Rejection Part 3: Rejection and Loss- the Writer’s Lot?

My last two posts on rejection have been months apart. There are three main reasons why: 1. I was busy writing for others. 2. I was re-writing and editing my 133,000-word semi-autobiographical novel based on my tumultuous years in India and Sri Lanka. 3. I had a series of bereavements that drained me of the inspiration to write anything new.

As the above image suggests (that I took on a recent walk on the beach in front of my home), I’ve been caught between a rock and hard place, but still appreciating the view. These experiences led me to explore the relationship between rejection and loss, and whether dealing with both is part of the writer’s lot in life.

Firstly, in order to build a platform as a writing coach, it’s been necessary to demonstrate my credibility online, rather than focus on crafting posts in what could otherwise remain an unseen internet backwater. However, this entailed shelving this blog for a while which was a type of loss, as I enjoy sharing my musings here with others and the feedback I receive by email.

Yet, this experience has been useful as I’ve been content writing for other blogs, podcasts, and social media accounts, coached a range of writers from diverse academic specialisms, and learned how to turn down badly paid writing gigs – often after my bids had been accepted and fees were yet to be agreed. We’ll return to these points later in this post. So, I’ve been living a writer’s life, and encountering the same issues that my coaching clients struggle with along the way.

Secondly, I took up the long overdue task of rewriting and editing my novel based upon the true story of my time in India and Sri Lanka. There will be a sequel- two are planned. However, taking on board my previous editor’s remarks and recent feedback from a prospective publisher required a big rethink and a new beginning for the book. They made excellent points and spoke to some concerns I also shared.

Taking this on board and beginning again meant I then had to edit the remaining text to accommodate this major change. So, once again, I became immersed in the memories of the wildest adventure of my life as I sifted through the story and ironed out the wrinkles in the plot. I can’t deny that this was emotionally draining work, especially in the context of current events in Sri Lanka and the conversations I’ve had with old friends there about what’s happening on the ground. The seeds were sown for the current crisis over a decade ago and were germinating in the background of my story during my time living on the island.

I then decided that rather than going straight back to a publisher, I’d try to get an agent. So, I had to research who was open to submissions, their interests, and submission requirements. This involved crafting an elevator pitch, a new blurb, and new synopsis. I’m now waiting patiently for a response to my proposal, inviting the possibility of rejection after all that hard work.

While I was preparing my submission, I decided to research strategies for coping with rejection both for readers of this blog, and for me should I need it (let’s face it, who doesn’t?). In the short video below, meditation teacher Todd Perelmuter encourages inviting as much rejection as possible, while learning to interpret rejection as valuable feedback rather than a personal injury. He reminds us that everybody who has become successful has experienced a mountain of rejection along the way, and that embracing rejection is the fastest way to achieving our goals. This sounds counterintuitive in our ego-driven culture, but give him a listen.

Next, after submitting my proposal to an agent, and while editing the remainder of my book, a series of bereavements occurred involving family and friends over the course of just a few weeks. I dropped work for a while and allowed myself some time to process these losses. I took up more intense meditation, walked a lot in nature, and spent time with friends. I reflected on the relationship between rejection and loss, and how rejection can involve the loss of hope. The loss of a loved one can feel like a rejection by life itself, even a loss of meaning or reason to go on, as our interpersonal reference points shift and dissolve.

I found myself drawn to rereading a memoir that is steeped in the experience of rejection and loss to help me gather the threads of these reflections together. Tamsin Calidas’ ‘I Am An Island’ is one of the most hauntingly poetic and moving books I’ve ever read. I say ‘read’, but that’s not strictly true, as when I bought it there were no hard copies available- it had sold out everywhere- I could only purchase the audiobook. There was no Kindle and no paperback published at the time.

So, while doing my household chores I listened again to the audiobook that is so elegantly narrated by the author. Her story describes her experience of rejection and multiple losses, her descent into the undertow of grief, and the loss of meaning that occurs when she confronts her isolation and lack of belonging. Calidas faced a crisis that resulted in surrender and initiation into union with the creative pulse of nature, embodied in the wild landscape of the Scottish island she has made her home.

Given my recent experiences, and my relocation to the Scottish coast during lockdown (not an island, however), I appreciated it all the more the second time around. I began researching her current whereabouts and found some mixed book reviews and a few podcast interviews. I tuned into a couple of YouTube videos to listen to her explain how she transitioned from surviving to thriving in the face of rejection, loss, isolation, and deep despair. My favourite is linked below.

My overwhelming response to hearing her describe the wider context she couldn’t include in the memoir, given the pressure of word counts and space, was a deep respect for her humility and courage. These qualities seem to be key to processing rejection and loss, as both invite us to reframe these painful experiences in the context of something much broader than the personal. Calidas describes an experience of heart opening, and a radical repositioning of her sense of belonging to the ever-present breath of life. She describes her emerging union with the expansions and contractions, ‘the systole and diastole’ of the cycles of nature. Her description of this process echoes the initiation rites common to many indigenous peoples that are required to become fully grown adults in such societies.

So, what has all got to do with the writer’s lot in life? As writers, we must be prepared to face a lot of rejection. A long stream of rejections can risk us experiencing a deepening sense of loss- of hope, of meaning, or purpose. The result of this can be the dreaded writer’s block. Then there’s the temptation to devalue our work by accepting badly paid gigs just to gain a sense of acceptance. However, juggling multiple poor-paying gigs is likely to lead to overwhelm and burnout. So, writer beware!

