Someone recently asked me to write a post about recovering from a particularly vicious rejection. I’m not talking about getting a vanilla form rejection or gentle constructive criticism from an editor. I’m talking about a severe literary beating, the kind of comment or review that cuts your guts out and makes it difficult to write a single word for weeks.
Generally, these rejections are memorable because they come early in your career, before you’ve developed the thickened skin that shields a veteran rejectomancer. The most brutal rejection I remember was a simple comment from another writer, but it was the first piece of true and honest criticism I had ever received on my work. It went something like this.
About twenty years ago, my primary writing focus was poetry. I wrote tons of the dark, angsty crap you write in your late teens and early twenties. I had poems about vampires and werewolves and demons and revelatory shit like how it wasn’t Satan’s fault he was kicked out of heaven because god is an asshole. You know, incredibly hard-hitting, original stuff.
I started going to open mike poetry readings in my home town of Modesto, California to read my stuff aloud. I did that for a couple years, and I got to the point where I was running open mike nights at the Barnes & Noble where I worked. When I was transferred to the Redding B&N, I took my poetry show on the road with me, and again when I was transferred to San Diego.
Surprisingly, those open mike nights were very popular, and it wasn’t unusual for fifty people to show up and read their stuff. My poetry was very well received in Modesto and Redding, small towns that maybe didn’t know better, but when I moved to the big city, where real, honest-to-god writers lived, I got a bit of a rude awakening.
I can remember the first couple of open mike nights in San Diego. They weren’t nearly as well attended as those in Modesto and Redding (there’s actually shit to do in San Diego), but the people that did show up were really good. After that first night, I had inklings I was maybe out of my league. My best poems, the epic ones about the emotional pain of lycanthropy or something, didn’t get anything more than polite applause. No one came up to me after the show and told me how much they liked my work. I mean, what the fuck was going on here?
But the death blow was yet to fall. You see, there was another writer working at Barnes & Noble alongside me, a real writer who had published his work, both fiction and poetry, in some fairly prestigious literary magazines. This guy was good. He never came to the open mike events because he usually worked those nights, and I made the colossally stupid mistake of asking him if he’d heard me read my poetry.
He said, “Yep.”
I doubled down on stupid and asked him, “Well, what did you think?”
I don’t remember exactly what he said (that kind of trauma is hard to recall clearly), but I remember the word “amateurish” was used more than once, and he identified a laundry list of literary sins in my poetry. To that point, I had never had my work reviewed by someone who a) actually knew what the fuck they were talking about and b) didn’t give two shits if I got the hurt feels afterward.
To say I was crushed is like saying my wife’s staunchly conservative grandfather has a few problems with Barack Obama. I was fucking devastated. I had been built up to believe my work was great by folks who meant well but just didn’t have the literary chops to properly review it. Now don’t get me wrong, this coworker wasn’t trying to be an asshole—I asked him for his opinion—and everything he said was spot on. He just had no idea that I was small-city rube who’d never had any real objective criticism. He actually did say some good things about my work, too. I just can’t recall a single one of them.
I couldn’t write a thing for a month after that. Every time I picked up the pen and tried to start a new poem, I felt nauseous, like I needed to begin by titling each piece “Amateurish.” It took me that month to really think about what this guy had said, and in the end, I had to come to grips with the fact that my work . . . well, needed work. I also realized this guy didn’t say I was hopeless, and, hey, there were people who did like what I was writing.
I assimilated his critique—thinking back, it was actually pretty cool of him to break it all down for me like that—and I started revising. My work improved, and I began to really understand the things he’d told me. Then I went in search of more advice. During this time (the practically antediluvian year of 1998), the Internet wasn’t what it is today, so I got actual physical books on writing and read them cover to cover. All of this led to me summoning up the courage to start submitting my poetry to magazines (I’d been too afraid to do that previously). And what do you know? I got a couple published.
My poetry writing days are long behind me, but that first honest critique of my work sticks with me, both the pain it caused me and the good things I learned from it. So here are a couple of things to keep in mind when you get one of those eviscerating reviews or comments:
- The most cutting and brutal criticism can actually help you. For reals. The guy who reviewed my poetry all those years ago wrecked me, but he also laid down some serious wisdom. It took me some time to get over the pain of having the truth dumped on my head like a sack of hammers, but when I did, I absorbed what he said, and I improved. The truth can be a mean motherfucker, but once the pain fades a little, learn from it and get better.
- It’s an opinion. Even if it’s an informed opinion, that doesn’t make it gospel. It’s also important to realize that sometimes reviews and comments about your work don’t come from the most objective places. People sometimes say things in biting and shitty ways just to be biting and shitty (I hear this is popular on the internet). In the end, a comment like, “You suck!” is painful but should probably be ignored. You can’t exactly learn anything from it.
- Suck it up. Yeah, I know, easier said than done, but if your work is going to be out there for public consumption, you have to toughen up. The unavoidable truth is the criticism never ends; in fact, it simply increases the more you write and publish. More people reading your work increases the odds someone is not going to like it. You can’t avoid it, you can’t hide from it, and you absolutely cannot let it keep you from writing. If you’ve already had some success, even a little, that means there are people who do like your work. Focus on that, and try and ignore the comments that aren’t constructive.
- Start tracking your rejectomancer experience points. Hey, you’ll be getting better at something no matter how much you fail.
I hope my little tale of woe has held your interest. Maybe you even found a tiny piece of useful advice in the whole rambling mess.
Got a sad rejection story of your own? Let’s group hug it out in the comments.