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.