Self-Rejection: What It Is, Why You Do It, And How To Eject Its Ass Out The Airlock

Here, then, is a cardinal truth in creative industries (and there are very few cardinal truths in creative industries): you are going to be rejected. A lot. A lot a lot. A lottalottalot. It’s just a fucking thing. It’s water, to fish — you’re going to have to swim in it. It’s like being a baseball player and not wanting to get hit by a fly ball now and again. It’s like being a chef and thinking you’re not going to fillet your hands and fingers from time to time. It’s like being Indiana Jones and thinking there won’t be Nazis all over you like bees. (Nazis: I hate these guys.)






By agents, editors, reviewers, award-givers, readers, and, I dunno, birds? Probably birds.

But rejection, like the existence of birds, is an external phenomenon.

It comes from *hastily gestures* OUT THERE.

It should not come from *thuds chest with fist* IN HERE.

What I mean is, let others reject you.

Do not self-reject.

Now, it is of course vital to right up front recognize that there is a serious difference between a proper sense of distant self-criticism and straight-up self-rejection. It will be absolutely necessary for you to judge your own work and to test its mettle, again and again. But it’s critical to do that with a clear eye, and note the word I used above: distant. You gotta gain some yardage, even mileage, away from the thing to really see it for what it is. You can’t just read a thing you just wrote, make a big trumpeting FART NOISE and then flush that thing down the creative porcelain. There exists a keen difference between judging the work on its merits, and prejudging it based on… well, we’ll get to what it’s based on. And if you cannot see the forest for the trees in terms of identifying the distance between self-rejection and self-criticism, between judging and pre-judging, just assume it’s the worst kind and you shouldn’t do it. Get clarity another way.

Let us say this up front:

Writers are the worst judges of their own work.

Especially, particularly as you write it. What I mean is, in the day to day my own feelings about the writing I just did or am currently doing vacillates like a drunken yak. It pinballs between THIS IS THE BEST THING I’VE EVER WRITTEN to OH GOD WHO EVER LET ME BE A WRITER to MEH JUST MEH FUCK IT MEH MEH ENNH PPBTT GRR. Even after I’ve written a thing, I have moments where I think, okay, with some edits, this thing is really going to work, and then the next day I’ll decide, oh god it’s horrible I should just burn it in a barrel and go be a longshoreman, whatever the fuck a longshoreman is, see I don’t even know what that means, I can’t be a writer, words are meaningless to me.

(Like, is it the shore that’s long? The man? What does the man do on the shore?)


In there lurks the slime-slick boogeyperson that is: self-rejection.

Self-rejection, as noted, is you pre-judging the work as lacking in some critical way, and so you take action to sabotage it or cease it entirely.

But it is a beast with many faces.

The most obvious of the bunch is, you say, FUCK THIS SHIT, and you either stop writing the thing you’re writing, or you take the thing you wrote and chuck it in a trunk before immediately burying it in your backyard. You pre-judge the work. You find it wanting. You quit. Problem there is, of course the work is inferior. Of course it fails to match the vision in your head. The perfect will always be the enemy of the good, and the first draft of a thing is never the final draft.

So, don’t do that.

That is self-rejection. And huzzah, we solved it! *begins to load up the parade float*

Wait, what’s that? More insidious versions exist? Well, shit.

Let us identify those insidious faces of self-rejection, shall we?

“I’m not even going to start.” Self-rejection can hit before you even begin. You wanna do a thing. You’re excited about the thing. And then that voice gets in you — it’s the Momo Challenge, man, that horrible stretched-out goblin face jumping in the middle of your shit and telling you not to even start.

“I have decided that my work is not good enough for the big leagues, so I will instead aim only for the minor leagues.” What this means is, you come out of the gate and decide the work isn’t good enough for the Big Agent or the Big Publisher, and instead you aim for a small publisher or to publish it yourself instead. Now, before you get salty, there exists perfectly excellent reasons to self-publish or publish with a small publisher. (Note, however, some small publishers are ill-equipped to handle the realities of Actual Publishing and may inadvertently or purposefully fuck over you and your book. Do your due diligence.) But some also treat those like secondary or tertiary markets, and they move the bullseye closer so they can more easily hit it. They refuse to test its mettle and give the work its day in the sun, preferring instead the shelter of obscured shadow.

“I will neg my own work.” As I noted a few weeks ago, one of the skills authors gotta manifest is the ability to tell the story about your story — meaning, how to talk about your work. But one of the tricksier faces of self-rejection is when you talk about your work but you hamstring it with a lot of negative flimflammery. You bleed out your confidence and say, “Well, I dunno if it’s any good,” or, “It’s not as good as so-and-so,” or, “You probably won’t like it.” Don’t fucking do that. Don’t do it. You worked hard. You don’t have to present the thing like it’s the greatest thing since tacos, but be confident. Be excited! Don’t poison your thing with that kind of negativity.

