Jessica Bacal About Dealing With Literary Rejection: “I interviewed many about their lowest blows and letdowns.”

From a post on by Jessica Bacal about dealing with literary rejection:

Professional rejection is like romantic rejection. Remember how you went for a drink with the person who broke your heart because you were “still friends?” At goodbye, you hugged in the darkened doorway of your apartment building, which turned into making out. He came upstairs, and the next day you felt lonely and full of regret. When you pin your future hopes on a person—or a job, or a publication, rejection can wreak havoc on your identity. And the feelings rejection, even professional rejection, stirs up can hang around….

You may be drawn to them even when you have plenty of experience with rejection; if you’re a writer, it’s inevitable once you start submitting your writing for publication. Or maybe you’re fairly new to rejection, having lost a job during the pandemic. If it led to the loss of vital income, then it likely caused real anxiety.

What I am arguing here is that rejection doesn’t have to be something that you spend time analyzing and unpacking and feeling. It doesn’t have to lead to cruel self-talk: “You didn’t work hard enough, it’s so embarrassing, how could you have thought… etc.”…

I figured this out over the course of a year, during which I wrote an entire book on rejection. I had the chance to interview many about their lowest blows and letdowns….Okay, maybe it was a little personal. And through interviewing participants for the book, I learned multiple strategies for moving on. My interviewees, all women, methodically collected nos; they learned to separate themselves from their work; they took the long view; they committed to a rigorous schedule of creativity; they treated themselves with kindness….

Roz Chast, the cartoonist and memoirist, has collected hundreds of rejections over her career; I was stunned to learn that most of what she draws for The New Yorker gets turned down. It was also eye-opening to hear Chast talk about her time at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where she felt like a terrible artist.

“I would bring my sad little thing in and everybody else’s was so much better,” she said. “I wasn’t even in the middle. I was sort of at the bottom as far as drawing skills went.”

She loved making cartoons, so when she found out that a group of RISD peers was starting a cartoon magazine called Fred, she was excited. Chast put together a portfolio, submitted it, and waited.

“There was a lawn with a hill in front of RISD’s freshman dorm,” Chast told me, “and I remember sitting down on the grass alone after I heard back from Fred. They wouldn’t take any of my drawings. I just sat on that hill by myself, weeping, crying like a baby. It was really crushing. It hurt a lot.”

If you are reading this in the wake of a rejection, consider projecting yourself into the future, having blown right past those who turned you down. Looking back, Chast said: “Now, of course, it’s many years later, and one thing I know is that none of the editors of Fred have gone on to be successful cartoonists. It would be an understatement to say that this fact gives me pleasure.” Hearing Chast talk about her early days, it seems helpful to try taking the long view, and to remind yourself that building a career takes patience—just like finding the right life partner….

Being gentle with oneself in the wake of a rejection is a good idea whether that rejection is coming from love or work; research psychologists advise us to take it a step further and actually talk to or about ourselves with kindness. Speaking encouragingly to yourself—or writing about yourself—can have a surprising impact on your resilience, according to Ethan Kross, a psychologist at the University of Michigan. His research shows that “distanced self-talk” helps people to separate themselves from a rejection, and also shows how.

“Imagine that a friend comes to you after a rejection,” Kross said. “You’d say, ‘You got one rejection. You’ve got to move on. There will be plenty of other opportunities for you.’” He’s found that it helps when people think about themselves in the same friendly way and talk to themselves with non-first-person pronouns. So rather than thinking, I was rejected, I must suck, you literally use narration in the second-person—“Jessica, you don’t suck”—or in the third person to write about yourself. Whether you do this internally or on paper, it can kind of trick your brain into objective and rational thinking. Kross says there’s evidence that “distanced self-talk” helps people cope with rejection….

You might begin to believe that it wasn’t your writing that was rejected, or your resume, your qualifications, or work experience; it was you yourself that was rejected. But you are not your rejection, your rejection is not you, and it’s time to end the romance. It’s okay to move on.

Jessica Bacal is director of Reflective and Integrative Practices and of the Narratives Project at Smith College. She leads programs to help students explore identity and find resilience in community. She also teaches a course called Designing Your Path, which guides students to consider questions like: What is your story? Where have you been and where are you going? What matters to you? What skills do you need to pursue what matters? Before her career in higher education, she was an elementary school teacher in New York City, and then a curriculum developer and consultant. She received a bachelor’s degree from Carleton College, an MFA in writing from Hunter College, and an EdD from the University of Pennsylvania. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, with her husband, two children, and two dogs.

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