Have you ever felt super excited about doing a Thing, only to suddenly find yourself crippled by unexpected anxiety, uncertainty and a strong urge to run away and hide? I don’t just mean a physical Thing, but also a creative or artistic one.
Self-rejection is the nasty little brother of the Imposter Syndrome Gremlin, and he will take every damn chance he can to put a kibosh on your plans. As a writer, that usually takes the form of self-rejecting when sending out stories for submissions or when querying publishers. I don’t believe anyone wants to self-reject and succumb to the Gremlins, it’s more that sometimes the Gremlins become a little too hard to beat.
The other month I saw an amazing place to submit a short story — an anthology already supported by some outstanding authors and with a top-notch publishing team. My dark little writer’s heart skipped a beat, and on an impulse, I sat down and started to write.
What came out was a good story, I knew it was, and I even managed to freak myself out with the monster I made up. Sure, it wasn’t Paul Tremblay or Josh Malerman standard (two very, very good writers who I admire) but it was fun and creepy and twisted. I liked it.
Three days later I had convinced myself my story was absolute garbage, I would be an idiot for sending it, and every editor who read it would slap their thighs and point and laugh, and ask themselves, “Why on Earth did she think we would accept that piece of shit?!” The Imposter Syndrome Gremlin was clearly working his horrible magic… again. A friend of mine asked me if I’d sent the story, and I told her, “No, there’s zero chance of it being accepted.” She replied, “There’s only ever zero chance if you don’t send it.”
I wanted to argue, I really did, but I knew straight away that she was right. What exactly was stopping me? Fear of failure? Fear of making a fool of myself? Maybe even some peculiar fear of actually being accepted and not knowing how to handle that?! I bashed out a cover letter, formatted it how they needed and hit SEND on the email.
And I felt so sick! I always feel anxious after I submit anything, but this was a whole new level, and I got to thinking, wow, what was it about this particular sub that had got me into such a state?
Any writer knows that rejections are an unfortunate but common part of writing, especially if we are sending our words out into the wild. Most of us either end up developing walrus-thick skins in response, or we give up. As my dear Nana would have said, “It’s not how many times you fall that matters, it’s how many times you get back up and try again.” Giving up is never an option for me, I really am just that damn stubborn. Self-rejection, however, is a tricky one. To get over it I often have to properly dissect the reasons why I’m wavering, and turn that narrative completely around.
Here’s some of my Problem/Solution examples.
Problem: I don’t feel like this piece of work is very good.
Solution: Why not? Is there an obvious problem or something you can fix or change in some way? Could you polish it a little more or get feedback from someone you trust? Do what you can to make it shine then let it go. Remember: striving for perfection is like chasing the horizon.
Problem: There are lots of people submitting, My work won’t even get looked at anyway.
Solution: It definitely won’t get looked at it if you don’t send it. You have nothing to lose. Write a good covering letter and do what you can to make it stand out, take a deep breath and hit send.
Problem: Everyone else is a much higher calibre of writer than I am.
Solution: See solution to Problem 1. Also, how do you know that? Don’t assume anything about your talent — you will always discover greater and lesser persons than yourself in every aspect of your life. Comparisons are not always useful unless you’re using them as a springboard to improve.
Problem: This is a lot of effort and I’m not sure if it’s worth my time.
Solution: Only you can answer that. If you genuinely think it’s going to take up too much time and energy for little return, that’s a reasonable concern. But be honest, if you’re using time and effort as an excuse to not do something, don’t do that. Almost everything good takes time and effort, writing is no exception.
Problem: I’m submitting all the time and getting lots of rejections. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong and I feel like giving up!
Solution: Find a writer you really like or enjoy and study how they write. Ask yourself why you like what they do; what do they do differently to you; and how can you emulate that in your own style? Avid readers are great writers — I’m not here to argue, it’s a fact. Also, the more you write, the better you’ll get. Unfortunately, very few of us are born with that Brilliant Debut Novel gene. we have to work at it. Only you know how much work you are prepared to put in.
Whatever you write and however often you do it, first and foremost if you write, you are a writer. Start calling yourself that. See how the word feels. Introduce yourself to people as a writer. Own that shit.
Above all, don’t let the Self-Rejection Gremlin join forces with his Imposter Syndrome brother. If you want to imagine anyone pointing and laughing at you, telling you that you are no good or don’t belong, imagine them… and think about how good it feels to blow those little bastards to smithereens.
Finally, here’s a little reminder of a piece I wrote way back in January.
Write the damn story.
What are you waiting for?
No, you don’t need permission from anyone.
If you’re doubting yourself because you don’t think you have the talent, that’s okay. Maybe you don’t… yet.
But you have passion, and often that’s better.
You can learn the craft, but first you have to put the effort in.
You won’t ever improve if you don’t try.
The first draft is going to suck.
Yes, really, really suck.
It’s going to be the worst story you will ever write.
But the first draft is just you telling yourself the story.
Everyone you idolise had to start somewhere.
Some of the best writers now are only so because they’ve put a lot of work in.
There will always be better and worse writers than yourself.
Criticism can be painful, but also useful.
Learn to listen to, accept, and learn from every piece of feedback you get.
Realise that your friends and family will probably not be honest with you.
Seek others’ opinions, especially those of your peers.
Write the story you want to read.
Set goals, stick to them, hold yourself accountable.
Don’t wait for inspiration, just start.
Show up. Show up. Show up. Eventually the muse will show up too.
Do what your heart tells you.
Writing is an art. You’re an artist. Paint pictures with your words.
Write the damn story.
Header image: “Tall Poppy” digital art, T. Wood 2019