Me vs. Fear of Rejection (with a happy ending)

crushed paper - writer´s block - crumpled paper with unfocused background

A couple years back, in quick succession, I submitted three essays to a well-respected website, all of which were snapped up.  My fourth attempt didn’t fare so well—Not for us, my editor said—and I haven’t sent her anything since.

I am the first to say that this is patently ridiculous—a fact of which I was reminded this week as I read writer and writing coach Linda Formichelli’s wise and practical reflections on the submission process.  Here is what she said in a Facebook post excerpted from her upcoming e-book:

I just did a rough count, and what I have to tell you isn’t pretty: Between 1996 and 2012 I sent out 200 queries—each one to multiple publications—and sold 60 ideas. That’s a 30% success rate—or a 70% rejection rate. If I sent each query to four magazines, that means I received 480 rejections. (And that’s not even counting the untold number of informal ideas I sent to my editors via email once I became more established that were rejected, or the letters of introduction I sent to trade magazine editors that went nowhere.)

So how was it that I’ve been able to write for around 150 magazines, with most of them giving me multiple assignments over the years? How was I able to make a living—a good living—mainly writing for magazines?

It’s because I was too stubborn to give up, even when I was failing most of the time. And every time I made a sale, I wowed the editor so she would give me more work.

So how can you get over the idea of rejection? Here’s the thing: Rejection isn’t about you. If your idea or writing are rejected by a prospect or editor, it’s a simple business decision: Your offering was not right for the prospect at this time.

When you’re approached by a salesperson at the supermarket asking if you want to sample a new brand of pita chips and you say No thanks, does that mean the salesperson personally sucks? Is it a judgment call on the actual person handing out the chips? Or even on the quality of the product itself?

No. Your rejection of the offer means you’re full because you just had lunch, or you can’t eat gluten, or you’re not in the mood for a snack, or you’re a vegan and the chips have cheese powder on them.

The product doesn’t suck, and neither does the salesperson. It has nothing to do with them.

It’s the same with writing. If a prospect says no, it can mean anything from “We don’t need a freelance writer right now” to “I had a fight with my spouse this morning and I’m in a foul mood.”

If you let the mere thought of rejection keep you from trying, then you’ve already failed. You’ve pre-rejected yourself!

The best thing you can do when you’re starting your career as a writer is to develop a thick skin to rejection. Easier said than done, I know. But the ones who get rejected the most are the ones who succeed, because it means they’re putting their work out there.

Yes, easier said than done—and for some of us more so than others. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that I have an absurdly heightened (and self-defeating) response to perceived rejection.  I really can’t say why. Temperament? Childhood experiences? Cultural messages? For whatever reason, I quail at the prospect of pushing myself—or my work—forward when I have even the faintest glimmer that interest may be lacking.     

But you know what? I’m getting better. The most helpful thing has simply been being aware that this is a thing I do and that the mere fact that I am thinking something doesn’t make it true. Sometimes it also helps to play with gamifying the process. So what if I send this here? I wonder what will happen?  I also try to focus on actions and measure success in those terms. Submitted the essay to three outlets? Excellent! I win. Whether it’s accepted or not has nothing to do with me.

I had a chance to deploy all of these strategies a couple weeks ago, when an essay I’d sent to two editors went into a media black hole. One editor never responded at all. The second, just back from vacation, said she didn’t know when she’d get to it and didn’t want to hold me up. I almost gave up then, but for some reason, I decided to first reach out to another writer, someone I’d met on Twitter who I thought (I’m still not quite sure why) might have another idea. And, as it happened, she did. The piece went to her editor at Forbes.com who got back to me super quickly. “I’m blown away. I love this piece, and I’d be happy to publish it as a guest post,” she wrote, before going on to offer me a paid blogging contract.

To say this email made my day would be putting it mildly. The piece went up this week. It’s called The Day Job Is Having Its Moment, and you can read it here.

So in the end, I was lucky that the first two editors passed on this piece. It doesn’t always end this way. But remember: It sometimes does.

How about zero dollars per word—is zero good for you?

ZERO take 2There’s a classic New Yorker cartoon where a guy is standing in his high-rise office talking on the phone: “No, Thursday’s out. How about never—is never good for you?”

I was reminded of this last week when veteran journalist Nate Thayer used his blog to publish an email exchange with an Atlantic editor interested in “repurposing” a piece Thayer had previously written if he would first revise it. For this, she offered the princely sum of . . . nothing.  (By these standards, humorist Calvin Trillin’s editor–the “wily and parsimonious Victor S. Navasky,with his offers “in the high two figures”–was positively profligate.) Thayer lost no time in registering his outrage.

