Judgment, Rejection, And The Writer

Dame Lili
Dame Lili
I am still thinking about that epublishing post, guys. It might be done next week, if I’m not in the wilds of Novel Revision Deathmarch. This Friday’s writing post is brought to you by Reader A. C., who wrote me last week with the question:

How do you shut off the fear of being judged? I feel like if I was to release my writing to the world I would wake up every night in a cold sweat thinking “Oh my god, people are reading what I wrote and judging me!”

Which is really a very good question. This is the single biggest block to a lot of writers submitting their work. A lot of the anxiety[1] stems from conflating judgment of your work with judgment and rejection of you. The rest comes from that old bugaboo, the Inner Critic.

Get used to it, because this never goes away. One’s method of dealing with it gets refined, but the anxiety over judgment and rejection is a Basic Human Fear, and it does not go away. We are cooperative creatures, and that anxiety over rejection is one component that helps us be cooperative instead of narrowly self-interested to a degree that would jeopardize our survival as a species. (I know this is a laughably simplistic view of a complex social-sciences issue. Bear with me.)

You as a writer will never get used to being rejected. At least, I never have, and no writer I’ve ever spoken to has. There’s always the heart-in-mouth panic when the agent doesn’t return a call, the nail-biting when the editor has the manuscript. Writing is something performed essentially in solitude–even if there are other people in the room, even if you are collaborating, there is still those moments of just you and the words on the page, and that’s IT. You have no measure of whether or not it’s good except your own, initially, and we are taught not to trust our own judgment on this level in a hundred little ways every day. The delayed-gratification aspect of writing–months or even years until something is accepted or sees print–pours fuel on the flames. Workshops and critique groups, well, we all know how I feel about those. Then there are reviews, and fan/hate mail, and that particular brand of hell known as bad Amazon reviews…

I struggle to think of a career that is more perfectly designed to turn a reasonably-adjusted human being into a f!cking neurotic. I really can’t think of one. (Politics doesn’t count; people are neurotics before they go into politics.)

We’ve got this anxiety. It’s not going to go away. So let’s pull an Einstein. Instead of trying to figure out why the speed of light is what it is, Einstein just took it as a constant and went on trying to answer questions around it. We all know the anxiety is there, so let’s talk about what to do about it.

My advice here basically boils down to three simple words.

Do it anyway.

If you want to be a writer, if you want to get published, you can’t afford to sit around wailing or to be crippled by that anxiety. Look, I can tell you the worst thing that’s going to happen. Brace yourself, it’s right here.

The worst thing that can happen is you get rejection slips. Everyone gets rejection slips. It’s a piece of paper with someone’s opinion on it. Big deal. So is the newspaper and a billboard. The opinion may be backed up by something, may not. But in the end it is only a piece of paper.

It is up to you to start a fire with it.

Slight side note: Yes, this piece of paper means you haven’t sold your work. If you’re lucky, it has a piece of personal feedback on it. There are stages to rejection just like everything else, and a personal note on a rejection letter is a step up. But a lot of writers shoot themselves in the foot by not taking those personal notes seriously. If an editor is sending out fifty rejection slips a day (and some do) a personal note is GOLD. It means they took time to go ABOVE AND BEYOND, and to tell you the thing that stopped them taking your story, or offered encouragement because you’re close but not quite there yet. Plenty of new writers don’t understand what a personal rejection note means and they get discouraged. It’s one of the last gates before acceptance.

All right, back on target. Here’s the thing: you have to find a way to make that anxiety a spur to be better. You have to find the way to turn the anxiety around so it’s working FOR you instead of bleeding off energy.

To be absolutely, honestly truthful…my way is sheer stubbornness. You don’t like it? You don’t? Well, I’m gonna show YOU! I’m gonna get so good, I’m gonna work so hard, that I’m gonna be able to laugh in your FACE! Yeah! HOW DO YOU LIKE THEM APPLES? It’s the same reflex that got me through my childhood, high school, boyfriends with quick tempers and quicker fists, and every other setback since. It’s getting knocked to the floor six times…and getting up seven, because you’re too stupid-dumb-stubborn to know when to quit.

It’s not elegant and it’s not pretty, but it gets me through the rejection-anxiety. Other writers use the anxiety in different ways, but always to bring themselves back to the page. The chances of getting something accepted for publication go up astronomically when you actually consistently produce work. They go up even more when you listen to the rejection and keep writing. They go up even more when you listen to the personalized rejection slips and keep writing.

Are you noting the theme here? The only way through this is to put your head down and keep writing. Find the way to put that anxiety in the traces to pull your plow. Otherwise, it will run around inside your head breaking dishes and making a nuisance of itself. Once you get it harnessed, once you figure out your way around it, it works as hard as the demon it is. But now it’s working for you instead of against you.

If there was an easier way, someone would have found it by now. That someone would be mega-rich and wouldn’t tell the secret anyway. So, we have to work with what we have.

And there’s a funny thing about the process of using the anxiety instead of letting it use you. The bravery or stubbornness or what-have-you that you find to get you through it starts cropping up in other areas of your life. Sooner or later it proves useful elsewhere.

If nothing else, that’s a reason to keep writing too.

I can’t give you a magic pill to make the anxiety go away. I can tell you that you’re not alone. And I can tell you something I learned in dance class. It’s easy to be invisible in dance class, because everyone else is so worried about where their hands and feet are, they’re not looking at how big your ass is.

In the end, someone judging you on your writing, or making personal statements about you on the strength (or not) of your writing, is only making a statement about themselves. (And not a nice one.) We’re all afraid of what we write “opening the kimono” and telling people about our fears, showing them the way to hurt us. This is not a reason to stop writing. This is even more of a reason to tell the truth, to find your way around that anxiety, and to shame the Devil, as the saying goes.

Nobody whose opinion you need to be worried about is going to judge you personally, the way you’re afraid of, on your writing. I can’t be any clearer than that. But the anxiety over if someone might is actually a gift. If you can find out how to harness it inside your head and make it work to get you on the page every day, to tell the truth and take your chances, to spit in the eye of Destiny and spin the roulette wheel…

…then, my friends, your success is only a matter of time.

Now go get it.

[1] I am using the word “anxiety” instead of fear because I believe it’s more precise. Fear is a survival mechanism. Anxiety is a social mechanism. I agree with Gavin de Becker that there is a huge difference.