For the Daydreamers:
How Fear of Rejection Became My Greatest Strength
First things first: join me and Lara Ferrari
on Sunday at 1PM on Instagram! We'll be doing a live chat on the Road to Publication + taking your questions. I met Lara through the Mighty Pens after she generously donated critiques to our cause (thank you Lara!), and I think we're going to have a lot of fun!
I asked for questions on IG about what you guys want to hear about this newsletter, and one thing that kept popping up is: "How do I deal with rejection on a personal level?"
This isn't rejections by agents or even editors (though that can certainly factor in), but rather rejection by critique partners or family members or ultimately readers themselves.
I've talked about this at length before, but this is one of those conversations that is worth repeating -- particularly as I am Older and Wiser, and believe it or not, that actually does kind of help here.
Do you want the good news or the bad news first? Eh, you're getting the bad.
Bad News: it never gets easy. Rejection on ANY front hurts, no matter how long you've been doing this.
Okay, I'm sure there are a few hardened souls out there who truly feel nothing when they get a bad review or their beta reader says, "This is crap, man," but MOST OF US are not that person.
The Good News is that it does get easier. Not easy per se, but just...er.
Here, let me tell you about my own experiences with fear of rejection + how I ultimately got past it. Maybe you'll learn a thing or two along the way.
When I was first writing, the internet did not exist (gasp!), and it wasn't until I was in high school that people started having internet at their houses -- oh, dial-up, how we do not miss thee! Then at 15, I discovered a site called Fictionpress. It was basically the Wattpad of the 90s.
I started posting my stories on there, delighted that I had this place where I could get my words OUT THERE. I was waaaaay too shy to share my stories with anyone in my personal life, but the internet offered anonymity. I wasn't Susan Dennard, the girl who still had her braces, the girl who still hadn't hit puberty (and still got called "Flat Titty Susan"), the girl who still hadn't kissed anyone, the girl who still hid in the library during lunch because she was so low on the popularity ladder that this was the only place she felt safe.
On the internet, I was just a faceless username. I was free!
So I posted a story to Fictionpress. It got some pretty nice comments, and I felt good about myself. I posted a few more stories with the same result.
Then I posted my fifth story. It got some nice comments...and a few days later, it got flamed. 🔥🔥🔥🔥 Flaming is what we called trolling back in the day. Someone decided they did not like what I had to say, and they tore into me. Because of course, that same anonymity that set me free also set free a bunch of raging a-holes.
I was devastated. Just heartbroken. I didn't know what flaming was at that time -- I believed every word that jerkface said about me, about my writing, and about my right to even be on Fictionpress at all.
I closed my account the next day, ashamed and mortified. And honestly, it took me months before I dared dabble in writing again. Even then, it was just dabbling. No finished stories, no staying up late to write and write and write. Any stories I had to tell stayed in my head, and that was that.
Fast forward to my senior year. Pressure on all sides to decide who I wanted to be, what I wanted to study, where I wanted to live. It was such unnecessary pressure in hindsight, but when you're 17, it feels like this is THE choice that will decide the rest of your life. (Spoiler alert: it isn't. Like at all.)
Well, afraid of rejection (not just in writing but on all fronts), I ended up only applying to one school. My so-called "safety school." I figured I would study English because that was what I'd liked most in high school (plus, reading!!), and though I rarely wrote anymore, I still wanted to be a writer one day. English seemed like the obvious choice.
Off I went to school a year later. I did not adjust well. I was overwhelmed by the size of the student body, the intimidating prettiness and swagger of them all, and my sudden inability to get by on the shyness that I had worn my whole life -- almost as a shield. Class wasn't an issue; it was the people.
I'm not exaggerating when I say I was scared of everything, and it was all rooted in this fear of rejection. What if I went to the gym and couldn't lift as much weight as everyone else? What if I got called on in my Classic Lit 101 class and didn't know the answer? What if I went to the dining hall and didn't have anyone to sit with? EVERYONE WOULD HATE ME, that's what!
(Note: I feel the need to insert here that my brother and sister were NOT this way. For whatever reason, I came out of our home saddled with debilitating self-doubt. Nature? Nurture? Who knows?)
Then something very lucky -- I mean, life-changing lucky -- happened: I took Intro to Marine Biology. My roommate had said it was easy and fun, and since I needed to fulfill the science requirement for my English degree, "easy and fun" sounded right up my alley.
I signed up. I took the course, second semester freshman year, and I fell in love. I loved everything about science, from the rigors of the scientific method to the sheer awe that comes from learning about the world around you. Plus, this indoor kitty apparently loved to be outside in the sunshine, trawling for shrimp or combing through by-catch or injecting trackers into the necks of baby sturgeon.
I had changed my major by the end of the semester, and I didn't look back. I became obsessed. Not just with science, but with math too -- it turned out that I was good at data analysis. Like really good, so I threw in a degree in statistics. I started working in labs to earn spending cash + experience. I bonded with my professors. And best of all, I made friends in my degree program!
