If you’re a writer and you don’t often feel like punching something—or someone—you’re not doing something right.
Every writer feels rejection. When I first started vying for acceptance at The New Yorker for my illustrations, I met with Cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff, who told me the most important trait is the ability to accept rejection. Those who weathered the inevitable barrage of rejections, he said, were the only ones who survived. And I quickly learned this principle held true with writing, too, as I began submitting writing for publication as well. I heard stories of celebrated comedic names like Steve Martin not just getting rejected, but sometimes not even hearing back from editors at all. I was warned that writers can often expect to submit more than 50 times before striking gold at The New Yorker—and even then, that’s just a lucky few.
We happen to live at a time when silence is the new black, and thus being thick-skinned is job No. 1. So how to cope with these daunting odds against success? I find it helps to depersonalize it, and to even visualize your situation in a metaphor. If possible, humorize it. I see my battle in the arts like that scene in the movie African Queen, when Humphrey Bogart’s boat gets stuck in the reeds. He has to pull the vessel through the jungle while getting covered with parasites. Katharine Hepburn is on board wearing a large hat, lovingly encouraging her husband-to-be by insisting hope is on the horizon. Well, that boat is our career. Hepburn is our source of support, whether that be a patient spouse, agent or close friend. The parasites—well I don’t need to tell you who the parasites are. And the open water that they don’t realize is only a football field away is that big break. We don’t know how close it is or if we will ever reach it. But we cling to hope and keep pulling our career through the reeds.
So what is the best way to deal with the pressure while still producing your best work? I’ve found the answer is to not look too far down the road, but to focus instead on what is immediately in front you. It’s like laying down railroad ties. You try not to look back and not to look too far ahead. Just do the best job you can do today, in this moment. Otherwise the weight of how the moment fits into the bigger picture of your career will become daunting and slow you down. Even when you do find success—and you will find success, along the way, in varying degrees—this perspective can prevent both the wild highs and the darkest lows, which can give too much power to rejections, validations and things out of our control.
There is always someone ahead of us doing better—though we conveniently ignore the fact there are many writers who would gladly trade places with us. That’s a game we’ll never win. The sooner that realization sets in, the sooner we can stop beating ourselves up and keep comparing our success and failures with someone else’s. Start by depersonalizing rejections, which will go a long way to eliminating the fear and resentment freelance writing begets. It’s true, life isn’t fair. There are a zillion factors why one writer’s work is recognized over another’s, and often it’s not about quality. “It’s not you, it’s me.” It was probably an editor who first said that.
So let me wrap this up on a positive note. It’s not you, it’s the editors. Or juries. Or your in-laws. You—you’re fine. It’s the rest of the world that’s nuts. The greatest men in history were rejected and scrutinized. Jesus. Edison. Tom Brady. It took Tom Hanks 10 years to get Castaway green-lighted. If you’re getting rejected on a regular basis, trust me, you’re in good company. Heck, Brian Epstein sent demos to gobs of record companies before he landed The Beatles a deal. Do you think you’re better than the Beatles?
Hey, that’s a trick question—what did I say you about comparing yourself to others?
This guest post is by Bob Eckstein. Eckstein is a writer and cartoonist for The New Yorker and The New York Times, and has also written for New York Daily News, Atlas Obscura, Reader’s Digest, GQ, MAD and others. His latest book, Footnotes From the World’s Greatest Bookstores, is a New York Times bestseller and was selected by The Wall Street Journal as one of the Most-Anticipated Books of Fall 2016. He currently pens the cartoon column “Worth a Thousand Words” for Writer’s Digest.