I used to perform in a lot of community theater productions. But as I got more serious about writing, finding the time and energy for both writing and theater was tough, so eventually theater fell by the wayside. There are things I miss about theater, and then there are auditions. Auditions suck. Getting up in front of a bunch of people and belting out 32 bars of a show tune in the hopes of being cast in a show? It’s not that dissimilar from submitting your fiction, where you put yourself out there in the hopes that an editor will think your story is a better fit for the role than all those other stories auditioning for a place in the publication.
With fiction, though, there’s a greater remove during the submission/audition process. You don’t have to stand in front of the editor and read the first few paragraphs aloud until they cut you off. You’re spared from seeing the editor’s look of disappointment as a story that started out strongly goes off the rails, or worse yet, the look that says “not impressed” or “oh good god, make it stop.” If you screw up a submission, you’re not standing on stage with the editorial staff there to watch you flounder while your face turns lovely shades of red. Rejection as a writer is far more private.
That privacy, however, can lead to skewed impressions of one’s writing success (or lack thereof). For example, I’ve had several sales and publications that I’m quite thrilled about, and I’ve been squeeing to high heaven about them on Facebook and the like. However, when people see all those squees, it’s easy to forget that they’re not necessarily seeing the entire picture. They see this:
But the reality is this:
Reality includes: that morning I woke up to find four rejections in my inbox; that story that sold, but only after four years and 30+ rejections; that string of form rejections from editors who bought stories from me in the past; that story I really adore yet still can’t find a home for after 20-something submissions; the fact that I’ve gone from a string of great sales to a multi-month dry spell full of rejections, most of them form letters and not of the “your story was close” variety I had been getting before.
In other words, reality kind of sucks. And being as human as the next person (pauses for debate on that topic), I tend to focus on the stuff that makes me look good, not the stuff that sucks. That approach is generally better for one’s self-esteem, but there’s a downside.
A lot of us have a bad habit of judging our worth by comparing ourselves to others—a bad habit that gets even worse when you realize we’re usually comparing ourselves to an idealized version of someone else, not their reality. And even when we know that rationally, a lot of us still can’t stop our irrational selves from wreaking havoc with the comparisons anyway. So when I’m depressed and demoralized on the writing front, expressing those feelings to people who have only seen Idealized Me tends to result in either confused looks (“But it’s going so well, you’ve had all that stuff published!”) or outright dismissal (“You’re doing better than me, so you’re not allowed to complain about anything ever”). I’m guilty of this as well, often reacting to other writers’ expressions of disappointment with a knee-jerk, “What the hell is that guy complaining about? He got published in friggin’ Awesome Magazine I Can’t Seem to Crack.“ But here’s the thing: rejections still happen, and having sales under your belt doesn’t make them any easier. If anything, a bunch of rejections after an awesome sale makes you feel like your writing’s getting worse, or that you were ever only a one-hit wonder who will never sell anything again.
To bring this back to the acting comparison I began with, there are famous actors who no longer have to audition; the roles come to them to accept or turn down. Similarly, some writers reach a level of fame where editors solicit them for books and stories instead of the other way around. But those folks are the exception. So the next time someone is disappointed by rejection and you feel that give-me-a-break-you’re-too-successful-to-complain reaction coming on, remember that most of us still have to audition. And auditions suck.