You’re Not a Loser: Advice for Emerging Writers
November 30, 2018 § 16 Comments
By Jessica Terson
Years ago, I wrote a personal essay for Cleaver Magazine exploring why I persisted in dating total losers. Read the first few paragraphs of that essay and you’ll find a laundry list of questionable lovers. Whether I was dating a man with a heroin addiction or one with a tendency toward violence, I could always poeticize falling in love with a scumbag. And although I ultimately acknowledged that I dated losers because I thought of myself as a loser, I left out an essential detail. Why did I feel that way?
Writers often feel like losers too.
Last night, I received a distressing phone call from a girlfriend. She had just received her fourth rejection letter in a single day. “I feel like such a loser,” she told me between tears. “It’s bad enough getting rejected on Tinder.”
Then there’s my coworker. She never broke down crying. But she did mention that everyone from her old graduate school, besides herself, has a book deal. She said this while we laid out pastries at the coffee shop where we both make minimum wage. “I just keep thinking, am I wasting my life? Do I have what it takes to make it? Or will I be here ‘til I’m sixty?”
And it’s not just women who suffer from self-doubt. A man whom I went to graduate school with—over a decade ago, mind you—recently posted a Facebook status bemoaning his lack of success in creative writing. Thinking back to our graduate school days, I can’t help laughing at our naivety. I suppose I always saw myself winning the National Poetry Series straight out of school. Universities would line up outside my front door and beg me to come work for them. Sooner or later, someone would nominate me for the Nobel Prize. So you can imagine my horrified surprise when I spent the next decade blindly sending off work to literary magazines and receiving nothing but form rejections in return.
Maybe a professor should have warned me. A thesis advisor at DePaul University Chicago once told my girlfriend that she was more likely to get bitten by a shark than become a professional opera singer. Sound harsh? It is. But it’s also reality.
Luckily, in the last few years, I’ve learned to adjust my expectations. Like many other writers that I know, I aim to receive 100 literary rejections a year. That’s right: 100. One-hundred rejections means 100 submissions. And the more I submit, the more likely I am to find a journal that enjoys my work.
When I wrote my essay for Cleaver Magazine all those years ago, I hadn’t published anything in over a decade. Since then, I’ve received enough rejection letters to cover more than a wall in my living room (apparently, wallpaper rejections letters are actually a thing). But I’ve also had some success. Every year I add a few more publications to my name. And in December, one of my poems will appear in The Georgia Review. It’s not the Nobel Prize, but it’s a pretty good start.
Once I learned to make peace with the fact that writing was going to be hard, and that publishing was going to be even harder, I felt like less of a loser. Partaking in the various writing support groups available on Facebook also helps me to feel less isolated. It turns out that most creative types feel like losers, even the ones who find frequent success.
Success won’t happen overnight. The chances of winning a big prize or a book deal straight out of graduate school are probably slim to none. More likely, you’ll get enough rejections to break your heart (so take my advice and don’t double the pain by dating scumbags). There will be days—and these never completely go away—when you’ll consider giving up completely. But don’t give up. You’re not a loser. You’re just an artist figuring out the best way to proceed. It’s a hard road, but it’s worth it. And in the meantime, think of all the things you can decorate with those 100 rejection letters. I’ve seen way worse wall paper out there.
Jessica Terson’s poetry has previously appeared or is forthcoming in The Georgia Review, New Orleans Review (web feature), River Styx, River Teeth Journal, Southern Poetry Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago, Illinois.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
And again: Thank you! (I have 111 rejections so far in 2018.)
I can see readers nodding their heads as they read your great article. I doubt there is a writer alive who hasn’t felt like a loser myriad times. My two keywords for my writing journey are ‘patience’ and ‘persistence’ As you said, those 100 rejections meant 100 submissions and Hooray for that! Thanks for this great article.
Thanks for your encouragement. And congratulations on your successes! Now I have a new resolution for the coming year–in addition to redoing the kitchen wallpaper, that is!
Jessica, you have encouraged me to keep at the writing, or rather the accumulation of rejections! I do wish you had made your point about your own poor choices in romantic partners without contributing, no matter how slight, to the stigma of drug users. They are not “losers” nor “scumbags.” Dismissing addicted human beings as if they are sub-human due to their drug use contributes to the stigma. My daughter was an intelligent, witty, giving young woman who had achieved honors in undergraduate school and had been about to pursue her graduate studies when she succumbed to a heroin overdose. Use she had hidden from all of us.
You are absolutely right. Those who suffer from addiction deserve our support. My original personal essay includes a lengthy description on how my ex was a wonderful man who suffered deeply and was, in fact, not a loser. I apologize for carelessly leaving that part out in this blog post. Thank you for pointing this out. I will be more careful in the future.
Thank you, Jessica.
I am so deeply sorry for your loss. You are in my thoughts and will be for a long time.
I think the rejections can help steer you toward your writerly “voice” too–so there’s that. I mean, I would have loved to have gotten a book deal straight out of grad school, but I didn’t know what I wanted to say yet. It might have been wasted on me then.
You’re never a loser if you keep on trying. My two cents. Yes!
Thank you so much. I recently reached the bottom of a very long list of pieces I submitted. Every single one was answered with a rejection letter. Now my queue sits empty while I attempt to screw up my courage for another round. This offered a little light at the end of my rejection-paper tunnel.
This is so encouraging!!! I am still at that stage where I’m busy building dreams and fearing rejections. I hope that one day I’ll face the rejections bravely, and surpass it then. Thanks for the inspiration . 🙂
This will definitely inspire other people like how it inspired me after reading this. Thank you!
Thanks for the heads up… I’m just starting to now write….now I no what I’m in for I posted my first writing blog tonight…. and yes I felt like a loser…. so does that me qualified 😂
I love the 100 rejections. 100 sub missions. That’s a great way to look at it. Thanks
Rejections are tough. We put ourselves out there and sometimes we have confidence and that’s why we do it. We think, this is the one. They are sure to like me. We’ve done our homework. We’ve crossed all our T’s. We’re ready! Then….
I don’t know why we keep doing it.
Oh, I know, because we love to write. Thanks for being here. xo