The Year of 100 Rejections: a personal reflection

Late in 2016, I read an article by Kim Lao on why, as a writer, you should aim for 100 rejections in a year and something shifted inside my head. I felt it go, like when a joint feels strangely tight then, finally, it clicks and feels satisfyingly limber again—that’s what happened in my brain. As a little bit of backstory: I’m a poet and short story writer so, much of my publication options are labour-intensive submissions of individual pieces to literary journals. I’m familiar with rejection and what it can do to my fragile writer’s ego. The main idea behind Lao’s article was that if you are trying so hard for that many rejections, you’re bound to get some acceptances as well.

In the past I have experienced times of great enthusiasm with sending off submissions but I’ve never been able to maintain it. The initial day (or days) of my submitting frenzy is usually followed by a hopeful lull and then by an extended period of dejection as the thank-you-but-no emails ping into my inbox. The resulting funk that I had experienced meant that I failed to resubmit the rejected pieces until the sting of those previous rejections had worn off, until I felt strong enough to be able to do it all over again. I allowed my anxiety over being rejected – and the associated feelings of failure – to stop me from submitting my work more regularly. Sometimes this meant I did not submit anything for three or four months, or five, or seven. None of this is particularly surprising since as psychologist Guy Winch explains in his TED Ideas article, we are just built that way:

‘[O]ur brains are wired to respond that way. When scientists placed people in functional MRI machines and asked them to recall a recent rejection, they discovered something amazing. The same areas of our brain become activated when we experience rejection as when we experience physical pain. That’s why even small rejections hurt more than we think they should, because they elicit literal (albeit, emotional) pain.’

Looking at my submissions log in order to write this piece, I realised that there was even a time when I didn’t submit anything for nearly four years, which is no way to go about being a published writer!

Over the years I have worked on trying to develop a perpetually thicker skin, I have worked on trying to be okay with rejection, and on trying to think of it as a ‘numbers game’ – that is, each rejection gets you closer to an acceptance and publication as suggested by Cassandra Atherton, my colleague and mentor. This last idea came the closest to getting me into the frame of mind that I feel I fully embraced in 2017. But it still wasn’t quite the same as actually ‘collecting rejections’.

Let’s get back how this concept has made a shift within my mind. What happened inside my head the first time I read these ideas reminded me of a stress management session I attended in my final years of secondary school. A number of us were struggling with pressure of the looming final exams so Ms Taylor, a psychology teacher, started a regular lunchtime class to teach us some stress management techniques. During one of these sessions, we discussed issues getting to sleep. Ms Taylor was heavily pregnant at the time and she told us that prior to falling pregnant she had always slept on her stomach. She explained that what she had to do was to trick her brain into allowing her to sleep on her side. To do this she would lie on her back in bed to read or watch television in the evening. After a time she would get uncomfortable and want to roll onto her side but she told herself, ‘I can’t roll onto my side just yet because I want to finish reading this chapter/see the end of this movie and if I roll onto my side, I’ll fall asleep.’ My cynical teenage self thought this was basically rubbish – how could you trick your own brain when it knows it’s being tricked? But that’s precisely what happened as I read about setting ‘rejection goals’. My mind was ripe for the fooling and I felt it enter into the bargain willingly.

The first way the change in my thinking manifested itself was in a more sustained attitude to submitting work. During 2017, I managed to submit work ten months out of twelve, which is something I have never achieved before. I even wrote a few pieces specifically for publications that had particular themes I was inspired by. This is something I hadn’t done before either; it had always felt like investing too much in the submission and, in that way, risking too much disappointment.

When the rejections began rolling in, it did feel different than it had before. I created a formula to count the rejections for me and I maintained a spreadsheet of my totals. I was still disappointed sometimes but the bigger goal of trying to achieve 100 rejections seemed to take the sting out of it. And the good news is, it wasn’t only rejections that came in.

The first hint of success I had was being informed of making the longlist for a publication that I really admire and then I was asked by another publication to consider making some changes to a piece for clarity and they would be happy to reconsider it. This request resulted in achieving publication because I made the suggested changes whereas, in the past, I would have taken this as a rejection and shelved the piece. And so it followed from there. I’m not going to suggest that I had some kind of wildly successful year but I did achieve a better strike rate than I had in the six years prior to 2017. In fact, my rate of success in 2017 was only surpassed by fluking three acceptances in 2010 – a year when I only submitted thirteen pieces in total. In addition to the publications, I was also shortlisted for the Katharine Susannah Prichard Fiction Award and I won the CAL Fiction Prize for a piece I submitted to Meniscus. I think the real proof in the success of this venture is that I plan to do it again next year.

The successes were really heartening for me and they helped me to maintain my drive throughout the year but ‘collecting rejections’ allowed for a shift in the definition of what constitutes success and failure and this made the biggest impact. I didn’t ride the rollercoaster of submission and rejection that I had found myself on before – a strange rollercoaster where there are far more low sections than high. Collecting rejections helped me to avoid the common response to rejection of tending, according to Guy Winch, to ‘become intensely self-critical’. Or as suggested by Antonia Pont, talking myself out of thinking of myself as a ‘real writer’. Antonia’s idea, expressed at a recent panel event, was that when we are rejected by a publication or publisher we can start to think that ‘rejection is bad’ and that we’re ‘not a writer’ when we know from stories about writing practice from Stephen King to J.K. Rowling that this is not that case. Real writers do get rejections; collect them. Make a game out of it and don’t let that insecure part of your ego tell you that they are proof that you’re an imposter because they are, in fact, quite the opposite.

