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Too Legit to Quit: How to Use Rejection As Fuel for Your "Career" As a Struggling Writer

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Do you have an over-active imagination?

Do you enjoy trying to crack email addresses so you can communicate with people you don't actually know?

Does humiliation roll off your back like a run-away gumball on a grocery store floor?

Do you refuse to let voices of "reason" discourage you from following your destiny?

If you answered "yes" to three or more of the above questions, I have good news: Stalking celebrities is not your only career option! Rather than expending fruitless effort and experiencing endless rejection then landing in a jail cell, you can do the same thing then retire into poverty instead! Yes, YOU may have a future as a struggling writer!

Interested? Then allow me to let you in on a little secret that will prevent you from losing huge chunks of your self-esteem while you make your way down this bumpy "career" path. As a struggling writer, the only thing that you are guaranteed to get a ton of is rejection. Think of it as part of the natural order of things. It's always darkest before the dawn; and as a struggling writer your icebox will always be empty while your inbox will always be overflowing with rejection letters.

Because rejection will be the only product in your life that will be both consistent and plentiful, the key to survival as a struggling writer is to transform rejection into a commodity. If you can convert all of that rejection into motivation to keep on writing, you will be able to write all the way up to your indigent burial.

Intimidated by my brilliance? Don't be. I wasn't always this wise. At first I wrote in my spare time. But it didn't take long for me to realize that my full-time job was holding me back. If I was at all serious about being a struggling writer, I had to dedicate a lot more of my time to actually struggling. So, I quit my job and committed myself to it full time.

My efforts paid off almost immediately and the rejections started pouring in. I realized if I didn't figure out how to cope with the avalanche of, um, feedback, I would end up so shaken that I wouldn't be able to put together an outfit, let alone a sentence.

Eventually, I developed a foolproof strategy to protect my ego and put all that rejection to good use. In the interest of sparing other struggling writers painful trial and error, I've decided to share my steps to success. (And as used herein, the term "success" means being able to forage enough food from one day to the next.) The steps below might not lead to a happily ever after ending, but they should at least keep you from barreling down Sylvia Plath's path.

Step One: You say multiple personality disorder; I say alter ego. The very first thing you need to do is create some distance between you and your writing. I stole this straight out of the playbook of my virtual husband Stephen Colbert. Just as there is Stephen Colbert the character and Stephen Colbert the person, there needs to be your writer-self and your personal-self.

Because your writer-self is a character of your own creation, you can give her attributes that your personal-self might not possess -- like incredibly thick skin and a sense of humor. Plus, viewing your writer-self as a separate character will protect your ego from the fear of embarrassment or criticism -- powerful kryptonite that can undermine your ability to write.

Step Two: Focus on the positive. My boyfriend marvels at how I can see "acceptance in rejection" when it comes to my writing, but find "rejection in acceptance" in our relationship. By choosing to focus on the positive, I see that a compliment to my writer-self rather than criticism of my personal-self.

Let's say I get a rejection letter that says, "Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately, it is not a fit for our publication. We wish you success with this and all of your future projects." Rather than dwelling on negative words like "unfortunately" or "not a fit," I instead focus to positive words "Thank you" and "success" and "future." As a result, the take-away message from the letter is this editor thinks I have a successful future. My self-esteem dodges a bullet and I have a boost of encouragement to keep me writing until the next wave of rejection letters rolls in!

Step Three: Know what you're dealing with. A rattlesnake and a stick of dynamite both present dangers. But what you do to protect yourself from one would be ineffective against the other. Along those same lines, correctly identifying each rejection is essential to defusing its potential to obliterate your self-esteem.
The Hard No. I once submitted a book proposal to an agent who in turn sent me a rejection letter that didn't leave the door open at all. Not an "I like the plot, but the characters need to be better developed;" Not even a "Thanks, but no thanks." Just a "No."

I didn't try to talk her out of her decision, but I did keep her on my email distribution list for other projects I was working on. It didn't take long for her to email me back requesting to be removed from my distribution list.

If you get a hard no, take it for what it is. After all, no means no. But rather than viewing it as some sort of message that your writing sucks and no one will ever want to publish any of it, consider it a time- and energy-saving favor. By leveling with you, that editor just spared you the trouble of sending her submissions in the future. Remove her from your list and move on. Remember, every no gets you closer to a yes.

The Black Hole. The only thing you might get more of than rejections is complete silence. Some struggling writers view no response at all as the coldest form of rejection. But I think no news is actually good news. I view silence as a mandate to follow up as well as an invitation to submit more work in the future. Hey, they didn't say no, right? So, full speed ahead -- unless or until you get a hard no.

The Hot and Cold. This is when you get encouraging engagement followed by complete silence. This can be the trickiest rejection to read as well as the toughest one to take. Is she busy? Did you say something to tick her off? Are your emails getting caught in her spam filter? Did your 27 emails in the last 36 hours come off as maniacal rather than motivated?

Who knows? You're a writer, not a mind reader.

This happened to me with Ira Glass of This American Life. For years I would submit essays and never hear anything back. Then one time I got a generic response from the person in charge of submissions that said something like this: "Thank you for your submission. We'll get back to you if we like it. If you never hear from us again, that means we're busy and not interested."

