Rejections and the Art of Not Taking it all So Personally
November 8, 2017 § 28 Comments
by Peter Gajdics
I don’t like to tell anyone that my recently published book, The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir, was rejected by over 400 agents and publishers. While working on the Acknowledgements page, in the months leading up to publication, I did ask my publisher if I could include a line thanking “the 350+ literary agents and 50+ publishers who said ‘no,’” since they “taught me to persevere.” My publisher cautioned me against adding such a line, since (as she wrote back), “normal folks don’t really understand that great stuff gets rejected for any number of reasons all the time, and that all writers have experienced rejection. They may wonder, ‘What is wrong with this guy? With his story? And they might start looking skeptically at the book or at you. I understand what you are saying here—but I think it might be revealing too much.”
I took my publisher’s point and removed the line from the Acknowledgements. But it never stopped me from feeling thankful to the hundreds of agents and publishers who all said “no.” Oh sure: with each early rejection over the years I did feel devastated. One quite menacing rejection, in which the (esteemed) editor emailed that “books like yours don’t get published anymore,” left me feeling sucker punched, as if my life itself was now obsolete. I read the rejection on my iPhone while walking home from my day job, and by the time I arrived back to my apartment I was sobbing. Why do I keep doing this to myself? I thought afterward. Why do I keep submitting this book, year in and year out, even after so many rejections? I must be crazy.
Such internal dialogues typically continued after each harsh rejection, followed by weeks of numbed confusion, then I was off to the races again: researching more agents; locating other independent presses that accepted unagented submissions; polishing my query letter; tracking all outgoing and incoming correspondence on my spreadsheet; continuing to edit the manuscript; even (sometimes against my better judgment) praying to a God I didn’t know existed anymore. Thoughts that I could not quite imagine my book never finding a home were often interrupted by the paranoia that I had all along just deluded myself—my book was completely unworthy; I was not a good enough person, certainly not a talented enough writer, to ever get published. With each passing “rejection”—or worse: long stretches of silence and then never even hearing back from particular agents or publishers—the cycle continued: internal homicidal dialogues questioning not only the book’s quality but my existence as a viable human being.
My family never wanted me to publish my memoir. At one point, amidst my querying, my older brother threatened to sue me “on behalf of the family” if I continued with the book. No one in my family had ever read my manuscript, but they did seem to know that I’d been writing “something” about having felt estranged from the family as a young (gay) man, my six years in (conversion) “therapy,” during which time my former psychiatrist had tried to “cure” me, the medical malpractice suit I’d later filed against the doctor for treating my homosexuality as a disease—even (or maybe especially), the fact that I’d included aspects about our parents’ traumatic histories in Europe, post World War II. I knew they knew that I’d been writing “something” about all of this—but we did not discuss it. My family’s silences had always been palpable: a white elephant in the room of our shared history.
Rejections from agents and publishers were one thing, but threats from my family eventually all helped sharpen my reasons for continuing with the memoir, from polishing the manuscript, to pitching it to industry folks. At some point along the way, between the tears and bouts of depression, I stopped viewing this influx of information about my book as a direct reflection of my value as a human being and writer, and considered it as helpful advice. Writing a memoir—writing this memoir—has been a journey that changed me from the inside out. I’d always believed in my story, that there was value in sharing it with the world in order to help prevent similar events from recurring again in the future, particularly for young LGBT people, but if enough agents or publishers told me the same thing about one section of the book, then that was helpful advice I needed to address substantively. Maybe I also needed to actually “throw the baby out with the bathwater”—consider the source, and “move on”; not take it all so personally. If my family’s fear was so great as to threaten me with a lawsuit, then that was advice that I needed to use in order to question my personal motives for actually writing the book, as well as my level of healing.