Did I still write? Not really. I daydreamed a lot and planned lots of stories that never got written. I also started coding interactive fiction, just for fun. But nothing ever went anywhere, and I never shared it. I didn't need to, after all! I had a new calling, a new path!
It's amazing what stepping outside our comfort zones can do to us -- what it can teach us. Science and math had never been my comfort zones, but if I hadn't given that marine biology class a try...Well, I have no idea where I would be today. Not here, writing to you all about failure, that's for certain!
Once I had stepped outside of my very narrow fear bubble, I realized that failure and rejection weren't actually so bad. In fact, there's a natural high that comes from trying something new and conquering
it. I was conquering science, let me tell you. (But not OChem. OChem and I never got along.) And the more new things I tried on this new, surprise path, the more I felt that natural high.
Sure, I screwed up some (or a lot with OChem. CURSE YOU!), but nothing horrible ever happened. I didn't die
. I didn't lose friends. I didn't suddenly fail out of school forever and find myself alone on the streets.
Turns out the only people who reject us when we fail are ourselves. Funny how that is, huh?
And holy crow, you know what comes with comfort in failure? Confidence
. A willingness to do more, try more, step further and further afield.
It was that confidence that propelled me to karate. I'd wanted to try it since I was a kid and fell in love with Rocky from The Three Ninjas
(he's still hot, okay?
). But fear of failure and rejection had held me back my ENTIRE LIFE. It took 21 years before I finally worked up the courage to enter a dojo.
Well, like science, martial arts changed my life. Perhaps even more so because here failure is part of the process. No one knows what they're doing when they start, and the longer you do it, the more you realize you don't know anything. EVER
. And that awareness -- that recognition that martial arts is a life-long learning experience -- is part of what makes it so fun and rewarding.
By the time I graduated, I had a peer review publication as first author, a Masters of Science research position lined up in Canada, and I was two belts away from black.
I also wasn't so afraid anymore.
My masters program is where I really erased any remaining fear of failure that I might have had. The entire purpose of a thesis and defense is to push yourself to work your hardest, to question everything, to start over as many times as it takes, and to learn that all of science is built on skepticism. Without that constant questioning and pushing deeper, then the entirety of what makes science objective and innovative would collapse.
(Note: this is why I get so angry at people who claim climate science is BS. If they had any idea how rigorous the peer review process is, they would know this is impossible. Also, if you're one of those people who think climate change is a hoax, then I cannot help you as a human being.)
The other thing science taught me was self-motivation. I had to get my work done without a boss to crack the whip. But that's another newsletter for another day.
Being constantly rejected -- by a room full of white men, no less -- forced me to reevaluate my relationship with failure. Plus, if I could survive the intensity of field work in the Arctic, then writing a book should be nothing, right? I mean, one of those things could have actually killed me, and it definitely wasn't the book.
When I finally did settle down to try to get published, I had this entire well of failure to draw on. I knew from REPEATED EXPOSURE that it was pretty easy to move beyond a few mistakes -- even big, honking mistakes.
Again, this doesn't mean rejection and failure didn't hurt me. They did. They do. But I've learned to reframe my fear and hurt.
Failure is not a roadblock. It is a fuel.
When the whole fright or flight thing kicks in because someone rejects me, my fear no longer makes me want to freeze up and quit. Not anymore. Instead, it sends me running even harder toward my goal.
If I have to learn more about the craft of writing so I do not repeat a mistake, then I will learn more. If I have to toss out a book and start over, then bring me that trash can, please. If I have to return to a day job to pay the bills because no publisher or reader wants to buy my books, then yep, I'll do that too.
Again: rejection and failure still hurt. And I work very hard to avoid the useless, unhelpful sort of rejection that comes from vicious Goodreads reviews. 🔥🔥🔥🔥 But when it comes to criticism from people I trust, then THAT can only help me get better. THAT is something I have to actively seek out in order to grow and improve.
And if there's one thing I want you to take away from my long story, it's that it's okay if you're not at a point yet where reframing is easy. It's OKAY if you freeze up, close your Fictionpress account, and never write again.
We all have to start small -- a few baby steps outside our comfort zone. Just dipping in a toe to see how that whole "conquering fear" thing really feels.
Try something that's not TOO scary. Something that you haven't done before. Maybe take a pottery class, join that gym down the street, ask that guy on your bus out for coffee (okay, maybe just start by saying, "Hi." That's probably scary enough right there!), or just commute a completely different way to work.
I bet you'll find your confidence builds up a lot faster than you expect, and that confidence will ripple out into all areas of life.
Trust me on this one, guys. I am the perfect test subject -- fear might as well have been my middle name back in the day. But now I'm actually GRATEFUL for it! It's my primary source of fuel, perhaps even my greatest strength, for without it, I simply wouldn't be where I am today. 💙