Sunday, March 27, 2011

Lessons in Rejection….Life lessons I learnt from my collection of rejection letters

Being rejected is an intrinsic part of the human experience. Whether it's being denied a treat when we were kids, to being turned down by the object of our affection in school, to not getting into the college we wanted, not getting the job, not getting the promotion, not getting credit…I could go on and on, but you get the picture, don't you? We all know what being rejected feels like, and in ways big and small, we face rejection every day. However, what makes a writer's life unique is that a writer faces rejection hundreds of times more than the average person. Simply because a writer has to deal with that dreaded part of becoming a published author- rejection letters.

It's a myth that bestselling authors are somehow immune to this. Margaret Mitchell got 38 rejections before a publisher bought Gone with the Wind. Stephen King had so many that he put the bundle up on a spike in his room. For the most part, what the new writer gets is a `form' rejection letter, an impersonal, sterile, often two or three- line rejection of all the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into a book. The rare editor sends a personal note, and an even rarer breed actually offers suggestions to improve the work before re-submitting. When you're starting out in your writing career, getting a rejection letter can be a nerve-wracking experience. There's nothing impersonal about it for the writer- it's a simple and often brutal rejection of one's labour of love. It crushes egos and makes one really question oneself. I've had more than my fair share of rejection letters, and now I think I'm old (was about to add `and wise' but then realized that adjective should not be loosely used, especially in my case!) enough to look back and realize that while the frequent rejection may be tough to deal with at the time, those rejection letters have taught me several lessons. Lessons that have made me a better writer, and a better person.

Am sharing those with you. Even if you've never written anything other than a shopping list and never received a rejection letter in your life, I think these lessons hold relevance for a lot of us, no matter what we do with our lives.

1. Balance
The first lesson is something we often forget. No matter how important something seems at the time (and selling the first novel is about as important as it gets to an aspiring author), and no matter how hard rejection in it is, we always need to remember that our lives don't revolve around that one thing. There are other things that could give us joy and support, if only we looked. So when my first novel was not going anywhere, I moped about in near-depression for some time, but then realized all the wonderful things I was lucky enough to have- a very supportive and loving wife, a job I liked, some good friends; and used all of them as a support system while I kept at it. It's the same even if you don't write- a bad meeting or a promotion delayed at work can seem crushing, but don't bring let that disappointment darken other things in your life- your family, your kids, your hobbies. Instead, use them to brighten your mood and give you strength while you deal with that rejection.

2. Empathy
When I got `form' rejection letters, I would curse the Editors of big publishing houses for being heartless creatures, sitting in their ivory towers, passing judgements on writers without even having the decency to tell them why their work was being rejected. That was till I was first published by one of the `Big 6'- Random House. I realized then that their Editors, PR people and others were not faceless ogres but perfectly decent, nice people. People with families. People with jobs to do. That was when I got some insights into why they send out those `form' letters. They deal with huge numbers of submissions every day, and especially in a tough economic environment, with pressures on the bottom line, they, like any other business, prioritize their proven `brands'- their current list of bestsellers, and so betting on new, unknown authors is a big risk. I didn't have to like it, but at least it made sense. I then put myself in a different context where I perhaps do the same. In my job, I interview perhaps 50 or more people every year, with the ability to decide whether we offer them a job or not. Those are all young, eager, smart people, and yet I have to reject several of them. In a way, to them, I am no different from the Editor sending a `form' rejection letter to a new writer. My writing experience has made this an integral part of my values- I always try and put myself in the other person's shoes before I judge anyone.

3. Humility
As a young writer, it's tempting to rail against the rejection and say that the Editor just didn't see the brilliance of the writing or the ingenious plot. The harsh reality is that most early work is rejected because it actually is not competitive enough. I still remember one of my early rejection letters was not a `form' letter, but a very personal letter from the Editor saying she saw potential in the idea but the characters were not fleshed out enough. I took it very personally, and refused to act on it. A couple of years later, when there was enough distance between the experience, I went back to the letter and to my manuscript and saw indeed that what at that time had seemed a perfect submission, now with more writing experience behind me, seemed inadequate, and the Editor had been spot on. I revised the work, and the novel is now in it's third print run. Lesson learnt for me- if only I had taken it to heart a couple of years earlier. When you get rejected, don't assume the other person is missing something, have the humility to introspect and see what you can do better.

4. Persistence
No writer, no matter how famous he/she may be today, would have gotten there unless they had persisted through early rejections. There's a lesson there for all of us, one which I have tried to bring to life in my own way. I've learnt to focus not on the setbacks, but on the ultimate end goal I want to get to, so that I don't get bogged down by disappointment, but keep going towards my goal. I used to keep my rejection letters. A few years ago, I threw them all away. There's nothing to be gained by reliving disappointment. Instead what I do now is that whenever I start work on a new book, I make a draft (and it is usually pretty ugly, given how well I draw) cover with the title and my name on it and stick it next to my bed. When I go to bed, and wake up, the thing I see is what the book will look like when it's published, and not just ideas in my head or on my computer. There may be setbacks along the way, but as long as I keep focused on that end, it does wonders for motivation and the ability to keep going. I've learnt to use the same thinking (of visualizing success) in other aspects of my life- including my day job.

As I said, we all face rejection, perhaps writers face it more often than others, and we all learn our lessons from it. Nowadays, I don't get `form' rejection letters, not because I don't get rejected at times, but because I have a great agent who deals with publishers and then passes on the bad news in a very nice way. But the same lessons keep me going as a writer, and I realize, have helped shape who I am as a person.

As I was thinking of this, my three year old son was calling me to watch his cartoon with him. I started saying `no' and then looking at the disappointment on his face, realized I was giving him a `form' rejection letter. I told him Daddy had some work to finish and I would be with him in five minutes. He smiled back at me. As soon as I press 'Publish' on this post, I'm going to go over and watch Mickey with him, thanking my rejection letters once again for yet another lesson in rejection.

Keep reading, and I'll keep writing.