How to Take Criticism and Turn It into Growth, in 5 Steps

This is a blog about coping with rejection of creative work, but it would not be complete without addressing rejection’s notorious cousin: criticism.

It hurts to hear people say negative things about something you poured your heart and soul into. It hurts to recognize that you are not perfect at what you do and can always use improvement.

However, criticism–good criticism–is a very powerful raw material you can use to build yourself as an artist.

People generally react to criticism non-constructively in one of two ways: resistance (dismissing, arguing, or denying) or withering (collapsing in feelings of shame and inadequacy). Both of these reactions deny you the opportunity to learn and grow from the feedback.

To get the most out of criticism, you have to be humble enough to admit your work has faults, yet confident enough that you won’t wither. You have to push past the instinct to get defensive, and instead, get curious about how the criticism can help you improve your craft.

Let’s break it down into five steps.

Step 1: Filter out bad criticism

The only kind of criticism that is worth listening to has three components:

  • It’s constructive; meaning, its purpose is to build you, not belittle you.
  • It resonates; meaning, you think there is truth in it.
  • It addresses specific issues with your piece or your technique.

Anything that does not meet these criteria goes straight in the trash where it belongs.

Some examples of bad criticism:

  • “This is terrible”
  • “This is a pile of crap”
  • “This sucks”
  • “This hurts my eyes”

Some examples of good criticism (and I’m limiting them to the writing world because I know nothing about critiquing art!):

  • “I felt that this character wasn’t developed enough. I’d like to get to know him better”
  • “I wasn’t drawn in; the hook wasn’t strong”
  • “The descriptions were too wordy”
  • “Too much showing, not enough telling”
  • “The structure of this paragraph is confusing”

>>This goes for what you say to yourself, too.<<

I’ve heard so many people say things about their work they would never say about someone else’s (to their face, anyway). “This is a pile of crap” is not constructive criticism, it is bullying.

Self-bullying, similarly to regular bullying, is an attempt to distance yourself from your faults and shield yourself from criticism. “Well of course it was rejected, it’s a pile of crap anyway, and I can see that now. No one else needs to tell me.”

Nope. This is not humility or being good at accepting criticism. It is the exact opposite: it is using your own harsh criticism to stave off whatever (potentially useful!) criticism might come from other people. This is not constructive.

And you don’t deserve to be bullied by anybody, yourself included.

Step 2: Breathe

Criticism always hurts. Let it hurt. But remember that you are here because you were brave. You wouldn’t be getting criticism if you hadn’t dared to share your work with someone and risk the criticism in the first place. Celebrate your courage, and nurse your wounds.

But the sooner you can move on to the next step, the better you will feel.

Step 3: Get as much information as you can

Real-life example.

In the early days of submitting my upcoming novel to literary agents, I got a rejection I found particularly disheartening. Here’s what the agent said: “I wanted so much to want it, because I share your interest in crypto-Jews and those who fled the Inquisition. I feel the manuscript (sample that I read) is much too telling and not enough showing, if you know what I mean? I’d welcome taking another look if you revise the heck out of it. I do wish you the best of luck.”

In other words, she liked the idea, but felt the writing wasn’t good enough.

…Ouch. That is definitely not something that is easy to hear.

But you know what I did?

Something I’d never dared to do before.

I wrote back.

I thanked her for the feedback and asked if she would be willing to be more specific about the parts she thought were too “telling” and not “showing.”

I knew this was a lot to ask from a busy literary agent, but felt emboldened by her willingness to look at a revision. I was more than happy to revise it, but wasn’t seeing what she was seeing. I needed some guidance. I knew it was a long shot, but I thought that if she could just be more specific with the critique, I would be able to do something with it.

To my delight, she wrote back and sent me my first sample chapter with comments! She pointed out specific paragraphs that could be “shown” rather than “told.” She said that she found one character’s dialogue style unrealistic, and mentioned that “nothing really happens in this chapter.”

Step 4: Ask yourself: what can I do to address these issues?

The agent’s comments were enormously helpful because they identified specific issues to address:

  • Less telling, more showing
  • Unrealistic dialogue
  • “Info dumps”
  • First chapter doesn’t have enough action

Step 5: Re-engage with your work–and enjoy!

