It would be easy to write this post about rejection. As writers we endure so much of it. Instead, I want to write about how I keep writing despite rejection. How I pick myself up and trundle forward (sometimes sideways and often backwards, but (I tell myself), I’m still writing).
The other day I counted: in my day job, I’ve rewritten the briefing materials over 55 times (23 times in 2022 and 33 times, so far (sigh), in 2023). These numbers don’t include reviews and edits worked through with colleagues in collaborative meetings. As the briefs are “completed” (wry laugh) they are sent up the chain of command. My materials haven’t got very far. I’ve presented to the deputy minister only twice. One of those times, in a room filled with directors I also needed to convince, he said, “too conceptual Suzanne”. I withered. At least with literary magazines, rejection is pretty well an invisible exchange, a transaction conducted through submittable, or other platform. There, withering is a private act.
But I don’t want to dwell on rejection. First tip: allow some wallowing in self-pity but don’t waste too much energy there, it’s easy to get stuck. And then it takes a lot more energy to climb out of that depression hole. Writing practice suffers in this state. I took that “too conceptual” feedback (I’m sure you can tell it still stings, of course it does) and started asking myself questions: how can I make this clearer? How can I make this more concrete? What parts of the brief were well understood? Which parts lost people? That was in 2022. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve re-written the materials over thirty times since then—reframing mostly, re-naming, re-ordering sections, conducting and inserting new research, essentially telling the same story a different way—and I’m still working to progress (and perfect) it. In the literary world, this equals “acceptance for publication”.
I concede each iteration is better than the last. Tighter. Punchier. Importantly, my intentions for what I want to say have clarified. In creative writing practice, this continues to be a challenge for me.
The other week, after the requisite wallowing, I had to acknowledge I have a communication problem. I had revised and reviewed and re-written over and over and over again, but I wasn’t “seeing” my own problems. And this happens with creative writing pieces too. Though, I’m ashamed to admit, I don’t give my creative writing similar rigorous overhauls, I remain…tender…with my heart work. Add that to the ever-growing list of “things I need to work on”.
So, I connected with a colleague who works on a completely different portfolio and shared my brief. With his fresh eyes and absolutely no vested interest, he sliced and diced and dissected what I had created, asking pointed questions about my intentions and my reasoning. He was kind, but firm. The harder critiques were softened with humour (which I appreciated). He questioned the overall structure, and he questioned the individual words. It was a humbling experience, but also incredibly helpful. The conversation enabled me to “see’ my own work again in new ways. Also, significant gaps. My understanding (and the briefing materials) have suddenly leapt forward to a place I may or may not have reached on my own (but would most certainly have taken me a lot longer to get to).
With creative writing, I’ve workshopped my poems, stories and essays in groups, and traded feedback with fellow writers. I’ve also sought professional editing. These exchanges always help, they really do. But an important learning about this process is that providing feedback on other writers’ pieces, especially working to frame my feedback as questions, forces me to think about the issue I’m highlighting from a generative perspective. And this is fantastic practice for improving my own writing.
I’m part of a writing “fitness” program facilitated by editors at Smoke Long Quarterly, a community workshop. The workshop uses a platform to support asynchronous (i.e., interaction can happen on your own time) feedback. Each week a new prompt is tossed to the group, and, in small groups, each person posts their writing response and provides feedback on at least two other member’s prompts within the week. Each month, the group members are reshuffled, and you begin again, with new weekly prompts and new writers’ stories to workshop. There are also great real time (and recorded) webinars on elements of craft in the flash form (stories < 1000 words). Writers participate from all over the world and across all time zones, which feels amazing and contributes to a diversity of perspectives and differences of opinion.
My objectives for participating are precise and ranked here, in order of priority:
- practice and improve my own sentence level craft
- practice letting go and just writing without overthinking or steering a piece the way “I think” it should go…the time restrictions for participating and my own schedule ensure this (yes, if given too much time, I’m a control freak with my writing)
- pay super close attention to providing feedback on other writers’ stories – practice framing feedback as questions and learn
- generate a lot of different type of materials: characters, settings, themes, ideas. These I intend to improve and incorporate into completed pieces (at some later date, hopefully not too far in the distant future)
Note: none of these objectives include publishing…I’m letting that go for now. Maybe because managing the continual rejection at work is all I can handle at the moment. But it isn’t rejection really, is it? It’s the flag to keep working, to keep at it. To keep going. To see differently. To get better.