Some very famous memoirists have suggested that writers should always provide their memoir manuscripts to their families before publication, perhaps to ask for “permission.” Unfortunately, after years of scrutiny, I’ve come to the conclusion that I just don’t think this is always possible, or plausible, even advisable: in some cases, such as for those writing about trauma, especially a history of familial trauma, I think it could even add to the trauma. What this means for the writer is that they are often faced with confronting very difficult questions themselves. Friends can help, but even they can never replace our own conscience. Questions of ethical and moral responsibility, like when is it appropriate to include aspects of someone else’s life without their actual content or knowledge, become crucial. Just because someone says they don’t want you to include aspects from their life in a book you’re writing about your own doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still do it—but “how” to do it, and “why” it should still be done, may need to be addressed.
I struggled with all of this while working on my book. The payoff, I would like to believe, helped me create a more universal product, because the process itself forced me to grow and become not only a better writer, but more objective and thoughtful in my approach. Industry rejections, I now understand, were never a reflection of my value as a person, but they certainly have been useful in the execution of a final manuscript—or at least they were once I used them to my advantage, and stopped taking them all so personally.
Peter Gajdics’ essays, short memoir and poetry have been published in The Advocate, New York Tyrant, The Gay and Lesbian Review / Worldwide, Cosmonauts Avenue, and Opium, where he won their 500-word memoir contest. He is a recipient of writers’ grants from Canada Council for the Arts, a fellowship from The Summer Literary Seminars, and an alumni of Lambda Literary Foundation’s “Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices.” Peter’s first book, The Inheritance of Shame: A Memoir, was published by Brown Paper Press on May 16, 2017. Peter lives in Vancouver, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @HungarianWriter.
For me, struggling with a memoir, this was a very interesting account. The question of responsibility to family is one I currently struggle with; partly because what transpired relatively late in my relationship colours how I remember what preceded it. How to be honest to both? Without the latter events distorting the former?
I had originally thought to invite their opinions but realised that if they said ‘no’ it would be for relatively trivial reflections on things that nobody else would care about, but that those details took on an entirely different perspective within the whole narrative, essentially more about the patterning of a whole life to which they contributed critical parts.
As a dominantly fiction writer I had no idea how self examining writing a memoir would be!
If you don’t ask, the answer is always “no”. I’d say go for it!
Thank you, Peter. Well written, well said. We live in a world of rejectioms. I like to think it builds character while teaching us to try other avenues.
Thank you, Edward! You are so right – “we live in a world of rejections.” And so, I think, we must all learn to somehow keep pursuing our dreams and goals, despite our many setbacks along the way!
Reblogged this on Matthews' Blog.
I wrote a few short pieces of non fiction without ever really thinking they would be published, but dreaming about if they did nonetheless. It helped me to write honestly, without censoring my writing to placate family. To my surprise, they were both (eventually) accepted and I decided to let family read them, while letting them know that I had already signed them over so it was more of a courteous gesture, but there was nothing they could do to stop it from being published.
What I found is that, A) From what I could tell they weren’t upset B) We all had never discussed the trauma, and my pieces helped open up the dialogue, and something I hadn’t considered prior C) We had all remembered and retained the events slightly different. I think comparing notes and opening up new honest conversations with family was the most interesting side effect of having my work published.
I’m so glad you didn’t throw in the towel. I hope your family read your story, and I hope it opened up an honest dialogue to create better relationships for you moving forward!
Congratulations on getting published!!!!
Congrats on your own publications, and I’m really happy that you were able to share those pieces with family members. For the most part, I’ve not been able to do that, due to a lot of complicated traumas in my family’s history. Cheers…
Congratulations on your courage and determination, stamina, thoughtfulness, and persistence. When people learn I am writing a book they invariably ask, “Are you going to get it published?” I will cite your 400 in future. They do tend to assume this is something within my control. Your essay suggests that perhaps I should persist until it is. Thank you.
Yes, definitely persist! Persist persist persist!
I have such respect for your courage and perserverance. Congratulations on your memoir. I look forward to reading it.