So I went back to the manuscript and tried to implement what I’d learned. I cut “info dumps” and tried to introduce information more organically. I scoured the manuscript for things that could be “shown” rather than “told.” I changed that character’s dialogue to sound more believable. And I asked myself: what could be happening in this first chapter that will introduce the characters and set up the plot well? How can I make it more compelling? I had an idea, and rewrote most of the chapter accordingly.

When I was finished, I was very satisfied and pleased, because I felt the novel had improved greatly thanks to the changes I’d made.

And I must have been right, because the very first query I sent with the revised sample resulted in my first full manuscript request for that book.

(In case you’re wondering: I did send it to the helpful agent to ask if she’d like to take another look, but she didn’t respond, and shortly thereafter she stopped representing manuscripts in my genre…)

I can’t tell you how much my writing has improved thanks to comments from readers–from literary agents and editors to non-writer friends.

I know criticism is hard and painful, but trust me on this. If you learn to use it right, you might even start to love it.

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Dancing with the Self-Doubt Demons

I posted once on my other blog about Impostor Syndrome, and brought an anecdote that demonstrates the severity of my case.

It happened while I was reviewing a bio which was going to accompany a poem I wrote for Veils, Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression & Empowerment of Women. The editors of the book found a publisher a few years after my poem was initially accepted, and they sent out the proof of the manuscript for us to make sure that everything was still correct and accurate. My bio started with, “Daniella Levy is a writer, poet, translator, and self defense instructor…” And my first thought when I looked at it was, “Poet…? Really? Can I call myself that? Just because I write poetry occasionally… and performed a spoken word poem once for a small audience… I dunno, does that qualify me?”

…And then it hit me that the bio in question was for a poem.

That I wrote.

That was going to be published.

In a book.

HELLO.

Of course, I have since learned that you don’t need to be published to be a poet. You don’t even have to be a good poet, by any standard. All you have to do to be a poet is write poetry.

But I have this deeply ingrained perception that continues to torture me as my career moves forward: that there is this invisible line drawn across the universe that separates the Real Artists™ from the riffraff. And the riffraff are never aware that they are riffraff. They think they are Real Artists™ who are merely misunderstood or underappreciated by The Establishment™. So they flood the “indie” industries with their mediocrity and make it that much harder to find the Real Artists™ who really are misunderstood or underappreciated or otherwise chose an alternate route to showcase their work.

And one of the major downsides of harboring such an obnoxiously arrogant worldview is that I live in fear that I am, and always will be, in the riffraff section.

Consider the following. My short story, The Olive Harvest, was published last week in Reckoning, a new literary journal for creative writing on environmental justice. This is the first time I was paid for a piece of fiction (handsomely, too), and other than Veils, Halos & Shackles, my first publication of any sort on a platform that is not specifically Jewish or Israeli. This is, objectively, an admirable accomplishment–a step higher on the ladder I’ve been steadily climbing since I published Letters to Josepand recognition from The Establishment™ that what I am writing is Real Literature™.

And yet. A couple days before publication the editor sent out the proof for contributors to look over. And you wouldn’t believe the ridiculous things my self-doubt demons started screaming at me. Your picture looks dumb! Your bio is too long! Your story isn’t all that great! It looks pathetic next to the other stories! And your bio looks pitiful next to the bios of these other highly acclaimed/generally superior writers! Or alternately–maybe this is a second-rate magazine and all the pieces in it are meh and so is yours! Your message doesn’t fit the theme of the magazine perfectly! The editor is clearly insane to have included you! Not good enough not good enough not good enough who do you think you are blah blah blah blah blah

(I sincerely apologize on behalf of my self-doubt demons, Mr. DeLuca. They are unspeakably rude and have extremely poor judgement.)

Seriously, it’s amazing. I could win the godd**n Nobel Prize for Literature and they’d be like “Clearly the committee had a terrible selection this year.” “Yeah, but they gave the same prize to Bob Dylan. And um hello Yasser Arafat. The Nobel Prize committee obviously has no idea what it’s doing.” “BUT I STILL DON’T HAVE AN ACADEMIC DEGREE SO WHAT DOES ANYTHING MATTER?”

