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The M Dash

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3 Tips to Help You Stay the Course in the Face of Rejection

May 18, 2015

Nobody ever schools you on how to manage the long-term symptoms of rejection. My profession (writer) comes with heavy institutional knowledge about its inevitability, which I’ve experienced firsthand. Over the years, many editors have either completely ignored my carefully researched ideas, or occasionally responded with a polite but detached note of refusal (“thanks, but no thanks”). As I progressed in my career, I realized that my emotional skin, as it were, was getting thicker. The old trope, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” had essentially proved itself to be true.

But thicker skin doesn’t mean it gets any easier to hear “no.” I put so much of myself in everything I wrote. When it was viewed as not good enough, I felt as though I, as a person, was not good enough—and perhaps never would be. The rejections I collected on the way to small triumphs sometimes hardened me to the point where certain personal victories were difficult to enjoy. Sometimes I would reread a story in print that I spent countless hours writing and rewriting, and feel nothing at all—numbness where there should have been pride. I saw only the sentences that could have been better, the things I could have explained more clearly.

Rather than trying to desensitize myself to the inevitable rejections that come with writing, I changed my perspective. I committed myself to learning from my mistakes (of which there were many), to trusting myself, and to taking risks that would allow me to re-find my joy in writing. I also had to learn to accept rejection as just another step in the process, rather than an attack on my identity as a person.

As a writer, I’ll never completely escape rejection. But here are a few pieces of advice that help pick me up when things aren’t going as planned:

1. From Patti Smith: Count on yourself.

“We might ask ourselves, what tools do we have? What can we count on? You can count on yourself. Believe me, your self is your best ally. You know who you are, even when sometimes it becomes a little blurry… just go deeper. You know who you are. You know the right thing to do.”

2. From Jane Austen: Stick to your own style.

“No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.”

3. From Isabel Allende: Be your own taskmaster.

“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too. If she doesn’t show up invited, eventually she just shows up.”

To me, these women are all saying the same thing: Our true measure of success comes from within. Praise and disdain aren’t what sticks. What sticks is the work we’ve finished, and where we go from there. Which is why we must try—even if we fail again and again—to keep making something. We must constantly face our fear of failure, and carry on in spite of it.

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Sharon Steel is a writer living in New York City. She's written about literature, fashion, music and pop culture for many publications, including New York, Bon Appétit, InStyle, and Rolling Stone. Her personal heroes are Jane Austen, Carson McCullers, Lillian Ross, and Frances Hodgson Burnett. Read more of Sharon's posts.

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