[Excerpted from the upcoming release Little Gems: Better Notes on Story and Screenwriting, by Barbara Nicolosi and Vicki Peterson]
Rejection slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil – but there is no way around them.
- Isaac Asimov
Being a professional writer means that after you have finally come out of your cave and put your work in front of other people, some of those people will not like what you have to show for all your efforts. There is no avoiding it. Common sense tells us that it is impossible to please everyone, but the yearning to connect that drives art consistently trumps all that is sensible in an artist.
Success requires that writers in Hollywood will have to market themselves relentlessly in a process the industry calls “pitching.” Most pitches lead to naught. Again, if you are getting rejected in your efforts as a writer it doesn’t mean you are doing the writing thing wrong. It just means you are doing it.
Rejection always hurts. It hurts more than success and validation exhilarate. Looking back at seventeen years as a professional writer, I can recall moments getting notes from producers, mentors and friends on every script. I can tell you pretty much all the negative notes I got with specificity. They shame me and iI connect them viscerally to all my defects as a personal and a professional. But if you ask me what those same people liked about my projects, it all gets very fuzzy. The sting of rejection runs deeper than the thrill of success. But either way, they go together. As long as you might be rapt by a word of praise, you will have to live with the certainty that the pain of rejection is also out there, somewhere in the next review.
Adding to the suffering of rejection is the ironic reality that even most good people are simply awful at rejecting others. It is an awkward thing to do and for anyone with a heart, even harder thing because good people generally strain so as not to hurt others. All people tend to avoid hard things, or try to get through them as quickly as possible. This ends in meaning that too many rejections come inadequately second-hand, or brutally half-ass, or confusingly abrupt or cursory. As with every other part of human life, more messes are made when we are in a rush than probably in any other circumstance.
Rejection gets writers into trouble in the following ways:
➢ Makes you depressed;
➢ Makes you doubt yourself;
➢ Makes you turn to people in a clingy, needy way;
➢ Makes you lie or blame;
➢ Makes you desperate for validation;
➢ Makes you angry and desirous of revenge;
Artists, perhaps more than any other group, need to believe that there are goods that come into our lives because of failure. If only there was another, better way to learn humility, compassion, empathy, gentleness and patience! Particularly in this modern era in which technology seems to be wimping us out by helping us avoid always more the simple exigencies of grown-up life, it needs to be stated with clear and absolute conviction: Suffering is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. The loss of integrity is worse. Much worse. The loss of ones soul, as in the ability to sing the distinct song that one was meant to sing – is much worse. Suffering is so much a part of the lives of history’s greatest artists that it is safe to say it is actually a mark of great art. The greatest artists always suffer for their very genius because genius always has a quality of strange freshness that pushes people outside of their comfort zones.
Rejection, once weathered, can make us better human beings. As regards emotional and psychological blows, the best, most compassionate healers are wounded healers. Also, the biggest lessons we have learned tend to have come to us through times of failure. That’s just the way of things and the main reason not to be terrified of rejection. There would be no joy in final achievement if one hasn’t experienced the bitterness of failure. As the poet Emily Dickinson noted, “Success is counted sweetest by those who n’er succeed.”
Unfortunately, after the initial and generally paralyzing shock of rejection, the next human response is to lash back. Hence, some of the worst professional mistakes by writers happen in the wake of a rejection. We have seen writers get a tough note and then shoot off a scathing email completely withdrawing from a project. Generally, this puts them in breach of contract and then a legal mess starts that results in all kinds of disasters. Another common case is a writer getting replaced by another writer, and then launching a total war of character assassination on the producer or director. Investors are suddenly getting copied on accusatory emails, people are sniveling on international phone calls and lawyers are sending “Cease and desist” messages to hundreds of people who have no idea what started it all. In the end, investors get spooked and withdraw, projects halt and people get fired. And all because a writer suffered a blow to his pride.
Our strategy for not being derailed by rejection is first and foremost to expect it, and secondly, not to fear it. The fear of failure causes as many messes as the failures themselves. Fear of failure makes people shut down and be careful. This is the opposite disposition required to create fresh and bold stories. As the theologian, Rev. James Alberione wrote, “People who live make mistakes. People who surrender to their fears live a mistake.”
The key to thriving in a profession in which rejection is just what comes with the territory is to have the determination to learn from everything. Every rejection is an arrow of experience in your quiver to engage life and this business. A good life as a professional writer does not require that you leap from peak to peak or run without faltering. It just means that you set your jaw and keep on walking. Regardless.