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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

What Rejection Really Means to Writers

How much pain will you endure to bring your writing into readers’ hands?

Writers don’t have to suffer for our art, but we do have to endure rejection along the way. And rejection hurts. Literally.

Neurological research demonstrates that social exclusion and physical pain trigger the same type of activity in the anterior cingulate and insula. In other words, to the brain’s pain centers, there isn’t a significant difference between getting our fingers slammed in a door or a door slammed in our face.

The Wrong Way to Respond to Rejection

Enter perfectionism and procrastination, two of the most common forms of writing resistance.

After all, no one can reject what they don’t see, what we’re still perfecting, what we just haven’t gotten around to sending out or even gotten around to drafting.

The problem of course is that no can accept, celebrate, appreciate or publish the writing we don’t finish and send out, either.

We need pragmatic ways to mitigate the pain of rejection without eliminating the possibility of appreciation and publication.

First Aid for Rejection

First aid begins with checking the airway and breathing of the injured person. Your first step in giving yourself first aid for rejection is to take a deep breath. Because deep, slow breathing calms the limbic system and helps you stay in the present moment, it’s your best first response whenever you encounter writing resistance or any difficult situation.

Second, reach out and touch someone. Physical touch reduces physical pain. Holding someone’s hand decreases the intensity of pain.

When you get a rejection letter, get a hug as soon as possible. Hugs and other positive touch like a commiserating pat on the back or a massage release oxytocin, a powerful neurotransmitter that makes us feel loved, empathetic, trusting and trusted.

If you can’t get positive physical touch right away, talk to someone who understands and cares about you. Talking in person is better than talking over the phone, which is better than texting or emailing. But texting is a thousand times better than trying to “tough it out” on your own.

Research shows that denying or trying to suppress emotions actually makes you feel worse. Acknowledging and naming an emotion decreases its effect.

According to The Upward Spiral, research participants who viewed photos of emotional facial expressions experienced echoes of the emotions as their own amygdalae activated.

“But when they were asked to name the emotion, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex activated and reduced the emotional amygdala reactivity. In other words, consciously recognizing the emotions reduced their impact.”

What you name the emotions matters tremendously. The physiological response of the anterior cingulate and insula last only a few minutes. After that, the story you tell yourself will either reinforce the experience of pain or ease it.

Telling yourself the rejection is devastating, that it means your writing is fatally flawed, you just don’t have what it takes, this was your last chance and you’re stupid to keep trying, obviously hurts a lot more than recognizing you’re disappointed and sad and reminding yourself that a rejection is an essential part of the process all writers go through (throughout our careers).

Give yourself the same compassion and encouragement you’d give a writing friend.

What Does Rejection Mean?

To a surprisingly large degree, rejection means what you decide it means.

One of my fellow Loft Teaching Artists challenges her students to get as many rejection letters as they can in the six weeks the class meets. Instead of seeing rejection letters as evidence that their writing isn’t good enough, it is evidence that they are acting professionally by sending their work into the world.

This tactic works because it transforms the meaning of rejection into a symbol of inclusion, a rite of passage into the tribe of writers.

Loads of LODs

I prefer the term “letter of declination (LOD)” because it reminds me that agents and editors choose not sign a writer or publish a piece/project for many reasons: the topic isn’t what they’re looking for, the slant or voice isn’t what they’re looking for, they just published or contracted with a writer on a closely related project, their editorial calendar or client list is already full.

Finding the right agent or editor requires approaching many agents or editors. On the other side of the desk, finding a compatible writer with the right writing project requires reading many, many query letters and proposals.

Most of those interactions will not result in a match, just as, sadly, most of the thousands of sea turtles that hatch on a beach never reach the ocean. It’s a matter of numbers. It has nothing to do with the value of the people (or individual turtle) involved.

The more queries you send, the more likely one of your turtles will survive. (I might have mixed the metaphor there.)

Standard sales wisdom is that it takes 100 “no’s” to get 1 “yes.” Every LOD brings us closer to the agent contract or publishing offer we’re looking for.

I’m about to send out a lot of query letters. I’ve researched agents as much as I can to narrow the field. But most of my queries will result in LODs.

The goal is to send out enough queries, get loads of LODs and eventually find the person I want to partner with. My new agent will, in turn, query editors and generate a new load of LODs. If my agent doesn’t get LODs from loads of editors, it means s/he isn’t doing the job.

Let the LODs begin!

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One Comment on “What Rejection Really Means to Writers”

  1. gabe September 15, 2017 at 9:05 pm #

    And courage…we need courage. Thanks for this post. I’m still recovering from a blow to the ego…


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