“Hey, my aspirations aren’t that important.” A combination of the two prior is this — underselling your aspirations. You want to be a professional author? Then try to be one. Own it. Don’t shortsell it as a hobby, don’t claim you’re not a ‘real’ writer, don’t handwave away your goals and desires in the face of mounting pressure.

“I’ll change who I am and what I write to suit somebody else’s idea.” One version of self-rejection is putting our creative fate in the hands of someone else. We let their vision become our vision because we don’t trust our vision enough. You’re going to find a whole lot of people who have the wrong idea for you and your career. They mean well. But they’re still fucking wrong. Don’t walk their path. That’s theirs. Their path is fraught. The ground is loose. There are wasps. Fuck that path. You gotta make your own way. Have that clear vision for yourself, and none can take it from you.

“The work isn’t ready yet so I’ll just do these 400 other things first.” Procrastination is a snake masquerading as a tool. You’re like, “Oh hey I need this screwdriver OH GOD IT’S A PIT VIPER IT’S BITING MY EYE.” We do this thing, and I’ve done this thing, where we pre-judge our work to be unready, and so we choose to do more work on it — a bunch of worldbuilding, one more draft, another draft, a 453rd draft, a rewrite, a new outline, maybe I’ll start this other book first and then come back to this one (spoiler warning, I won’t come back to it). This is one of the nastiest versions of self-rejection because it doesn’t feel like self-rejection. It feels like progress! It feels like work! “I’m working! I’m doing stuff! I’m a writer!” And yet, somehow, the work never seems to actually get done. You kill it under a smothering blanket of love and it dies ten feet from the finish line.

Those are just some of the manifestations of self-rejection.

So, what do you do about it?



*taps pen against desk*

Don’t do it?

Okay, okay, it’s not that easy.

First things first, just be aware of it. Be aware it’s a thing. Scrutinize your motivations for giving up on a project, guard yourself for ways you’re underselling it or sabotaging it. Yes, it’s okay to decide a project isn’t right for the world. I wrote a lot of bad novels before I ever wrote any good ones. But I also learned not to give up on them, either. That sounds like the same thing, but it’s not. You can still write a thing, believe in it, and try your best to put it out there. And when it doesn’t make the cut, then you know. It’s the difference between letting rejection come to you naturally versus, say, just smothering the thing in its crib.

Second, turn off your brain when you write. Like, okay, not the part you need to write, you don’t wanna open the Word *.doc the next day and see SMUHHGH FUHHH TOLEDO TOILET BEANS JUNIPER NNNN777 65432 — some kind of inane, brainless version of Jack Torrence’s all work and no play repetition. I do mean that there is a part of your brain that is reserved for criticism. It’s the editor side. In there somewhere is a dour little prick with a tut-tut finger and a sour face. He’s an accountant. Fuck that part of your brain for now. It is Cask of Amontillado time. Get the bricks. Wall him up. Let him out later. He’ll be drunk on sherry, it’ll be fine.

Third, recognize that sometimes the voices of self-rejection are not your own. People in your life will fill your skull with bad advice and negativity. Sometimes they do this to be kind, trying to warn you away from a hard career or trying to deliver unto you their vision of success. But their intentions don’t matter; the result remains poisonous. And those voices in your head create long, loud echoes. They echo back and forth inside your braincave so often you start to take on their voice as your voice. Don’t adopt their negativity as your own. Don’t code bad advice — or worse, abuse — into your own narrative program. Get shut of it. Kick ’em out of your head.

And then finally, just care less. I’m wont to give this advice most often about writing, but you can actually care too much. Take some fucks out of your fuck basket. Not all of them! You need some fucks to give to the work. But too many fucks makes the basket too heavy to carry. Caring too much turns into a burden. Even autonomous actions like breathing and sleeping become difficult if you think too much about them.

That’s it. That’s self-rejection in a nutshell.

It’s a thing. Be aware of it. See it. Shut it up and out.

Go make stuff, unburdened by fear and sabotage. I’ll wait here.

* * *

WANDERERS: A Novel, out July 2nd, 2019.

A decadent rock star. A deeply religious radio host. A disgraced scientist. And a teenage girl who may be the world’s last hope. An astonishing tapestry of humanity that Harlan Coben calls “a suspenseful, twisty, satisfying, surprising, thought-provoking epic.”