Despite my experience, skills, and qualifications, I’ve navigated complex contract bids only to be offered ‘extra exposure’ (unpaid work) as my compensation, or rates much less than the minimum wage that are impossible to live on. I’ve also had promised by-lines for blog articles omitted that were then published as ghostwritten pieces. I’ve discovered, to my cost, that there are some personal development ‘authors’ that I doubt have ever written anything that they claim to have written at all.

These rude awakenings to the realities many working writers face have been super valuable. I’m now fully acquainted with the pitfalls of freelance writing which improves the coaching I can offer my clients. Also, I have my name on the front page of Google following a year of hard work writing for reputable blogs managed by authentic people. I’ve learned how to spot the sketchy gigs and can now avoid them. I can help my clients do the same.

However, the most important thing I’ve learned during my first year as a writing coach is not to reject my values when pursuing my own writing goals. Instead, I’ve practised self-help, taken my own advice, and endured the rough and tumble to develop resilience for the long haul. I’m reminded of the old aphorism by the translator of ancient Indian wisdom texts Eknath Easwaran-

Working With Rejection- part one.

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

My previous post on this blog discussed the role of self-compassion in the writer’s life, especially when we’re overwhelmed, blocked by inner or outer obstacles such as ill health, or experience rejection. Since then, I’ve started working as a writer for the Positive Psychology blog. My first piece has already been published on the application of ACT to group work. I have another piece written which will be published soon. Researching and writing these articles has delayed me posting here, but it’s returned me to a disciplined writer’s life. My main focus has been coaching and editing for the past few years. Now, I’m back in the saddle as a researcher and writer facing similar issues to my clients. Given my changed circumstances, I have decided to postpone the app and focus on bespoke one-to-one coaching for the time being. I’ll continue to post here about the common issues challenging my clients and my own writing process, but they’ll be snappier shares, rather than longer articles.

I promised to explore the issue of rejection in this post in more depth, so think of this as part one. I’m certainly familiar with the discomfort of having my writing rejected, and I have also rejected the writing of others when peer-reviewing for journals, reviewing book proposals for publishers, and editing for blogs. Neither side of this divide is pleasant, but it does give me a useful overview of the whole process of rejection. When you’re on the receiving end, rejection can often feel random and arbitrary.

I experienced a rejection of some fiction I’d written recently. The reviewer congratulated me on the quality of my writing but explained that ‘it didn’t grab me enough to want to take it further’. Fair enough, but what to do with that feedback? I took some time to process the rejection. I wasn’t upset. I didn’t take it personally. I even expected this response deep down. Why? I knew the beginning wasn’t sitting right with me and I just hadn’t summoned the patience to rewrite it. So, I decided to try again.

I’m now using some of the material I cut out of a previous version that I’m confident drops the reader straight into a gripping situation on the first page. It’s going to take a while to get it right, but I’m already much happier with it, and especially happy to include the writing I’d been advised to cut out by an editor of a previous version. It was well written he’d said, but not necessary. Now I see it was actually in the wrong place. I eventually stopped working with that particular editor as his advice was 100% market and sales driven, so we ran into a clash in values. Perhaps this clash in values is at the root of a lot of rejection, in one way or another. As writers, these clashes with publishers confront us with choice points. I’ve referred to choice points in earlier posts. Here’s a quick reminder.

The choice point facing me when my editor’s values clashed with mine was between reaching my goal of becoming a published writer in the near future, or choosing to adhere to the values driving my writing process. I took the latter option as integrity is the primary value driving my creativity. Different writers will have different values. For some, commercial success will be all important and there is nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all! However, in my case, compromising to reach a cherished goal was one thing, but ditching the values driving my writing process was not an option. I’ve discussed the difference between values and goals in previous posts, but here’s a quick reminder.

In short, if I’d prioritised my goals over my values, I would have been rejecting myself to try and capture a market. Out of self-compassion and a longer-term view I chose in favour of my values.

This type of rejection experience is specific to fiction writing. A publisher’s or agent’s acceptance and rejection of fiction is somewhat subjective, based on taste, and of course, markets. If you are suffering a growing pile of rejections, then be assured you’re in great company. One of my favourite writers, Kurt Vonnegut, received the following.

“Dear Mr. Vonnegut, We have been carrying out our usual summer house-cleaning of the manuscripts on our anxious bench and in the file, and among them I find the three papers which you have shown me as samples of your work. I am sincerely sorry that no one of them seems to us well adapted for our purpose. Both the account of the bombing of Dresden and your article, “What’s a Fair Price for Golden Eggs?” have drawn commendation although neither one is quite compelling enough for final acceptance. Our staff continues fully manned so I cannot hold out the hope of an editorial assignment, but I shall be glad to know that you have found a promising opening elsewhere. Faithfully yours, Edward Weeks.”

You can read more of the harshest rejection letters received by great writers here.

These days, one easy way to avoid rejection is self-publishing, but then marketing becomes the author’s responsibility. New writers with no platform will find marketing their work very difficult without a great of time and money to invest. I’ll discuss this option in another post. However, when academic writing is rejected, the considerations are very different. I’ve spent many years editing academic writing for publication. I’ve also participated in the peer-review process. My next post in this series on rejection will discuss this process in detail, and how academic writers can maximise their chances of publication. Until then, remember rejection provides you with an opportunity to revamp, re-evaluate, and improve your writing. It may even be setting you on course for something far better than you imagined.