Rejection vs. Failure

April 4, 2017 | By | 7 Replies More

“You do your best work after your biggest disasters.”

Tim Robbins, as quoted in The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp

Finding neither a publisher, nor an agent, for my memoir after three years of looking does not constitute my life’s biggest disaster, but in terms of my writing it did. There’s no creative project into which I have poured more time and energy.

I had the good fortune of serving as the 2014/15 writer-in-residence at the Hemingway Birthplace Home, and I spent a good part of that year querying agents and publishers. I stuck to the old adage that persistence is everything. Overall, I sent 70 query letters and/or proposals, which doesn’t include the 43 I had sent over the previous two years, after I finished my manuscript. Each time I pressed the Send button, hope rose again. Each email carried the possibility of success. I kept telling myself, “If I don’t try, I won’t succeed.”

There were lots of nibbles, requests for the manuscript or the book proposal, but none went anywhere. With each rejection my heart sank a little lower, and my composure got more frazzled. When I reached the end of my list of agents, I plowed through databases of similar books to find publishers who take un-agented work (of which, thankfully, there are plenty). One day, as I was finding similar books that got published while mine wasn’t finding a home, I got so mad that I texted my husband. My fury and frustration must have been evident in that text because he replied, “Maybe you need a break?”

So I took a break. I left my attic studio in the Hemingway House, walked to the French bistro down the street and had a glass of Chardonnay with lunch. Upon my return, I worked on other writing.

Soon thereafter an email from an editor came in, suggesting a rewrite and offering to look at my manuscript again after that. This made me even madder. I didn’t want to rewrite my memoir based on someone’s advice who had no skin in the game. A rewrite would be a lot of work, and I wasn’t even sure I could do it.

Then I had dinner with a good writing friend who yelled at me, “What do you mean you don’t want to do a rewrite? This is a terrific second chance! I wish some editor had given me such consideration. You better get to it!”

I really didn’t want to. I was scared.

“Change–changing the work and how we work–is the unpleasant task of dealing with that which we have been denying. It is probably the biggest test in the creative process, demanding not only an admission that you’ve made a mistake but that you know how to fix it.”

Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit, p. 218

“The unpleasant task”–that’s what I was dealing with! That’s why I had been dragging my feet. I hadn’t wanted to admit that this version of the manuscript had failed.

Thanks to my friend, by the time I was reading The Creative Habit, I was deep into attempting the rewrite. Up until then, however, I had seen my problem in terms of rejection. I had hunted around for advice on how to deal with rejection, how to keep up the fight in the face of it when really rejection had turned into failure.

When does rejection turn into failure? I wish I knew! I wish I could say, “It’s after sending out 70 unsuccessful queries,” or “when a second chance comes around.” Part of the challenge of the creative process is that you’re always operating in this foggy no-man’s-land. Other writers and artists can only give you advice, share where they have been, but it’s you who has to decide what to do about the work.

I am happy to report that I am glad I attempted the rewrite. The time to do it presented itself when my son attended summer school. We live an hour’s drive from his school, so coming home while he was in class for four hours wasn’t practical. Instead, I joined the Writers Workspace, a communal office for writers a 15-minute-drive from his school, and considered his six weeks of summer school my time to work on the rewrite. Turns out the rewrite was easier than I thought it would be. I shouldn’t have doubted myself so much. By week six I was proof-reading, and I was confident I had a better book.

Alas, the second chance did not pan out in the end. I had been dreading that, but at least I gave the second chance a chance.

In the meantime, I am well on my way to publication with She Writes Press. Looking back on four years of arduously pursuing traditional publication, I am wondering whether going with a press where I have more say in the process would have been the right way all along, but I had to fail in order to see that.

Annette Gendler is a writer and photographer. Her memoir, Jumping Over Shadows, about a German-Jewish love that overcomes the burdens of the past, is forthcoming from She Writes Press in April 2017. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Tablet Magazine, Bella Grace, Artful Blogging and Kveller, among others. She’s also in her tenth year of teaching the memoir workshop at StoryStudio Chicago.

Follow her on Twitter @AnnetteGendler


Category: Contemporary Women Writers, How To and Tips

Comments (7)

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  1. Linda Gartz says:

    Hi Annette,

    I came across your essay as I was exploring the SWP site. I know exactly how you feel. I actually had been working on my memoir, one way or another (research, reading thousands of pages of letters and diaries, trying to decide what the focus should be; writing and rewriting) for more than 10 years (with some hiatuses in between, often just STUCK – but I always came back to it. When I had written it start to finish, and it was 135,000 words, I knew I needed help – and reached out to a writing instructor to just tell me what didn’t fit. That started in 2013 – and many drafts later, I just went right to SWP, after pitching to several agents at a writing conference. They all liked the idea, but it came down to: “How many twitter followers do you have.” Ugh. I like having some input too. Congrats on your wonderful book.

  2. Congrats, Annette, your article is a great boost. I live in France where French friends and potential French agents are crying out for me to translate my books myself but it means I’ve got to rewrite them. Scary, but a challenge. Keep on the good work!

  3. Bethany Reid says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your journey. I’ve been working on — of circling back to — a book for 10 years and one more story of “instant” success is not what I need to hear. Company on the road, yes!

  4. Thanks for writing this heartfelt piece. Your story is my story, your pain my pain, your frustration my frustration. There is something seriously wrong with the traditional agent/publisher path. Hurrah to She Writes Press and its authors for being part of the solution!

  5. What an incisive article. I loved reading it (though I felt terrible reading it)! There’s so much in it that I’m still digesting your words, and admiring your persistence, and the solution you finally hit on. Best of luck with your new book! I’m eager to read it.

  6. I can so relate to your story here! Except I’m the one that initiated the rewrite after many, many rejections. And I’m so glad I did. Because I got it right this time. I started querying again, tenaciously, and landed a book deal with a small publisher a couple of months ago. I queried over 200 agents during a long and challenging 4 years-and later 50 agents and small publishers with the rewrite.

    I think it was worth a shot to find an agent. I don’t think I would have been satisfied had I not tried.

    Congratulations for hanging in there and for landing a book contract!

    • Congrats, Linda, that you rewrote and did finally land a publisher. What a long road! You’re right though, I wouldn’t have been satisfied either had I not tried to find an agent.

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