A sleepwalking phenomenon awakens terror and violence in America. The real danger may not be the epidemic, but the fear of it. With society collapsing—and an ultraviolent militia threatening to exterminate them—the fate of the sleepwalkers and the shepherds who guide them depends on unraveling the mystery behind the epidemic. The terrifying secret will either tear the nation apart—or bring the survivors together to remake a shattered world.

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39 responses to “Self-Rejection: What It Is, Why You Do It, And How To Eject Its Ass Out The Airlock”

  1. One of my book proposals was rejected just yesterday, so thank you for this! My self-rejection is the kind that quickly spirals from “they rejected my work” to “my work is no good” to “I am no good and never will be,” despite plenty of objective evidence to the contrary. I’m just grateful that I’ve gotten so much better at recognizing that spiral and talking myself out of it before it triggers a more serious depression.

  2. Hi Chuck, we met years ago at Necon, I don’t know if you remember me, it’s ok if you don’t. This blog completely touched me, I pretty much do all of these except the change myself one… I say fuck that I write what I want… but I procrastinate and think I suck and all of that all of the time. Hell, I wrote three full novels as a teenager and then when I turned 20 I said, “I can’t make a living as a writer, I don’t understand business, I only know how to put words on a page not how to get an agent or sell a book.” And I quit writing for a DECADE… I didn’t start writing again until I was 30 and I met Brian Keene and James Moore, and several other writers who told me I could DO IT.

    The Last few years has seen me try to get on track, I finished a novel and got a few rejections on it before I trunked it and now I’m writing a new one, and I’m back in college, about to start a Masters in Writing, have a website and i’m finally making an effort… and yet I haven’t worked on that novel much over the last 18 months because of: School work, its not good enough, the website needs blogs, etc…

    What I’m basically saying in this over long comment is that I was aware of my self rejection, but wasn’t quite thinking it hit everyone, and seeing all of my issues written out plain as day in this post really made me feel like I wasn’t alone… course I still probably won’t open the WIP the file and work on the novel today… but I feel like I will soon.

    • Hey kmcriscione, If you ever need a first reader, or an accountability buddy, hit me up. I recently dumped an old blog I’d abandoned some time ago and am building another. And I started writing on occasionally (it was big writer mental-health boost to be accepted as a writer there). Maybe check it out as an easy in-between-other–projects place. I’m learning to write personal essays (I was a poet in another life). Regarding fiction, I couldn’t write my way out of the proverbial paper bag.

  3. This is so funny because I actually was just talking about this to my mom. I’m writing a short story, or basically rewriting a short story that I wrote last year and did many different drafts of, and while the rewrite I’m doing is what I thought was cool and new and NOTHING like the dribble I thought I’d written before, the part of me today is like…”You should’ve just stuck with the old idea,” and “Why even write this when you know this is just as bad as you think it is.” It’s all very much first draft material, and I’m writing the end, and the ending is supposed to be…well, awesome. Yet it doesn’t feel awesome when I put it on the page. It feels like absolute crap. The words are cloggy and I feel like I’ve repeated the MC’s name too much, and also repeated a sentence structure too much, and the monster at the end is written exactly NOT how I picture it in my head.

    Now, I can sit there and reason that that’s because I’m tired and depressed, it’s winter, I just wrote two last-minute essays for classes, I have all this stress because my classes absolutely suck old cow teats, etc.

    BUT I also always forget that first drafts suck because they are completely NEW TO THE WORLD. In comparison: sure, babies are born as these cute and wonderful things, but they also poop in public, pick their noses and flick their boogers, upchuck over all the nice things you just bought, and don’t know how to talk. And just like first drafts, they need work to become the upstanding people we see today (mostly upstanding).

    …Did I just really make a comparison between writing and pooping newborns…? And basically just mentally word vomit onto a comment on someone else’s site?

    Anyway, this post really helped me today. As usual, a lot of your posts cause me to step back and take a deep breath, and feel relief that other people are out there experiencing this and it’s not just me. So thank you so much for your posts, and wise Wendigo Words!

  4. I’ve caught myself doing this a few times, especially the procrastinating — deciding before I even start that the thing won’t work and therefore why bother doing it if it’s gonna suck anyway, amirite?

    Being aware of it helps and being able to tell my brain to ‘shut your ass up, we’re doing this’ helps. Knowing every-damn-body does it extra-helps.

  5. I feel called out. But seriously, good advice and timely reminder, all wrapped up in a neat non-psychobabble burrito. Thanks Chuck.

  6. I thought it was just me who would suddenly feel like she didn’t know how to write any more – and then I read Agatha Christie’s autobiography and found that she went through that phase with each one of her novels.

