When rejection letters hurt

I joke with my students that they should start submitting their work for publication from the first day of their first year at uni. Lots of them ask me why and I explain that, unlike our peers in education, or medicine, or law, we don’t need a piece of paper to be able to start working in the field they’ve chosen to pursue. “But,” I always say, “you also need to submit because you’ve signed up for a life of rejection and the sooner you start racking up the rejection letters/emails, the sooner you can start understanding what it’s like to be a real, working writer.”

Pessimistic? Yes. Realistic? Absolutely.

I try to teach them that most of the time, rejections are fine. You have a go at submitting with the understanding that the pool is very large and the chances are very slim. Often, it doesn’t mean that your work isn’t good, it just means it’s not right for that journal/prize/publisher/agent at that time. It’s not what the market is looking for, so you pick yourself up, mark it off your submission tracker, do some rewrites, and send it onto the next place. After ten years of being a working (and sometimes, though infrequently published) writer, my write/edit/submit cycle is so finely tuned that sometimes I sweat more on rejections than acceptances. This is so that my work can be released from ‘contract’ and can be sent elsewhere. Often, the rejection is a relief because you can move on.

But sometimes, being rejected really fucking sucks.

Last year was my best writing year ever because one of three manuscripts I’ve been endlessly writing, rewriting, and submitting for almost ten years got shortlisted for the Unpublished Indigenous Writer – David Unaipon Award at the Queensland Literary Awards. This was a BIG DEAL because this manuscript has had a long history of being a ‘close, but not quite’ kind of a book.

When the shortlisting came through, I worked out a plan. It wouldn’t be terrible if I didn’t win: the awards had first right of refusal for a few months and if they didn’t take it, I could use the fact that I was shortlisted in pitching the work to agents and publishers directly. Every time I tried to downplay the shortlisting, someone would tell me that this was a VERY GOOD THING and that I should FEEL VERY PROUD (I’m shouting, because people did kind of shout this at me every time, as though raised voices would make me believe them).

I entered the Unaipon Award with no expectation that I would win or even be shortlisted, so I did feel proud of myself for being shortlisted, and I did allow myself to feel a bit hopeful that one day, this book which I believe in so much, would be published. It’s why when I did a little more work on the story and sent it into another competition instead of doing the agent and publisher pitching circuit that I’d originally planned, I  made the decision to be positive. ‘This, is a good book,’ I said to myself as I hit the submit button. ‘This is a much better story than it was and you have a good chance.

My normal routine is to expect to be rejected because it hurts less when the rejection comes. I know the odds and I’ve heard the stories about how many times writers like JK Rowling, Stephen King, and even my friend Candice Fox, were rejected before they got that one big acceptance that changed everything. Knowing the odds makes expecting rejection feel like the right approach so that the few times you do get accepted feel amazing. So, most of the time, I’m so positive that I won’t get accepted that I’ve dealt with the pain before the rejection pops up in my inbox.

But changing my approach and being positive about my submissions meant that instead of trying to decide what rewrites I needed to do and where I could possibly submit my work once the rejection arrived, I allowed myself to imagine what it would be like if I did win some of these big prizes. For a little while, it was good. I felt good in meetings with my mentors; I felt great standing up in front of my classes and teaching students about being a writer. I felt a quiet kind of smugness — not completely sure I’d win, but confident that I had a chance.

And then by a fluke or a mistake, I was invited to the announcement ceremony for this competition. I’d entered this one in the past with other books and had never been invited to the announcement, so a little bit more hope crept in. A few days later I unexpectedly won an unrelated competitive scholarship at uni and my mentor said: ‘Mel, this is your year.’ It became a mantra and I let myself believe that part of 2019 being my year would also include winning this prize. It didn’t take long to go from quietly hopeful to carried away: in my own head, I’d won it.

Announcements are never made when you expect them to be. I keep a submissions tracker for every piece of writing I submit, and if the entry details have included an announcement date or said when the winners will be published or the unsuccessful authors would be notified, I write it down. Every time I go to send a new piece out, I go through my tracker to check what I’ve got ready and what’s out. If something I’ve got out might be announced soon, I get anxious and start checking my email every five minutes, butterflies in my stomach every time a new message appears. If the due date passes, I go a little but nuts and start doing research: when was this prize announced last year? When are they planning on publishing the winners? How was the announcement made last year? Sometimes, things take longer to assess than they’d been expecting and they publish little notes on the FAQ pages of their websites. If this is the case and I’ve got a story or a manuscript in, you can bet I’ve found this fine print the minute it’s arrived on the website.

And then, in the moment I stop looking, the announcement arrives.

This one came in the middle of my work day and I had choke back tears as realisation settled over me. All the positivity I had carried over the few months my work was being assessed disappeared. And it wasn’t just the hope I had for that piece, it was the hope I’d had for several pieces of writing I had out in the world at the time. It really, really hurt.

It’s hard for me to come to the point here; to have some lesson about the writing life that others in my situation can stumble over in a Google search and find some comfort and advice in. This rejection was only a week ago and it still smarts and I’m still trying to work out if being positive is what made it hurt so much, or if it was the unfortunate way things unfolded with the early invitation to the ceremony, or my own post-shortlist cockiness, I don’t know.

But what I do know is that after I’d cried and wallowed for a day and had a whinge to some writers I know, the next day I went to my computer and finished working on a fellowship application that I’d been writing a week before. I was hurt and I wanted to go away and lick my wounds for a bit, but that’s not how this thing works. Being an emerging writer is a seemingly endless cycle of submissions, rejections, hope, sadness, and, hopefully, the occasional acceptance. I can’t imagine a life where I don’t write, and if I want to write and be read, then even though some rejections knock me down, I’m going to keep showing up.


2 thoughts on “When rejection letters hurt”

  1. Hi Mel,
    You’ve summed up the process so beautifully and poignantly. I too am committed to this at time hurtful and frustrating process. Consistent and persevering is my motto. I just wrote my own little blog post last week regarding my rejection process over at http://www.joannaberesford.com
    I too am teaching in Australia. All the best for your future writing success.

  2. Hi Jo, thanks for stopping by (and I’ll be sure to check out your blog too). It really is about consistency and perseverance: the moments where you’ve persevered and it comes through make all those rejections feel worthwhile.

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