Don’t Quit Your Day Job: On Perseverance and Handling Inevitable Rejection
My writing career has been in the doldrums for the past eighteen months. 2013 was an amazing year for me in that I published four stories (one of which was shortlisted for the Carmel Bird Award), one novel, and I completed a Emerging Writer-in-Residence stint at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre. 2014 started pretty well too, with a similar residency at the Fellowship of Australian Writers (WA) in April.
Then, nothing. Or, rather, worse than nothing: piles and piles of rejections. In an eighteen month stretch, I had thirty-eight rejections and one acceptance. The one acceptance was for my story ‘Enter Sandman, Exit Light’, published in Tincture Journal. The bulk of these rejections were for my crime novel Thirsty Work, but my story ‘when the jellyfish rule the oceans’ has been rejected eight times, and ‘Enter Sandman, Exit Light’ six before being picked up. I had a PhD application rejected on the grounds that there was no one to supervise me. I had stories rejected because magazines were folding (once, cruelly, I was told this after they had accepted the story!), and short fiction competition pieces borne away in a flood of entries, like the Henry Handel Richardson Writing Competition, which had 450 entries in 2014.
It’s enough to make anyone melancholy and to knock one’s self-belief for six. This is where I’m supposed to say that if you try, try, try again it’ll all work out in the end. J. K. Rowling was rejected a zillion times. The recent Man Booker award-winner, Marlon James, recently said a similar thing. But for one Marlon James or J. K. Rowling, how many other writers are out there with the same self-belief and tireless perseverance? How do you keep going in the face of the world’s indifference?
For me personally, this last question is a false one. Whenever I’m brought low by my latest rejection, I try to imagine a life in which I didn’t write. Truth is, I can’t. Seems I’m consigned to a life of writing, if necessary in the face of continuous rejection. I’m not sure that that’s perseverance or even bloody-mindedness as much as an acknowledgement that this is truly who I am. Not writing would be a form of extinction, and I ain’t extinct yet.
We’re told not to take rejection too personally. Personally, I struggle with that, too. But I do have a piece of advice for those in a similar circumstance, after all, which is not to put all your eggs in one basket. The months of waiting are agonising, the almost inevitable rejection a punch to the guts, but this can be mollified by multiple entries and multiple submissions. Right now I have five short stories doing the rounds, the most I’ve ever had, so when I get a rejection I transfer my forlorn hopes onto the next competition or publishing target. Every time I get a rejection, I make sure to send the story somewhere else that same day. That way at least I feel I’m doing something positive, not just wallowing in self-pity.
And then there’s the money. Or, rather, there isn’t the money. Apparently, the average Australian author earns $12,900 per year, which is frankly a hell of a lot more than I make out of writing but still nowhere near a living wage. I recently estimated that I’ve earned something like $5000 from writing in the past five years. Given that I earn 10% royalties on my novels, that equates to 2500 copies sold, no? Well, no. The $5000 hasn’t come from royalties at all, but from the aforementioned residencies, workshops and, occasionally, judging. Luckily for me, I earn a good wage as a high school English teacher, so I don’t think about the money very much. It’s best not to. And the simple truth is that I’d do it for free anyway.
Where does that leave me? Pretty much where I started, I suppose. Best to think of this as a hare and tortoise situation after all. Even if I never win the Booker or sell millions of copies, at least I’ll be able to say, to myself if no one else, that I never took no for an answer.