As writers we know that we are meant to expect rejection. A lot of rejection. Many letters/emails, after such a long wait, saying not much more than, ‘Thanks but no thanks’.
We write, we hope, we are rejected.
We give up.
Then we un-give-up and write again.
I first began getting rejection letters in my early 20s. I bought the Writers and Artists Yearbook every year, certain that this would be the year that my investment would pay off. I highlighted the publishers who took unsolicited manuscripts and the agents who might like my work. I sent my manuscript away with an SAE. They returned it three-six months later with a letter on fancy paper. Thanks but no thanks. Never any more than that.
I didn’t just do hoping. I also did readings at open mic nights in cafes. I did a lot of dreaming and imagining myself as a writer. And I did a lot of writing. Poems, stories for children, opinion pieces (no Facebook then, but I had a box of sterling rants, ready to be transposed upon the advent of social media). I enjoyed myself as a writer. I took every drop of encouragement and let it convince me that some day I’d have the magic acceptance letter. I began to tell myself that getting rejected was not only something to suffer, but something that real writers did. It didn’t make rejection joyful, exactly, but it began to feel purposeful, like Sisphus pushing his best collection of lyric poems up a hill, or a Scout badge reminding me ‘Here is how far I have come: rejection #27. This is what I do, for I am a writer.’
And twenty years later an agent liked my work, and then a publisher liked it, and that was that.
And I thought it would be the end of rejection.
But actually it was another beginning.
Don’t get me wrong, it is pretty damn great when your dream comes true. All the things you wanted: to see your book in a shop, to have a book launch, to sign books for people, to actually get paid for doing something you’ve been doing for nothing for a really long time… All those things are exactly as good as you might imagine. And they’re worth the struggle, if that’s what you want.
But I’m sorry to say that the rejections do not end here.
You may get some bad or mediocre reviews (How could they not like it? Your dream has come TRUE and all things must now go well. Didn’t they get the memo?) You will apply to do workshops at events and will not hear back from them. You may even be outright rejected because your book is ‘too gay’ (nope, not making that up.) And, worst of all, the cool kids still won’t think you’re cool, even though you promised yourself they’d be kicking themselves when your first novel came out…
But surely if you are published all of this doesn’t matter? In some ways that is true. And it’s also true that some people will really love your work (hooray!) and I am deeply grateful for my more experienced writing friends who have supported me at the beginning of my journey. But being human always means that we want more. When we get what we want, it’s great. And then we want other things. The Buddhist tradition teaches that this is the root of suffering. Maybe it is what pushes some to strive further. Maybe it’s what causes some to give up.
Henry Rollins, the punk singer, tells a story about an author he found that really blew him away. His books were so amazing that for days after reading them Henry felt he could not write a word. Why continue to write when such incredible work had already been written by someone else? For such a prolific writer, it was a big problem. But he couldn’t get past it. Eventually, in a fit of frustration, he looked up the author in the phone book and called him.
‘I’ve been reading your books,’ said Henry, ‘And I can’t write anymore!’
The author responded, ‘I see what your problem is. You have to get your dick out of the way! Get your dick out of the way of the story! Find the truth! The ego is never the truth!’
It is our ego which makes us see ourselves as writers. It is the part of us which makes us feel like we are someone when we write. It makes us keep on submitting work after we’ve been rejected. But it also makes us anxious. It tells us that ‘rejection’ means something. It is ego which pokes the needle in our side when we look across and see a fellow writer doing just that little bit better than us. The one who got published. The one who got a better review.
I don’t know what we can do about this, but I do know that noticing it is a start. Rejection is part of life. Every time we sit down to write with the blank page in front of us, we can notice all the thoughts and feelings that we bring to the table- all the anxieties and expectations and all the things we feel are failures and successes. We can notice them, and then we can put them all aside and do the work.
We can get our egos off the table.
I’d like to spend the rest of my life writing. I’ve written two and a half novels and I’d like to write many more. But the page in front of me right now is the only place where I can make anything happen, and this has always been the case, and it always will be the case. It is the same with rejection: when it happens it will happen in that moment and I can choose to notice it, feel it, learn from it, and then get it off the table and start writing again.
(c) Shirley-Anne McMillan
Shirley-Anne McMillan is from Lisburn and lives with her family in rural Co. Down. Shirley-Anne works as a writer and schools worker, running a high school Gay Straight Alliance, and an Integration club. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from Manchester Metropolitan University and in 2013 she won the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators ‘Undiscovered Voices’ competition with an extract from her novel, A Good Hiding.
About: A Good Hiding
Nollaig has survived life in Belfast with her alcoholic dad on wits, courage and the gift of the gab. But now she’s frightened: not for herself, but for the baby she’s secretly carrying.
She decides to run away. She finds refuge in the little-used crypt of a local church. She plans to stay there until after Christmas, when she’ll be sixteen and free to leave home for good.
The only person she tells about her pregnancy, her plans, and her hiding place is her best friend Stephen. He knows only too well how dangerous the truth can be, if the truth marks you out as ‘different’.
When the church’s vicar discovers them, they think their time is up; but they’ve discovered his little secret – and will use it against him if he reveals theirs.
Overlooked by an angel in the stained glass, these three souls-in-hiding face the choice before them: a life hidden in the safety of shadows, or a life lived freely, fully fledged and in plain sight?
A Good Hiding is a Young Adult novel published by Atom books (imprint of Little, Brown) in 2016. The Irish Independent called A Good Hiding ‘A brisk and breezy novel that, despite the heavy subject matter, had me laughing aloud more than once’. In bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!