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.