I’ve always loved the sport of basketball, so this time of year—NCAA tournament time—is one I savor. I was especially looking forward to it this year because my beloved University of Illinois was a number one seed and many people’s pick to get to the championship game. Alas, number eight seed, Loyola of Chicago, upset them. That’s why they play the games instead of automatically awarding them to the favorite. As my high school coach always said, “Boys, you just can’t throw your jock on the floor and expect to win.” Translation: “You have to put in the work.”
So it is with writing. We can’t expect to get better if we don’t do the work. We can’t expect validation if we don’t earn it. It takes a certain measure of faith to bring ourselves to the blank page time and time again. It takes a lifetime of devotion to have a career. It also takes a tough skin. People will say no to us. Sometimes, they’ll say it with great frequency. Sometimes they’ll say it for reasons outside our control. We need to accept that as part of this thing we love so much. We need to find a way of moving on past our disappointment. We need to believe that soon the answer will be yes.
What can we do, then, to keep ourselves going? Here are three suggestions.
- Have a short memory. Great athletes have an ability to forget disappointing performances. Writers need to do the same. We shouldn’t let ourselves fall victim to obsessing over rejection. That’s just negative energy that produces nothing. Better to direct that energy to our writing. Better to look forward to the future.
- Work harder. Great athletes also know how to turn disappointment into production. They know how to use loss as additional motivation for success. We can make a choice to let rejection intensify our efforts. We can read published works with an eye toward how they got made. We can zero in on specific artistic choices other writers have made and then add them to our repertoire. We can work by imitation. Writers used to internalize a writer’s moves by typing the works of the masters. Does anyone do that anymore? We should remember this famous quote from Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” We should take rejection as an invitation to work harder.
- Stop caring. Great athletes toughen their resolve. They know there’s always a next game, a new slate, another chance. We can scoff at the disappointments that threaten to destroy us. We can make ourselves stronger than they are. If we’re submitting our work, we should have a list of places prepared so if a rejection comes we can quickly and easily move on to the next submission, the next possibility, the next chance. We never know how close we are to someone saying yes, so we have to keep going.
I know, especially during this pandemic, there are plenty of reasons to languish in disappointment and sadness. There are plenty of reasons to quit. That’s a choice we all have to make. We make it every single day. For those of us who want to keep going, we might take heart from this quote from Mary Anne Radmacher: “Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow.” Successful writing is the result of endless days of trying again. Be strong, my friends. Keep doing the good work.