“I am a professional journalist who has made my living by writing for 25 years and am not in the habit of giving my services for free to for profit media outlets so they can make money by using my work and efforts by removing my ability to pay my bills and feed my children,” wrote Thayer, later noting the irony of having once been offered an Atlantic retainer of $125,000 a year for six articles.

The post quickly went viral, with both supporters and detractors flocking to weigh in. To his fans, Thayer was a hero, finally saying “enough is enough” to ever-more exploitive journalistic overlords. To his critics, Thayer seemed both entitled and unrealistic, foolish in his alienation of the very people who might hire him.

A follow-up piece on Gawker.com—itself an acknowledged user of writers who work for free—used the flap as an object lesson in the ongoing devolution of journalism into a profession largely populated by those with ample resources. “Becoming a successful writer—or journalist or actor or wigmaker—is an ambition that, like pretty much everything else in society, is rigged in numerous ways to favor people who start off with money,” Cord Jefferson trenchantly observed.

Not much disagreement on that score. However, there was plenty about what the ultimate takeaway should be.

“When Thayer was being offered $125k/year I was being offered $140k,” noted my friend Anne, an expat American lawyer, now living in England. “I’d love to be on 2002 rates again—who wouldn’t? But the reality is much different.”

A Gawker.com commenter had this to say:

Maybe they expect people to write for free, because plenty of people are ready and willing to write for free. If you want to make a lot of money, go be an investment banker or start a business or whatever. If you want to write, then do that, but don’t whine about how you’re getting paid squat for doing it. You made your choice.

My friend spends hours upon hours working on his model trains which he displays and are enjoyed by many people who see them. He never once asked to be paid for his efforts. Don’t act like your calling is so much more noble and worthy than his.”

Law—one of my several previous professions (and another that, incidentally, is fast heading towards meltdown)—works by analogy:  Is X more like Y or like Z? In that spirit, I found myself musing over whether a freelance writer is, in fact, similar to a guy who plays with trains. As usual with analogies, I could see the facts both ways. In the pro column: Thayer enjoys writing. He, like the fanatic hobbyist, is doing it because he chooses.  In the con:  Writing is also Thayer’s profession, one he settled on with an eye to making a living at a time when such a plan didn’t seem wildly risky. No, he would likely never be rich. But he’d be paid more than . . . zero.

My favorite legal doctrine–and yes, as a matter of fact, I do know how geeky that sounds–goes by the name of reliance. (I also wrote about it here.) Simply put, if you induce me to “change my position” based on your claim or promise, you can’t later change your mind and just tell me to go away. For example, if you sell me a product to wash my car, I’m entitled to rely on the fact that it will do just that—and without stripping the paint.

Law school exams are called issue spotters. They consist of “fact patterns”—stories of sorts—packed with legal issues that the test taker must first identify then analyze. The world after the Great Recession is filled with tales like Thayer’s, with people whose lives have been upended by new technologies and seismic global changes. They (we) relied on what we knew, on what we were told.  If life were an issue spotter exam, it might pose the following questions: Was this reliance justified? Is there a remedy?

Note: Thanks to my writer friend Amy Rogers who helped me pull that New Yorker cartoon from the recesses of memory.

Where the girls weren’t

Writing

A million years ago, back in 1978, I showed up at the Harvard Crimson in the fall of my freshman year to try out for a slot on our storied school paper. Joining me for the first Crimson “comp” of our college lives were maybe a dozen other eager young would-be reporters. Among their names: Bill McKibben, Jeff Toobin, Nick Kristof, and David Sanger.

I recall only two other women—though there may well have been more—and none of us would scale the journalistic heights attained by what is, in retrospect, a remarkable percentage of our male peers.

In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about what this means—or doesn’t. After election to the Crimson‘s News Board, I rarely ventured back. I recall feeling generally disaffected. One of my few clear memories is of a football whizzing over my head as I typed toward deadline. I don’t recall any intentional or explicit sexism.

So what happened?

Were the women of my Crimson era victims of discrimination, of a non-congenial (if not hostile) work environment? Or were we simply less focused and ambitious or maybe less talented? Or is the whole thing a statistical fluke that means exactly nothing?

My answer: I really can’t say for sure. There are, however, clues.

As recently as 1977—the year before I entered college—two-thirds of Americans believed that “it was much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family,” Stephanie Coontz wrote earlier this month in a New York Times piece on why, fifty years after publication of The Feminine Mystique, women aren’t showing more zeal about moving into the full-time workforce. It’s a cultural attitude that feels deeply familiar from my Indiana childhood and which, along with the ongoing absence of structural supports for women seeking to balance work and family that Coontz describes, likely accounts for much of the under-representation of women throughout the workforce.

