The Art of Criticism & Rejection
John W. Bateman
I got lucky with my very first novel draft more than a decade ago: I landed an agent.
48 publishers expressed interest in reading it.
48 said “no.”
Half of those publishers no longer exist and that novel remains unpublished.
As the rejections rolled in, they fell into 3 general buckets:
No one agreed on the “no.” My then-agent said that no one offered substantive feedback that pinpointed a needed change. Still, I got rejected. It felt unfair after so much effort. Since that time, my writing has grown. I started writing in other forms, including scripts. Three have won awards of some kind. I’ve published a few short pieces, and have a southern gothic novel pending publication… and I still get rejected. And criticized.
I’m not alone. Neither are you. I recently asked artists to submit their horror stories of rejection and criticism: some funny, some tough medicine, and others simply insane. Take a look at these (names omitted):
Each person remembers the criticism and the rejection. They also have one thing in common: they kept going. Some changed course, some responded. But they kept going.
Another 10 years, I continue to write. I have stopped counting rejections. I now submit as often as possible. With feedback and criticism, I do two things. First, am I having a gut reaction to it? Why? Does that tell me anything? Second, I take the things that land, and leave the rest. To sort out that question, I consider the source: do I respect or trust this creative? Do they read and write? Do they offer something helpful (perhaps a specific point)? Criticism, even rejection, doesn’t always mean “no.” It may mean “not right now.” Maybe the universe needs to gently steer me away from something, someone, or in a direction I didn’t consider. Perhaps it’s like the high school track coach, forcing me to clear a hurdle and prove my dedication (or my story, as the case may be).
The thing about creative work that distinguishes it from many other careers is how inherently intertwined it becomes with our identity. It’s a tough world out there, and we send our “selves” into the world constantly. Criticism and rejection is part of that weird process.
It’s not easy, but one thing is clear: my hurt feelings waste my creative time. Any moment I spend upset over a rejection (or even a perceived rejection) is less time I spend on my craft and what makes me feel in tune.
I’m human, though, and it doesn’t mean I don’t feel. Rather, can I turn that around? As an artist, how do I contribute to an arts community where criticism is helpful, feeds me…. and doesn’t stop me?
Keep going. Contribute to what you want to see.
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