On Rejection, Failure, Holding your Nerve, and Eating a Whole Baked Camembert

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When I’m not painstakingly crafting sub-standard jokes or stealing something funny I heard someone say one time a while ago, and then wrapping it all up into a bundle so I can post it on this blog with a title that mentions cheese somehow – I spend my other spare time writing fiction.

Ok, I spend my other spare time eating pasta, petting cats, and complaining.

But if I have any spare time left over from those activities, I write fiction.  I write short stories, and I’ve also been labouring since about 2008 on a ‘novel’, of which I have churned out about eight drafts, none of which limped beyond 30,000 words. This is my secret. My festering little secret. I have soaring creative ambition and rather epic delusions about the quality of my creative output. This is a combination I believe is rife amongst people who make awful grammar puns. Like me. (No, I don’t mean, ‘people like me’, I just mean… like me. Please like me.)

When I say ‘soaring creative ambition’, I mean that I have grand ideas, which are routinely met with polite, indifferent rejection. It has been an endeavour of almost unblemished failure.

Yes indeed, I am feeling very self-pitying right now. I had two more pieces of writing rejected, in quick succession, this month, which makes the pile of rejections I’ve had over the last 2 years into a veritable heap.

With that last rejecty email, I decided it was time to consider things. I dwelled. I wallowed. I retired to my bed with a whole baked camembert and a baguette, and ate all of that. Then I binge-watched House of Cards and Sons of Anarchy, but neither was quite murdery enough to cheer me up.

I considered writing a blog post called ‘What Rejection Taught Me!’ that would be full of earnest, puppyish optimism and a few bullet-points about how much my ‘craft’ has improved, and it would definitely include the word humble.

I started writing it, but it kept taking a wrong turn. It went like so: ‘Rejection isn’t all bad, though. The good part? [Takes a wrong turn] NOTHING. Nothing. Nothing. Actually nothing’ [stops writing to begin crying].

My optimism was clearly broken. I scrapped that draft.

I’ve come back to it again though. I’ve had some thoughts that eventually cheered me up, and I thought I would share them here, just because good feelings always deserve to be taken out for a whirl.

Firstly: it turns out my desire to keep writing is frankly irrepressible, and all the rejection in the world wouldn’t actually stop me. I’ll admit, this could be bad news – I mean, not all creative output is good. A great deal of it is objectively bad. I imagine that many people tried to stop Liberace, or at least dampen his spirits a little.

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Ah no, leave him to it. He’s enjoying himself.

From the very beginning of human endeavour, I’m sure there was someone stopping Hargal from getting his hands on the ox blood when everyone was cave painting the hunting scene, because, I know, poor Hargal, but he really ruins it for everyone.

I’ve realised that I will basically keep going in the face of some very strong evidence that what I’m doing is bad. This was my first discovery as I languished in bed with camembert: the main reason I keep writing all the time is because I start to feel sad (in a general, constant, black-and-white-French-movie way) if I go for too long without writing. That’s what it all boils down to really. Even if I’m the only person who reads it – I wouldn’t ever stop. This also then led me to conclude that those who consider writing ‘torture’, and bemoan daily that they must capture their genius on paper in this tiring way (hi insufferable Martin Amis and your ilk) – maybe they should just stop. If it hurts so much. I left this line of thought with the artificial, but very heart-warming, notion that I was not an unbearable asshole about my writing. It also made me realise that rejection is not a plan-stopping, heart-hardening thing. Not at all.

Then, I also came to rest on the most obvious and wonderful part of rejection – it lights a fire under you. It certainly made me feel immediately, dementedly motivated to Be Better and Work Harder.

My next discovery was one that I especially wanted to share for anyone who feels similarly, or who can in any way relate to this situation. Up until a few years ago, there was one person who was constantly criticising my work, deriding it furiously in great detail, and physically stopping me from ever actually sending it out into the great wide world. That person was (yeah you guessed it) me.

The greatest obstacle is your own self-doubt. I make no bones about it: it will kill your dreams. It will kill them until they are DEAD. The evil twin of self-doubt is pride, and I had far too much of the stuff too, swilling around, washing over everything, eroding it all. I was so brittle and proud, in my earlier days, that I couldn’t bear the idea of anyone rejecting my writing. I would have been crushed.

It took me ages to get these two beasts under control. It took me an embarrassingly long time. Only when I was about 28 did I finally feel capable of sending my little scraps of writing out into the world, ready to accept failure, and bam, there it came, all of the failure. Luckily, I was resilient enough by then to pack each failure away in the box marked ‘Oh All the Failures’, and get on with writing. Once or twice, amazingly, some kind people took a shine to something I sent them and published it. (Que me swaggering around like I’d won the lottery). If I had continued to doubt myself so excessively, these little bits of writing would never have seen the light of day.

What I’d like to say to anyone who does anything creative, but has been hiding their light under a bushel (I love that very old fashioned phrase!) please, please don’t beat up and tear apart your creative stuff yourself. The world really will be ready to do that job. The world has got that job in hand. You don’t have to worry about that. I know more than a few people who are insanely talented, be it with words, musical notes, or tangible materials like paint or sequins or cookie dough… and I would say it’s inevitable that there would be some anonymous asshole on the internet who would rip their creative dreams to shreds, and then move on and forget about them entirely.

You’ve got to be on Team You. Defend your stuff. Enhance it, work on it, and treat it like it’s worth it. (This next bit of advice is really just from me, to myself) – retire to bed with cheese with necessary.

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You, politely but firmly defending your work

Lastly, I got me a bit of perspective and dried my tears. This YouTube video, ‘Powers of 10’ from 1977, is utterly mesmerising, haunting and wonderful. It really brings home the fact that we are each just a tiny incidental living thing amongst billions of others, on the tiniest, most insignificant little spot of greenery in a vast uncaring universe.  I don’t even have the capacity to understand completely how little I matter. So whether I continue writing strange little stories or not, that’s just all for me.

I love it – that’s all there is, and it means nothing, and it feels wonderful. So I’m going to keep doing it.

When it comes to romantic rejection, I’m afraid I don’t have any advice. I have a Hall of Fame if you’d care to have a look, though. It includes that time* in my single, care-free past, when a guy clumsily shoe-horned into our conversation the fact that he had a GIRLFRIEND in capital letters, before I even started flirting with him**. I could only assume, when reflecting on the situation, that I had already started drooling a bit and was sitting inappropriately close to him.

*Possibly happened more than once.

**Flirting: I don’t actually know what this is or how to switch it on. It would therefore be impossible for me to accurately identify whether I was ‘flirting’ or just making a stranger feel deeply uncomfortable.

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