Several Seasons of Rejection: Some Hurt More Than Others

UT rejection-1At some point last year, I got it in my head that I needed to publish another book. Of essays. This year. I had been writing and placing short pieces in different media outlets, mostly online. At the same time, I had been reading books with essays that had been previously published. I thought, “why not me?”

I asked my agent about it, and she liked the idea. We developed a book proposal (which required me writing a bunch of new material, as well as editing several essays) and she sent it out on submission. I have been fascinated by how different this submission process has been from the previous one with my debut novel. I didn’t think about it. With this book of essays, I didn’t compulsively refresh my inbox several times a day. In fact, weeks would go by when I would totally forget I had a book on submission.

When my novel UPTOWN THIEF was on submission, I was initially elated, then anxious, then depressed. The first rejections made little impression (who cares? there are so many fish in the sea). Until there weren’t. The rejections stacked up, and my agent encouraged me to begin researching small presses for me to approach.

When it looked like my novel wouldn’t sell, I had days where I could barely get out of bed. That first submission was an existential crisis. I have always wanted to be a novelist–a woman who tells long stories about characters facing life challenges that change them forever. This is who I aspire to be in the world, the person I believe it’s my destiny to be. If I can’t be that person, then who am I? What’s the point?

Yet beneath the existential crisis, it’s an issue of audience: I have a story to tell. Who will listen?

The book of essays was so different, because people were already listening. Not to the collection as a whole, but many of the pieces had been greenlighted by an editor. Other pieces had been warmly received by my audience on my blog or twitter. These essays didn’t have the same all-or-nothing stakes as the novel. Sure, I could serialize my novel and post it on my blog, or self-publish. But either of those choices would mean that I would be responsible for developing the book’s audience. I wanted that to be someone else’s job, particularly as a working mom who was already doing too much. I didn’t want to add publisher to the list. I wanted a matchmaker, really. A publisher who could match me up with the audience who would be excited to read my book.

I have been writing one novel or another my entire adult life. However, in the past, when I was making a living as a working writer/performer, I had a fan base. Back then, the fact that I couldn’t quite get traction on my novel didn’t depress me, because I had access to an audience through performance.

But now I have a kid and don’t go out at night, and can’t travel to New York several times a year and haven’t been doing festivals and college gigs. I was occasionally being published in those days, but mostly I was being presented. Someone else was rounding up an audience for me to speak to, and the work was delivered in live performance instead of book form. During that era, I even recorded some excerpts of a novel in progress and released it on a CD as part of a community activism project. I used to perform snippets of my novel carefully edited into powerful spoken word pieces. I wasn’t published, but someone was listening.

So yesterday, when I got the email from my agent that the book of essays was unlikely to be picked up, I didn’t feel any big grief. It’s not the difference between being connected to an audience and being isolated with my thoughts and stories. Also, with a debut novel coming out in six months, I’m busily preparing for a new audience. Yet I recall how it felt when it looked like UPTOWN THIEF might not happen. I’ll never forget that despair.

So here are my 5 tips for handling rejection:

  1. Find someone to hear your story. Even if it’s only someone to hear the story of your most recent rejection: how much you wanted it, and how heartbroken you are to see a particular door close. This can be a trusted friend, family member, or writing buddy.
  2. Find venues to help you strategize for success. This weekend, I’ll be at the San Francisco Writers Conference. These gatherings provide great practical advice and information about how to break in. They can be very expensive, but many of them have volunteer opportunities.
  3. Find a group of writers to support each other as you push forward. It is critical to think about whether you want a critique group where you share work and give feedback or a support group, where you support each other in meeting your writing goals. I have needed both.
  4. Keep writing. It’s the best and hardest advice. Rejection can immobilize us, but continuing to write is our strongest act of resistance.
    1. Reject isolation!
    2. Reject immobilization!
  5. And finally, read and listen to stories of writers (Louise had some great suggestions on her Monday “Resources for Rejection” post) about how even well-known and prominent writers have some of the same struggles. They face rejection, yet they persist and triumph anyway. That fact can help us all to remember the following: the moment of rejection is a low point in the plot, but never the ending to the story.

 

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Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Essence Magazine, xojane, Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine, Movement Strategy Center, My Brown Baby, KQED Pop, Bitch Magazine, Racialicious, Fusion, and she has been a guest on HuffPostLive. She is the author of the children's picture book PUFFY: PEOPLE WHOSE HAIR DEFIES GRAVITY. Kensington Books will be publishing her debut feminist heist novel, UPTOWN THIEF, in 2016. For more info, go to ayadeleon.wordpress.com.

This article has 2 Comments

  1. This is great advice. Especially the part about finding someone to listen to you talk about how terrible you feel when your story isn’t being heard. Too many of us (and I’m one) feel so ashamed and beaten down by our failures and rejections that we just don’t want others to know about them. It’s bad enough that WE know about them. But that’s not healthy. Writing is already such a solitary thing to do; if we have to suffer our defeats in isolation, too, it becomes very difficult to carry on.

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