time and made double sure that I had followed the editor's advice. Then I sent it off (even though I had a gut feeling that it wasn't going to be that easy).

Turns out a week before my revised story was supposed to be read, the editor in question required and was replaced.

The replacement editor in turn rejected the story with another rewrite request. A vague and unclear compared to the crystal clarity of their predecessor. In addition, I didn't agree with what little I did understand of the rewrite request.

Still, I butchered my story and sent it back.

Then it got rejected.

Two story sales and two honorable mentions later, I've got to admit that this is still the only rejection I've ever received which generates any angst (actually, anger, a lot of it).

Which is simply to say that sometimes the rejections have nothing to do with ability, talent or even story quality.

In any case, I'm pragmatic about rejections overall.

S. F. Murphy

Mark said...

Brian Tracy: "...We must be rejection experts..."