It’s the moment every writer knows and dreads. When I finally open the email, it’s just as I feared. My essay wasn’t chosen; try again next time.
No matter how many times this happens – and for writers and artists, it happens a lot – I still feel a swirl of emotion. Depending on how much I wanted an acceptance, I’m by turns frustrated, disappointed, or angry.
If you’ve received such a rejection, then you know the feeling. It’s as though you’ve offered your best wine to an honored guest, only to see them sniff the glass and turn away. No one likes to pour out their best – that which cost them a great deal – and see it left untouched.
But the important point to remember is this: you have a choice to make.
Option one is to pretend that the rejection didn’t hurt. You can stuff the pain, opting to charge ahead with whatever is next on your list. Option two is to shut down. You can let it get to you, allowing this one rejection to undermine everything you do. Neither is ideal.
When you ignore grief, it boomerangs back. Ignore it again, and you’ll find yourself numbing everything, including the emotions that bring your work to life. You may continue to produce, but your work will feel hollow. Given enough time, you’ll likely turn to option two.
But when you wallow in self-pity, you let one no rob you of every yes you might have received had you persevered. In both cases, you deprive others of your contribution.
Fortunately, there’s a third option: going forward even as you acknowledge the pain. It means writing as the tears fall. It means coaching yourself, gently: This is a setback, but this isn’t the end of the story.
But where do you find strength to carry on when your confidence is shaken? To answer that, we need to talk about figure skating. Specifically, we need to consider the harness that skaters use when they’re learning a new jump.
When I skated competitively, I loved and feared this harness. When it was time to try a new jump, my coach would help me fasten myself into the contraption. He’d clip the harness to a simple pulley system. Then, I’d give a single axel a try, with my coach holding the rope. If I didn’t get enough height, he’d pull on the rope to give me a boost.
I loved the harness for the same reasons that every skater loved it: fewer bruises, fewer instances of slamming down on the ice. The harness meant reassurance, safety, and protection. It was our stepping stone, giving us time to build the confidence necessary for big jumps.
But stepping into the harness was terrifying, too, because meant taking our skating to the next level. It meant fewer excuses, because when we agreed to the harness, we committed to try – really try – for that next jump. After all, our coaches were only human; they could only pull that rope and save us so many times.
For me, writing a new piece after receiving a rejection is akin to trying a jump after a bad fall. It’s only right that I should practice in my ‘harness’ for a while … that I should go over my initial drafts alone, or with one supportive friend. It’s only natural to want a space of safety.
But there comes a time when I must stop holding on to privacy and send out my work, or press publish here. And there comes a time when we must leave our ‘harnesses’ behind and fly free.
I wish I could tell you that this is an easy step to take, but it isn’t. In fact, it’s the hardest part of the whole process.
Once a skater has mastered a jump in the (relative) safety of the harness … once a writer has put in the time and effort to attain excellence … well, after that, the battle is in the mind.
In everything we do, it’s our thoughts that have the most potential to hold us back.
I wish I could tell you that the time and effort and energy you put in to learning how to do what you love will protect you against rejections. In the same way, I used to wish that stepping out of that harness meant that I was finished with falling forever.
But neither of those things are true. Olympic-level skaters still fall. They’ve devoted years to perfecting their jumps, spins, and footwork, but even so, there’s no guarantee that they’ll skate a clean program in competition.
This is reality. Great skaters don’t always receive medals, and talented writers don’t always receive acceptances.
The good news is, you aren’t powerless. You can show up and be faithful to your work, putting in the time and focused effort it takes to achieve mastery. You can set yourself up so that, when an opportunity arises, you’ll be ready to seize it.
I can’t promise you success. No one can. But what I can promise is that the effort itself will change you. For every time you fall, you will rise up a slightly different person. For every time you take a chance in pursuit of your dream, you will gain just a bit more bravery, just a touch more tenacity.
You may not always be able to see these transformations. You may not always have faith in yourself. But that’s just your mind talking, the same mind that would have you believe that you can’t fly, that you can’t land that axel alone even after you’ve nailed it a dozen times in the harness.
When it comes to assessing whether you have what it takes to be whatever it is you want to be, your mind is not your most reliable source. If you want to know the answer to your question – do I have what it takes? – you have to look somewhere else.
Don’t go up into your head. Go down, down into your heart, down into the feel of your blades on the ice. Go down into the motivation that gets you out of bed at 5am to skate before school.
Go down into the reason you write even when your work has just been rejected. Go down into the rhythm of your hands tapping on the keyboard, into the knowledge you’ve always carried with you.
And once you’re in that space, stay. Stay with what led you to start jumping and writing and trying in the first place. Stay with yourself, with the person you’re becoming.
Don’t let anything stop you from loving what you love, from giving what you have to give.
What helps you carry on after a rejection? Join the conversation in the comments below!
Stories around the Web, July 2014:
NEW! Guest post at Think Simple Now: The Art of Detachment & Surrender
Friends, just a heads-up that our publishing schedule is going to shift in the weeks ahead. Rather than publishing every week, I’m going to publish 1-2 times per month, in order to offer the best possible posts for you.