I was thrilled to receive this email! Not because of what it said, but because it came from an actual person rather than generic "storypitch@thislife.org." I analyzed her name and email address and made an educated guess at what Ira Glass's email address would be. The next time I had a story to submit, I emailed it directly to what I thought might be Ira's email. Much to my surprise, I got the following reply from Ira himself:

"What is this? Is this a contribution or what?"

I couldn't believe it! This was all the encouragement I needed. Ira Glass had actually read my email -- and written a nine word reply! From that point on, I emailed him directly. I sent him submissions, questions, comments on his shows, you name it. When he came to town to do a show, I went.

I never heard another word from him after that initial email, but that was okay. I thought of him as my silent muse. But the after glow from his nine word email didn't last forever. And eventually the game of cat and mouse wasn't fun anymore. So, I moved on.

The bottom line is this: Use a Hot and Cold rejection as an opportunity to hone your skills. Let your imagination run wild with all the different possibilities of why the editor might be sending mixed message. Use those ideas as fodder for your writing. If and when the activity becomes boring or even depressing rather than motivating, move on.

The Dis. This is when you get a response that makes it clear that you are not being taken that seriously. The Dis is motivational gold. It is a license to have fun as well as solid push to keep you writing.

Recently a staffer at a local nonprofit contacted me about writing a publicity piece on a celebrity author who was coming to town to do a book signing and fundraiser for the organization. I was even offered a VIP ticket and a chance to interview the author. The staffer and I emailed back and forth about what kind of piece I might do, and she was going to fly my idea by the author's handler and get back to me.

A few days later, I got an email from the staffer that said, "Christina is the one that Joanie [not her real name] thinks isn't legit." Upon reading this, two questions immediately popped into my head: 1. Who is Joanie? And 2. Who still uses the word "legit?" My powers of deductive reasoning led me to these answers: 1. Joanie was the author's handler. 2. This email was sent to me by mistake. (I still don't know who still uses the word "legit.")

Although I didn't end up doing the interview, this story does have a happy ending. Joanie's dis, my love for that particular nonprofit, and my inability to resist a good joke all blended together to make some powerful motivational fuel. I bought my own ticket to the book signing and asked the author -- who was completely unaware of all the back and forth -- for a personalized inscription which I had already thought out, and she happily obliged.

The inscription went something like this: "To Christina, a totally legit writer."

I emailed a photo of the inscription to the staffer at the nonprofit and asked her to please forward it to Joanie. I added something like, "This should answer her question."

The next morning I was invited by my friends at the nonprofit to join a small group of folks who were having lunch with the author. Maybe I would have been invited anyway, but I suspect the invitation was an attempt to smooth things over after the email gaffe.

I could have gotten mad or hurt over the accidental email, but because I didn't three great things came from that Dis: 1. I got a new motivational muse. (So long, Ira! Hello, Joanie!) 2. I supported my favorite nonprofit by buying a ticket to the fundraiser. 3. I had lunch with the author. That's a pretty good return on a rejection.

The Soul Crusher. A couple of years ago, an essay I submitted for consideration to a magazine wasn't just rejected, it was shredded.

But don't just take my word for it. See for yourself from the excerpt below:

"[T]his is not the kind of material we seek to publish. For one thing, memoirs and personal essays that feel essential to the writer don't necessarily turn on anything critical for the reader. The art is in making one's personal crisis a powerful tale with more universal themes that grip the reader emotionally. Drama, excitement, pacing of revelation and a glimpse into one's emotional interior are all elements that are missing from your account. Good luck in placing your articles elsewhere."

This was the harshest rejection I had ever received and it stung. And here's the best part: the magazine was Psychology Today.

Rather than look past the harsh delivery and evaluate the criticism to see if there was anything I could learn from it, I decided the best therapy for my wounded ego would be to send a reply that parodied the editor's rejection.

It went something like this:

This is not the kind of rejection email I normally receive. For one thing, most rejection emails seek to find at least one nice thing to say about the submission -- even if it is just a compliment about the font style I selected. The art is in recognizing that there is actually a person on the receiving end of the rejection email, to at least pretend that you give a flip that the rejection is a commentary on their work, and to further attempt to convey that you do not believe that the writer is a talentless simpleton -- all elements that are missing from your email. Good luck with your future rejections of other writers.

That led to an "I know you are but what am I" back and forth that was as satisfying and fun as it was immature and unprofessional.

Although the exchange felt good at the time, that gratification came at a price. Not only did I shortchange myself out of the opportunity to improve my writing by taking the criticism to heart, I burned a bridge to the ground in the process.

In aftermath of that calamity, I realized that there were only a finite number of publications to submit my work to. If I alienated editors at each one, it wouldn't take long for me to have no choice but to start my own magazine. And since I quit my job, I didn't really have the funds for that.

If you get a soul-crushing rejection, put on your thick skin, then look past the delivery and see if there is any validity to the criticism. View it as an opportunity to decide if you are going to tweak your writing in response to the feedback or hold firm to your style despite it. Whichever you choose, your writing will benefit as a result of this analysis.

So remember, rejections aren't bad. Like paychecks to the employed, rejections serve as regular confirmation that you are still a struggling writer. Take them seriously enough to make any adjustments that are warranted. But don't let them override your own sense of who you are and how you write.

If you follow my advice, the rejections you receive will serve as your inspiration to keep writing -- not so that you can show others that they were wrong, but rather to prove to yourself that you were right. And now that you are armed with this knowledge, not even rock bottom is the limit for your struggling writing career.