Thank you for being so real with what you went through in the process of having your manuscript rejected over and over. It is encouraging to see that perseverance does pay off and I will tuck it into my mind as I begin my adventure into the writing and publishing world. Congratulations!
I applaud your efforts and the hard work you put into your writing. Dealing with family being a negative force in your life is really difficult and I don’t think a lot of people would do what you’ve done. Thank you for sharing your story, as someone who has a dream to someday publish a book but doesn’t have a ton of knowledge about it, I needed to read this. Congratulations on your memoir!
A wonderfully encouraging piece. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and the ups and downs you have been through before finally getting published. It gives us all new hope!
Wow. This is inspiring and you are as well. 400 times! And here I am getting bummed out and ready to give up after three. I am off to purchase your memoir. I am in the process of writing my own memoir (everyone kept telling me I should write one and finally decided to do so). Best to you in all your future endeavors!
It’s wonderful to read you never gave up on your dream; you persevered with your writing talents.
Congratulations on your Memoir!
From one memoirist to another – congratulations! The perseverance does pay off and I’m so glad you shared your story, an inspiration!
Thanks Peter, an interesting insight. And I’ve just ordered your book – looks fantastic.
Thanks to everyone for leaving comments about my blog post! I so appreciate everyone’s thoughtful feedback! And good luck to all the writers persevering with their own books! Keep going! Don’t give up! If you want it bad enough, it’ll happen…..
I have heard this so many time and I do really have a hard time not taking rejection personally, I hope I can persevere like that.
This is something every writer has to go through — I’m glad you’re at the place where you learned the responses to your work were not a reflection of you. I have a family member who hasn’t spoken to me since my memoir came out, even though he hasn’t read it, so I empathize with you.
Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio.
Thank goodness I paid attention when I was warned about rejections. Although my first book got a publisher right away, my articles are another matter. You made me laugh with “books like yours don’t get published anymore,” left me feeling sucker punched, as if my life itself was now obsolete”, because it reminded me of a Twilight Zone episode where a man was told he was “Obsolete”. That is a cold-hearted thing to tell someone, but the first retort I can think of is “Oh yea!!??”. So glad you wrote this. Keep pushing for what you want. Mine was a biography. My family would all pass out if I wrote a memoir, though it has been suggested for me to do so by a Doctor. Anywho, thanks for posting.
Really inspiring, I am yet to start my struggle to get published
Wow, sorry to hear that. I’ve been rejected a bunch. I, however, deserved it. My writing is subpar, if you know what I mean: immature. You’ve got great flow here unlike me. I can tell you’re a “real writer.” And I also understand your family. I had to pull my self-published memoir due to a concern my family would see it. One of my relatives has threatened to sue my doctors, but this person is sue happy. I don’t want to feed the shark.
*Holds my thumb up* Stay strong and keep Rocking it Always believe in yourself.
I so admire your perseverance! I’m looking for an agent for my first novel. Did you try to land an agent before going it alone?
Hi! Yes, I spent years pitching to agents. That’s another story in itself. I did have an agent, for a time, back in 2008. He pitched the book to many of the top publishers – who also rejected it, though I came close to selling it many times. Anyway, eventually, I just had to move on. And then my agent left the business, leaving me without an agent again. But in retrospect, I’m glad my book didn’t sell until recently, as I don’t think it (or I) was ready. Good luck to you!
Thanks for your candor in telling your story. I previously worked in television news and the feelings were much the same when looking for a job at a new station. Every no (or lack of response, which was more typical) felt like a judgment against me as a person. I felt like there had to something wrong with me for them to not even give me a chance! But you’re right, it made me a better reporter. I worked harder to hone my skills and step outside my comfort zone when putting together a story. And when I recently decided to leave my most recent station, I took the stance and it was simply another relationship that had run its course and no longer served either party, instead of a failure by anyone. It’s an attitude I’m trying to carry with me as I create my new bath in blogging and social media marketing.
Best of luck with the book!