Words by Deb Wain.

Deb Wain is a poet and short story writer who is passionate about the Australian environment. Her work, which has appeared in Meniscus, Verandah, Tincture, and Verity La, is often inspired by the Australian communities in which she has lived.

Imposter! – Making Sense Of, and Combatting, Writer’s Doubt

I don’t think I’m good enough – I don’t think I’ll ever be good enough. I feel like I don’t belong, like an imposter. How long until someone realises that I’m not like them? That I’m not a real writer?

Regardless of whether you’re a beginner or an accomplished writer, chances are that you’ve experienced these kinds of thoughts. Imposter syndrome is incredibly common among creative people and is often the source of much anxiety and dread. It can take several forms, all of which deal with feelings of self-doubt.

‘I’m not as good as…’

Often it can be a matter of feeling inferior, of comparing yourself to the ‘greats’ of the literary world and finding that you just can’t measure up. You find yourself looking at your work as if it ought to be the next Harry Potter and find yourself extremely put-out when it’s not even close. You might not even compare yourself to the prodigies of the creative world. You might find yourself feeling inferior around your circle of writing friends. They seem so confident. You’re certain they’re going to do well – much better than you ever could. You feel like a fake – you’re pretending to be one of them but really you’re just a wannabe.

The best way to overcome this feeling of inferiority is to take a step back and realise that you aren’t the only one who feels like they aren’t good enough. The truth is that even big name authors feel the sting of inadequacy from time to time. It’s also important to remember that being a writer isn’t about being the best of the best – after all, those kinds of distinctions are subjective. What matters is that you create the best work that you can. Your work is uniquely your own and can’t be compared with the work of others. Your success can’t be measured in the same way as someone else’s. Especially when it comes to the unruly and unpredictable world of publishing. Never measure your worth as a writer by things as superficial as how many books you’ve published or how many followers you have on Twitter or Instagram. Look at your own personal milestones and be proud of what you’ve achieved while working your way towards doing even more.

‘I just can’t get it right…’

Another form of doubt is in the quality of your work. You’ll find no harsher critic than yourself, or so the old adage says. It’s not uncommon to find yourself looking at your work and thinking that there is nothing to salvage, that every bit of it is rubbish. But before you delete that manuscript or burn that notebook remember that no work is perfect. Perfectionism is a writer’s worst enemy and, unfortunately, one of their oldest bosom pals. Everything always seems to come together nicely in our heads but then turns into a poor imitation when we see it on the page. Nothing is as poetic, as dramatic or as lush in detail when we write it down – and that’s just plain disheartening.

Many, and I mean many, writers get hung up on their own imperfection. They want their creative project to be perfect! They’ll write and rewrite in the hopes of making their work exactly as they think it should be. While this seems an admirable goal it’s also a sure-fire way to never finish anything. I myself have rewritten the opening chapter of one manuscript fourteen times and, it pains to me say it, it still isn’t perfect. But I have to ask myself if it ever will be, or, if perfection is really a goal worth striving for at all.

Of course the answer is a resounding ‘no!’. Every book you see when you walk into the library or the store is imperfect. At some point the author has realised that their work will never reach perfection and that it doesn’t need to. A good book is a good book. It doesn’t need to be the best thing to ever happen to the English language. It just needs to be something that the author is proud of and that readers can enjoy. It doesn’t hurt to lower your standards if your standards are unachievable. Perfectionism only gets in the way of your work and leaves you feeling like rubbish. Throw that sucker in the bin and write because you love it and because you have a story to tell – a story which, like you, isn’t perfect.

‘Do I even have what it takes?’

There are days when you feel like you were born to write – this is your calling, after all. Then there are days when you think that you are the world’s biggest fraud and, what’s worse, you’ve managed to con even yourself. You don’t seem to have any of the skills or the natural talent of other writers. So what makes you think you have any chance of succeeding at your craft? You might fumble your way through a few workshops, maybe read up on some writing blogs, and find that you are way out of your depth with this whole writing gig.

A good writer always aims to improve their craft, gain new skills and try new things. There is always room for improvement. Everyone starts in a different place with different skills, and different writing strengths and weaknesses. If you feel like you’re at the bottom of the ladder don’t let that stop you from writing. You have to start somewhere to get to where you want to be. Embrace the chance to develop your skills – see it as a welcome challenge rather than something that separates you from the pros.

Doubt is an ever-present scourge of writers everywhere but it can be managed. The most important thing to remember in times of self-doubt are that writing is something you have chosen to do because you enjoy it. It means something to you and what you create should be a product of your passion and determination. There is no bar by which to measure your success compared to others because your own writing experience is unique. There will be times when writing is hard, perhaps even impossible, and nothing seems to work. But remember that there is always time to edit, to improve and to grow as a writer. The journey is just as important as the finished product at the end.

Words by Lisandra Linde

Lisandra is an editor, writer, and Hons. student. She has been an editor and designer for Empire Times Magazine and runs advertising and promotion for Speakeasy Flinders and Quart Shorts. She writes Fantasy and essays and frequently performs at spoken word events around Adelaide. She tweets at @KrestianLullaby