That said, I’ve always been deeply skeptical about the notion that numbers tell the whole story, a skepticism honed over several years as Harvard Law School’s de facto point person on women’s issues. (I graduated from HLS in 1993 and practiced law for a few years before gravitating back towards writing, eventually winding up as then-Dean Elena Kagan’s special assistant for communications.)  A 2005 speech I drafted for the dean acknowledged the undeniable fact that “women are not assuming leadership roles in proportion to their numbers” but also noted some possible non-discriminatory explanations.

Most intriguing to me was a tantalizing finding by a Harvard Law School student working group that women’s reasons for choosing law as a career differed from those of men. “Compared with men, women were more likely to choose ‘helping others’ (41% v. 26%) and ‘advancing ideological goals’ (24% v. 15%) and less likely to choose ‘high salary’ (32% v. 44%),” the group concluded in its February 2004 report.

So what are we to make of this? Well, I don’t have a comprehensive answer, but I can tell you what I made of it. My main takeaway wasn’t (and isn’t) that the world needs more female corporate law partners (though I certainly have no quarrel with you if that’s what you’re after) but that we need to place a far higher value on work where the primary goal is to make the world a better place. We need to value teachers, social workers—and public service lawyers—more, not to find new and better ways to steer them towards corporate work if that’s not where they want to go.

None of this, however, really speaks to the world of writing and journalism, which regardless of your gender, has never been a route to riches. While fewer women of my era may have made it to the New York Times, I think we can safely rule out avarice as the reason.

I should also be clear that I’m not saying Crimson women of my era did not go on to be highly successful in highly demanding jobs–investment banking and corporate law being two examples. And a handful of women of my college era did go on to successful writing careers–though with once exception, more on this below, none achieved the brand-name presence of those guys I comped with in the fall of 1978.

If I were to take a stab at guessing why women of this time and place–Harvard, the late 1970s–may have struggled to gain purchase on the writer’s path, I would probably start with the unconscious belief that our concerns—and our stories—didn’t really matter, a belief no less powerful for being unrecognized. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most well-known female journalist of my Crimson generation—Susan Faludi, one year ahead of me—made her name with a book that focused on the hitherto unrecognized “backlash” against women. And just yesterday, I was struck by how Crimson classmate Nick Kristof (and his wife Sheryl WuDunn) make a related point in the introduction to Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide:

“[W]hen we began reporting about international affairs in the 1980s, we couldn’t have imagined writing this book. We assumed that the foreign policy issues that properly furrowed the brow were lofty and complex, like nuclear nonproliferation . . . . Back then the oppression of women was a fringe issue, the kind of worthy cause the Girl Scouts might raise money for.”

That they did write the book—and that it’s become a national bestseller—is one of many heartening signs that things have, and continue to, change. The fact that I’m writing this piece is another. When I look around, I’m struck by the number of women writers with whom I’ve crossed paths, most of whom are seven to ten years younger than I, who have managed in remarkable ways to tie their personal experience to larger concerns and trends. My law school classmate Susan Cain, author of the bestselling Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, is a wonderful Exhibit A.  There’s also former law firm colleague KJ Dell’Antonia, who now heads up the New York Times wildly popular Motherlode blog; cyber pal Marci Alboher, who draws on her own life experience in the just-published Encore Career Handbook; occasional New York dinner party companions Pamela Paul (a New York Times writer and editor whose first book, The Starter Marriage, grew out of her own failed first marriage), Annie Murphy Paul (whose books include Origins, which delves into the cellular beginnings of life through the lens of motherhood), and Deborah Siegel, memoirist and co-founder of She Writes, an online community for women writers. There are likely many more whose names escape me at the moment.

Years before I turned to blogging and writing essays like this one, I had a reasonably successful, if short-lived, career as a suspense novelist.  Getting a book deal was a huge thrill and yet, when I was honest, I had to admit that the actual writing of these books wasn’t all that thrilling. For years, I took this to mean that I wasn’t really cut out for writing. And then a chance remark turned everything around. I’d just described my “ideal day” as part of a small group exercise at a Harvard Business School program for women. This vision involved waking up in the country, having coffee, then turning to my writing.

“But I had that day, and you know what? I wasn’t all that happy,” I concluded.

One of my listeners gave me a reflective look: “Maybe you were writing the wrong thing.”

Note: This piece was revised on March 8, 2013 with the addition of paragraph 12, intended as clarification.