A couple of weeks ago, when we were all writing about our path to publication, the subject of rejection and failure had to come up. I shared the fact that I’d sent out one hundred and nine queries before landing an agent, so if you think about it, that’s one hundred and eight rejections. I had failed that many times.
But I don’t think I really wrote a whole lot about how that feels. Maybe rejection sinks differently into different kinds of people. There is always that advice for creatives that we need to grow a “thicker skin,” which seems to imply that such a skin will prevent rejection from even entering us at all—like a big, black umbrella unfolded on a rainy day, if only we cultivate the right skin, then we will never even feel the rejection. It won’t hurt, because we’re not even getting wet.
But the thick skin analogy doesn’t really work, if you stop to think about it. Is it truly possible for a writer who cares about what they’ve written, who hopes to connect through their words with other people out there in the world, to simply feel nothing when they’re told their work is not good enough? That it didn’t strike a chord? That it wasn’t even worthy of a response?
I don’t think it is. A thick skin would imply we’ve become something else, something super-human. Impermeable. Reptiles have thick skin. The hide of a sperm whale is so thick that it takes a harpoon to pierce it. Some trees have really thick bark. In the deepest winter, the ice on ponds is so hard to break that people can skate on it. Cars can drive across lakes.
Human skin is not like that. How easily we bruise. We scrape our knees when we fall down. We cut ourselves chopping vegetables for dinner, or even on paper as we go through the mail. If our skin is fair, we pay the price for too much sunshine with a painful burn. Human skin is tender. It ages to thin as tissue paper. It can shiver at a touch. It will offer up goosebumps because the air is cold, the music is moving, the story has broken our heart.
Even if we could thicken our skin, feel less acutely, make rejection less painful, I don’t think I’d want to. Isn’t my thin skin also letting everything else I experience enter me? I celebrate thinner skin: the way it wrinkles around my eyes and mouth, recording every smile, the way it lets me feel a hot bath and the bubbles breaking against it, a soft sweater, my husband’s touch, a summer rain. Yes, I want to be rained on, to leave the umbrella behind.
So this is how it felt to be rejected, one hundred and eight times or once: it hurt. I’ve been getting rejections from literary magazines since I was a teenager. I am used to them, but that doesn’t mean they don’t bother me. A rejection can really ruin my day. They make me cranky, out of sorts, wondering why the universe is so cruel. When I open an email and read one (I am even old enough that I can remember opening envelopes that contained paper rejections, too), it tends to sink into me. Deeply. As if I am a body of water and a rejection is a stone. If I had that nice thick skin, or a winter skin of ice, the stone would just skitter across me and away. But that’s not what happens. It makes a little splash, and then it travels down and down to the very bottom and nestles into my lining of sand.
I guess there are an awful lot of little stones down there by now, but there’s nothing wrong with that. They are part of the landscape of my interior. They cut, initially, breaking that outer smoothness, but then they join the others and become part of my history. When I absorb them, they become mine. They fall silent. They no longer hurt.
When I started thinking about this metaphor, I did a little research on what kinds of animals have unusually thick or thin skin. And I discovered that not everything in nature needs a thick skin to do its thing. It turns out that the African spiny mouse has one of the thinnest skins in the world. This skin has a high number of hair follicles. As such, it has less connective tissue, and tears easily. Doesn’t sound so great, but one advantage to this is that it provides a great way to escape predators. When caught, the mouse’s skin will tear away and allow the mouse to escape.
Yeah, gross. And you might be wondering, how does the mouse just go on, then, without its skin??? Well, Mother Nature also gave these mice unusual healing powers. They can regenerate their skin, hair follicles, sweat glands, and cartilage in a few days, without any scarring.
I’ve thought a lot about this. Not everything, not everyone, was meant to have a thick skin.
Like the amazing African spiny mouse, maybe my skin isn’t so thick. Maybe it’s easily torn, but that doesn’t matter as long as I know how to heal it.
I don’t think writers need to have thick skin, like crocodiles or whales. I think it’s okay to be a mouse instead, like me.
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