    So if the top-selling fiction author of all time regularly had these crises of confidence in her ability to write, I should expect to get them too. But I should also take Dame Agatha’s example and keep going anyway.

    My husband is a great help when self-defeating stuff comes out my mouth. Now I just need to get a headlock on the stuff while it’s still circulating in my head. And then drown it in a cask of Amontillado. Or maybe Malmsey, for a more Shakespearian note…

  7. Well, shoot, my psych and I were just discussing the judging panel of critics I have in my head, that stop me sending stuff out, that make me stop after one rejection, that will barely let me rewrite at all. Thankyou. There is now a post-it note in my toilet: Do Not Self-Reject!

  8. This is a constant struggle for me, since I can’t tell whether I’m just lazy or if I have perfectionist procrastination. I’ve got this mindset in my head that tells me “if you can’t get it done right the first time, it’s not worth doing” even if rationally I know that’s not how building a skill works.

    I haven’t written anything in months because I can’t seem to get past the sensation that I’m wasting my energy on making shit, even when I know you have to make a lot of shit before you can make anything worthwhile.

  9. Thanks Chuck! Great post. The trick is figuring out (admit) how we sabotage our creative work and then creating an action plan … shutting out self-rejection is the first part, but creating a plan to do the work has to be the second part.

  10. I found this really helpful, especially in the face of some younger, slightly less life-experienced family members being agape at the idea that I’d want to publish anything I write. Mostly, siblings that don’t understand why I’d want to work on something that isn’t a guaranteed paycheck (mind you I’m not living off of writing any time soon, I have too much debt and general life needs for that). But I figure, writing is something that adds some fulfillment to my life, and maybe I can put some old hobby writing I basically just have lying around on a hook and see if it catches anything in the way of a literary agent. Or maybe a following first, using small poems/stories on forums. Keeping myself from self-rejection in this case is “the publishing/following isn’t the point right now for me, it could just be an extra boon.”

  11. I’m coming at writing from a side angle, rebounding off of a ‘failed’ video production career. So, rejection and I are very familiar friends. I haven’t gotten around to showing anyone any of my novels, though I do have a daily blog so I’m not hiding under a bushel basket. I’m ‘keeping on, keeping on’ but, as I’m sure you can relate, some days those demons are more vocal than others. I just wish it were easier to get over some of the failures of the past, but it’s not, is it? You just gotta keep going, because not doing it really isn’t an option.

  12. This is fantastic…exactly what I needed to hear, when I needed to hear it with a dose of humor. Thanks so much for this.

  13. A little late to the thread, but thank you for this. I have read it at least three or four times. (Now bookmarked by itself for future reference, separate from Terrible Minds, which I read regularly.) I don’t write, except for some stuff I laughingly refer to as “poetry”, which no human eyes will ever see,

    I make sterling jewelry, and have done so with varying degrees of success for forty years. The noise-to-object ratio in that area is probably as dense as it is for new authors. It’s hard to even start on something new, with the beaver-dam pile of things I’ve already made just sitting there. And I don’t think there are agents, good or bad, for what I do. At least authors have that advantage. (Or disadvantage, depending on your experience.)

    But this has given me some impetus to get out of the “fuck it, why do anything” mode. My time on this mortal coil is getting shorter, so I guess I need to press on, in any way I can. Might even beat back some of the procrastination snakes masquerading as tools.

    Thanks, Chuck. But first, I think I’ll go make a peanut-butter, pickle, and bacon sandwich, and crack open a beer. Can’t wrangle vipers on an empty stomach.

  14. Great post! I am particularly good at not starting. World class.

    And “Take some fucks out of your fuck basket” is quite possibly the best sentence I have ever read. 🙂

  15. Honestly, I really am one of my worst critics, if not The Worst Critic I have. So this post saying that I shouldn’t shut myself down before I do anything is a helpful reminder.

  16. I had never thought about rejection this way. I’d thought about all the outside rejection, agents, editors, the sting of critique group comments… but I had never thought about how much rejection I pile up against myself. Thank you so much. This post has been profoundly enlightening.

  17. Loved, this piece. Thank you! I have re-blogged it on my blog and also shared on FB. Also I hope you do come to Chapel Hill or Raleigh sometime soon. I’m friends with Mur and we will come see you!

  18. “Momo” long ago fused with my young sense of morality to form a toxic superego I have never been able to keep in place for long. At this point other-rejection, self-rejection, social rejection aren’t always easy to tell apart.

    This isn’t just a writing thing, altho I’ve done that and I’m good at it. This is a living thing, interwoven with me. If I eject self-rejection out the airlock at this point, my ass is going with it.

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