The 5 Words that Keep Me from Giving Up After 15 Years of Rejection

My name is Daniella Levy, and I’m a manuscript submission addict.

I’ve been writing stories since I was four years old. I wrote my first full-length novel between the ages of 12-14, and I sent my first query letter–for my second novel–a year or two later. I wrote five novels before I turned 20, and was this close to signing with an agent on the fifth one before she kinda disappeared on me (turned out she had quit).

I am now 29, with another novel, a novella, and a handful of short stories under my belt… and more than 200 rejection letters to show for all of it.

That’s it. Not one of them has been published.*

(Okay, it’s not that all my writing efforts have failed so extravagantly. I’ve had articles and poetry published, and I self-published my first nonfiction book, Letters to Josep, based on the eponymous blog, a couple months ago. But my passion has always been fiction.)

Well, you might be thinking, maybe you just suck at fiction.

I don’t.

Don’t take my word for it:

“I really enjoyed this and think you are talented and that this manuscript has potential,” said one literary agent.

“Your query letter stood out from the many we receive… we encourage you to continue with this project,” said another.

“I found much to admire in your writing,” said another.

“You show an obvious talent for writing… I’m sure we’ll find a project to work on together,” said another.

“I enjoyed this so much… I hope you will think of me for future projects if you don’t find an agent before then,” said another.

“Your sense of pacing and dialogue are better than many hopefuls twice your age,” one agent told sixteen-year-old me.

“We really enjoyed this piece, and we hope you will submit more of your work to us,” said one literary magazine.

“Although we cannot publish this piece at this time, we enjoyed it, and hope you will continue to submit to us,” said another.

So why haven’t I been published yet?

Well, here’s the disappointing truth for all those starry-eyed, well-intentioned people who like to tell me that Harry Potter was rejected dozens of times (…and don’t know that J. K. Rowling snagged an agent after sending two query letters. But I digress).

The market is hopelessly flooded.

More people have access to the literacy, materials, and leisure time necessary to create art and literature than ever before. And humans are creative by nature and many of them come out with some decent stuff. While most of the slush pile on agents’ and editors’ tables is pretty crappy, from what I gather, there is still a fair percentage of writing in there that is pretty good.

But “pretty good” isn’t what gets a novel published these days. Even “excellent” isn’t enough. It’s the M word. It has to be marketable. And the traditional publishing industry is in something of a crisis because of the huge changes in information technology and the “Amazon revolution.” They can’t afford to take risks. So they stick with the guaranteed bestsellers–probably depriving the world of a lot of diverse and intriguing voices in the process. It sucks, but at the end of the day, publishing is a business, and that’s how it is.

As for literary magazines… let’s be honest: who reads them? Save for the handful of elite publications that are impossible to break into, the vast majority of lit mags are not for profit and don’t pay their writers. Many of them support themselves by submission and contest entry fees, which basically makes them a self-contained echo chamber for literary academics. From my (admittedly limited) experience, they seem to be more interested in “daring” and “experimental” writing techniques than in producing things that us common folk actually want to read. It’s almost the opposite extreme of the full-length fiction industry.

And… let’s not even get into the question of prejudice and sexism.

Then why, you may ask, do I continue to submit my work in the face of these impossible odds? Why bother?

I have asked myself this question many times, and the answer is subject to change.

“I still have hope.”

“I’m a frikkin’ masochist.”

“I’m trying to prove myself.”

“Why not? What have I got to lose?”

“I’m addicted to querying. I can’t stop.”

“Isn’t the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? Maybe I’m just insane.”

Most often:

“I don’t. even. know.”

But deep down, I do know.

The answer is five words, whispered by a small, still voice at the very core of my being, beneath all the layers of self-doubt and fear and self-criticism.

“I believe in my work.”

That voice has never been silenced by anything. No amount of criticism or rejection dampens it in any way. It’s why I’m either going to get published one day, or die trying. Giving up was never an option. Because I believe in my work.

So many people stop believing in their work because of rejections.

So many people give up or don’t try in the first place because of rejections.

I’m here to tell you that if you are a creative person who wants to share your work with the world, rejection is just going to be part of your life.

But that doesn’t have to suck nearly as much as you think it does.

If you ask a writer how to handle the ups and downs of the submission process, you are likely to get one or both of these answers: “don’t get your hopes up,” or “move on to the next project so you’re occupied with something else.”

In other words: suppress your feelings, kill your hope, and distract yourself from something that is deeply important to you.

…Somehow that doesn’t seem like the healthiest approach to me.

It’s time we started talking about dealing with rejection in a way that is constructive and builds resilience… as opposed to reinforcing the neuroses that probably turned us all into writers and artists in the first place.

So, that’s what this blog is for.

I want to share what I’ve learned, and what I’m still learning, about resilience in the face of rejection. I want to explore the dialogue with self-doubt and the interplay between hope and disappointment. I want to publicly question the common coping mechanisms we employ to deal with these things, and where appropriate, find better alternatives.

I want to help you, too, discover the still, small voice in your heart that whispers, “I believe in my work.”

I know what it’s like to be in the trenches. I’ve been there. I’m still there. I may be there forever. So I’m getting comfortable, setting up shop, and mapping this place out for those of you who haven’t gotten to know this place like I have.

I have written out a manifesto to serve as a guide for myself and for you as I set out on this journey. It can be accessed at any time from the main menu. (ETA: Here is a post in which I elaborate on each section of the manifesto.)

The Creative Resilience Manifesto

I create because creation is an act of love.

I share my creations because I believe in their worth.

Not everyone is going to share that belief, but the only opinion that really matters is my own.

That said, I embrace constructive criticism and opportunities for growth.

I cultivate hope.

I refrain from the use of “prophylactic pessimism” to numb myself to disappointment.

I invite myself to feel everything.

Getting a rejection letter means
I dared to hope,
I dared to create,
I dared to submit my work,
and I dared to face disappointment.

I give myself permission to mourn the loss that each rejection represents:
the death of a dream.

I also give myself permission to honor
that I dared to dream in the first place.

I celebrate the incredible courage I showed
in trying to make that dream come true.

I hope you’ll stick around.

*This was true when I first posted this. Happily, it is no longer true. My debut novel is forthcoming from Kasva Press in the fall of 2017; my short story, Immersion, was published in the Jewish Literary Journal in September 2016; and another short story, The Olive Harvest, was published in Reckoning in December 2016.

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