Dealing with Rejection when Writing on Sensitive Topics

I’ve been writing and submitting for a number of years now, and I’ve always assumed that rejection would stop stinging after awhile. I’ve finally arrived at that place – mostly – with my short-form poetry, but it took quite a few publications to get there. Unfortunately, this confidence hasn’t transferred over to my fiction and non-fiction essays. I have far fewer publications in these categories, so I find those rejections harder to take.

The worst rejections are the ones where I’ve laid my soul down on the page and it just isn’t enough. There’s no way to edit the piece to make it better or stronger. I’ve had two of these rejections recently and I’m still smarting from one of them.

The first was for a poem I wrote for an anthology callout on the topic of #MeToo. The editor came back with a kind rejection, but stated that my piece wasn’t specific enough because I didn’t identify my attacker. Given that I was so young when the traumatic incident happened, I simply can’t provide those details.

What she was saying was: this piece isn’t a good fit for what I’m trying to explore here. What I heard was: I don’t believe you. This never happened. And you can’t write.

The second rejection came from a callout for an essay about the experience of being disabled within a given community. Again, this is a touchy subject for me. I have a hidden disability – I’m blind in one eye – and I spent most of my childhood trying to blend into the background and pretend that I was the same as everyone else. Talking about this is a new experience for me.

This editor simply sent a short rejection of my essay: this didn’t work for me. There was no clarification as to why, so I was left to draw my own conclusions. Given my frame of mind on the subject, that was not a good thing. I knew I’d captured the topic. Grammatically, the essay was sound. My life experience simply didn’t work for this person. How can I process that?

I’m still stuck on this rejection. I feel invalidated, like my entire point of view doesn’t even matter.

How can writers get past rejections like these that feel so personal?

Logically, I know it’s not personal to the editors. Maybe this editor had several essays on the same or a similar topic, or no pieces that would fit well alongside it. Maybe the length of the piece didn’t work. In the case of my poetry, my poem simply didn’t capture the theme.

With both rejections, it helped to talk about it. Not angrily with the editors – although that was sorely tempting – but with friends and other writers. One of my poetry friends gently pointed out that the anthology editor had done nothing wrong, but that the topic was simply so volatile for me that I was dumping my anger her way. It helped to hear this message from someone I trust.

Given my strong reactions, I had to ask myself a hard question: Am I comfortable with these pieces if they are published? Because if a single rejection by a reader – and that’s all an editor is at this stage – sent me into this deep of a tailspin, how would I react if either of these pieces were published? What if my work went viral and criticism grew exponentially? In today’s digital age, once your work is out there, there are no guarantees that you can ever fully take it back. You only have control over when you release it into the wild.

For both of these pieces, I found that I simply couldn’t let them lie fallow to rewrite later, as I often do with rejected work. I needed to do something to resolve them and move on.

I decided to tweak the poem and sent it right back out to another prospective market. Happily, it has found a home there and should be published soon.

The essay was trickier. Although part was about my disability, it intertwined with the story of a little-known (in the U.S., at least) fictional character. I couldn’t readily see another market for this, plus I wasn’t sure I could face another rejection. I also realized that I was the right person to cross-reference the essay with relevant links. So, I put it on my blog: maximum creative control, and it got the piece out of my head. You can read it here.

As a writer, how do you deal with rejection when the topic is personal? Let me know in the comments.

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Self-Doubt

I didn’t win.

Recently, I entered a popular humor writing contest. I read the rules multiple times; I made sure that my entry conformed exactly to the guidelines; I was certain that I had captured what the judges were looking for. I was wrong.

My take-away message? I’m a loser and I’m not remotely funny. I even have the contest results to prove it!

Okay, I know that I’m over-reacting, but rejection still stings. When I first started out as a writer, I experienced this feeling of displacement a lot. Every returned manuscript, every rejected pitch, every contest loss, made me doubt what I was doing and wonder if I should throw in the towel.

Experience has taught me that there’s a niche out there for each type of writer; the goal is to keep plugging away and trying new things until you find your place.

I’ve had some success as a poet, but I went through ages of self-doubt before I hit my stride. For years, I tried to write long narrative poems because I thought that was what journal editors wanted. And maybe they do. I’ve never been comfortable writing longer poetry though. I don’t even like reading it. Give me something over ten lines and I want to edit it down into three.

Discovering a vibrant short form poetry community on Twitter was a godsend. I’ve learned to let go of my poems and stop worrying so much about publishing them. Enjoying the process of writing has primed my mental pump.

But it still hurts to lose. Expanding my writing into a new genre has opened up a whole new avenue of self-doubt.

So, I’m going to spend today wallowing in self-pity and chocolate. But tomorrow, I’m going to dust myself off, hold the line, and continue writing. I trust that eventually I will find my place.

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