As I await responses from editors and agents, I think a lot about two things. First, being an optimistic person with a wild imagination, I think about what it will be like to live next door to Charlaine Harris and attend parties with Jeff Abbott. I am always about thirty pounds skinnier in these fantasies and have a small dog in my purse. Which is ridiculous. (Why would being published make me skinnier? And I hate purses – especially purses large enough to carry even the smallest of dogs. I hate people who bring dogs to parties even more.)
Second, being a realistic person and one who realizes I have much room to grow, I think about what I will do when I get those thin rejection letters (or brief emails), or even more likely, hear nothing at all. Rejection is, sadly, part of life for all of us and especially for those of us who are creative types with
delusions big dreams. I’ve learned a lot about rejection in my former life as a musician and here are my thoughts.
1. It is okay to cry. I cried when I didn’t do well at an important audition or when a performance didn’t get a great review. I cried and then I moved on. But getting the emotions out there is important. Otherwise, for me at least, it turns into something more than a good cry and I eat all my feelings. (Maybe that’s why I’m finally skinny in my fantasies of success?)
2. Acknowledge the good. No matter how horrible the feedback, no matter how disappointing the performance, there is always something good. Maybe the high notes could have been clearer, maybe the interpretation could have been stronger, but I could always congratulate myself on a performance with heart and a lyrical line. Not everyone in the audience is going to love you, but someone out there thinks you’re fantastic. (Hi, Mom!)
3. Evaluate the feedback. After the cry, after focusing on the positive, it’s time to take a deep breath and weigh any criticism. Is there substance to what the person has said? Is the person qualified to have said it? If the answers are “maybe” and “yes,” it must be considered and dealt with. If the person was just being mean and has no real credentials, you can probably just let it go. A fellow student once made fun of my eyebrows. I let that go. True story.
4. Change what you can. In the opera biz, we talk a lot about fach. In layman’s terms, fach is your “type” – it’s how you are cast. And it is not just your range, but the timbre of your voice, your “look,” your essence. You haven’t met me, haven’t heard me, but I’m small in stature and (when I’m not eating feelings), I’m slight. I have a light, lyrical voice and I’m a cheeky monkey. Mischief oozes from every pore. In terms of fach this means I will never sing the role of Carmen or Aida or anyone wearing a Viking helmet and brass brassiere. My light, lyrical voice and general demeanor is much better suited to a light, comic opera or concert career than to an opera career. And nothing I do will ever change that.
5. Work smarter, not harder. Nope, no matter how hard I worked, I would never be an opera star. So, I had to work on what I could do successfully – a concert career, perhaps specializing in something I do really well (20th Century music – I have nearly perfect pitch). That’s what I focused on in grad school and as soon as I made that shift, my time was not only better invested, it was more happily invested.
6. Get pro help. In my field, this meant a great voice teacher, a vocal coach, diction coaches, a kick-ass accompanist and help choosing the perfect literature for my goals. As an aspiring writer, I have several successful writer friends who advise me about my work and how to go about doing things as I dip my toes in the waters of the publishing world. I’m actively seeking an agent who can help me refine my work even further and hold my hand through the publishing process and I want an editor who will help me polish my work so it will sell. I have never been sorry to consult with an expert. Never. People are usually thrilled to be asked – including highly successful people – and they are even more thrilled when the person asking for help actually takes their advice.
7. Decide. Sometimes, even with working smarter and getting pro help, things are still not happening the way you’d hoped. Or, as you get deeper into the life you thought you wanted, you realize that’s not what you wanted at all. That is what happened to me. I didn’t want to travel all the time. I didn’t want to spend my life auditioning and auditioning and auditioning. I wanted a mostly boring life with kids and a house. Which is what I still want and can still have even if I get published (except for the occasional party with a dog in my giant purse). I have always wanted to write a book (or several), and I’m not going to give up on this one until I either accomplish that goal or I am dead. (I am hyperbole’s biggest fan.)
8. Remember: this is not The End. No matter what decision one reaches in the face of rejection, it has to include the caveat that the rejection is not the end. I decided not to pursue a performing career in music – but I did and do teach. (Cue the jokes. No, I did not “do” but I can teach someone else because I absolutely do know what it takes to start a young person in the right direction for a professional career.) Likewise, I will keep writing. Someone, somewhere will probably publish me. I may never live next door to Charlaine, but I can still write. (And if my dog would just hold still, I could shove him in a duffel bag and carry him around.)
What life lessons have you learned from rejection? Literary or otherwise? I’d love to hear from you!
Update! I just received a rejection from an excellent agent, and I am jubilant! Want to know why? Because she took the time to tell me why and to dialogue with me about a solution to what she perceived as a problem. On what is likely her lunch hour. That means that she actually thinks my work has promise and that I’m worth her time. She could have just ignored me or sent a boiler-plate response. So as much as it stung to read the rejection, I’m soaring knowing I made the “cut” list for people worth her time. Maybe another agent or editor will see things differently, but since I am going to take my own advice and listen to the pros, I’m going to work on fixing that issue she didn’t like. I’m working smarter, not harder. And who knows? Maybe she will reconsider if she knows I can handle criticism and I’m not a jerk (except for the part about fantasizing about taking a dog to a party in a giant purse).