*headdesk*

The only way to navigate this is to recognize that those demons are not speaking Truth, they are speaking Fear. They are trying to protect me, from disappointment, from external criticism, and to some degree–ironically–from shame. Self-doubt and self-criticism are part of a mechanism for inoculating oneself against making mistakes and taking unnecessary risks. This is not always bad; a little self-doubt makes you cautious and humble. A lot of self-doubt, however, can be crippling, because HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO EVER GET ANYTHING DONE WITH ALL THIS NOISE IN MY HEAD?

It occurred to me recently that I have a reward system in place for my failures, and that serves me very well… but I don’t have a system for acknowledging and recognizing my accomplishments. I mean, back when I developed my “rejection chocolate system” I guess it hadn’t even occurred to me that I’d need a reward system for acceptance letters or contract signings. Getting an acceptance is its own reward, isn’t it? I imagined getting The Call from an agent or publisher, squealing and jumping up and down with excitement, crying for joy, and shouting from the rooftops!

In reality, when I got the phone call from my publisher at Kasva Press informing me that they’d like to publish An Ancient Whisper, I was in total shock. Like, staring-blankly-at-the-wall I-cannot-digest-the-concept-that-this-is-happening-in-actual-reality shock. And the emotion I felt most strongly was not joy–it was fear, of all things. The demons were saying: What if this isn’t real? What if this is like that time I was offered a contract by an “agent” who turned out to be a fraud? (This happened very early on, when I was a naive teenager, and thankfully my parents were suspicious when the “agent” asked for $250 up front. It was the worst let-down ever.) I knew that this was different, but I was afraid to let myself celebrate. I was terrified to believe it was true.

My husband, God bless him, took one look at my face and fixed me a stiff drink.

So then I told myself that I’d feel better once we had it on paper. But after we signed the contract, my primary emotion was, once again, anxiety. What if we missed something? What if this is all a terrible idea? What if the publisher invests a ton of money and time in this book and people hate it and it doesn’t sell? What if people write nasty reviews? What if what if what if

It. Never. Ends.

And I think that, paradoxically, is the key to dealing with these critical and fearful voices. Recognizing that it doesn’t end. They will always find something to say.

So… you can do what I do, and externalize them as “self-doubt demons,” who you can write letters to, dialogue with, and laugh at. But if you do this, don’t forget–they are still a part of you, a part of you that is trying to protect you. So don’t be too harsh on them. Be the responsible adult. Let them have their say and then, when they’ve calmed down, do the brave thing anyway.

And as for the riffraff section: it’s like I wrote in my previous post. “Not being great doesn’t make me unworthy. It doesn’t mean my work shouldn’t be shared and enjoyed by other people.” You don’t have to be a Great Artist™ for your work to be worth sharing. Some people are going to love it. Some people are going to hate it. Whether it complies with some stuffy academic standard of excellence is not what’s important. What’s important is that you are genuine about who you are and what you’re doing, and that you keep seeking the audience that connects with your work, because it changes their lives for the better and makes them feel less alone.

That is what matters.

Striving for Greatness While Embracing Good-Enough

A few short weeks before I self-published Letters to Josep, I received some really stinging criticism. “It’s nothing special,” I was told. And it wasn’t just anybody who said this: it was an author and educator I had contacted in hopes of getting an endorsement, who, months earlier, had called my work “impressive” and referred me to a potential publisher. I think he may have forgotten who I was in the meantime; I don’t know what else would account for the sharp discrepancy between his reactions.

Objectively, it was a really crappy thing to happen so close to the book’s release. It was the only response I’d gotten out of all the requests I’d put out asking for endorsements. Approaching people for blurbs and reviews is about the scariest thing I’ve ever had to do, and to have this be the only thing I got back for my efforts was really, really discouraging.

But as the existence of this entire blog attests… I’m stubborn as all hell. When I decide to do something, I do it, come hell or high water. So I nursed my wounds, had some chocolate, and went ahead with my plans to publish the book.

Half a year later, however, I’ve found that the incident still reverberates and makes me afraid to approach people for their comments on my work.

For example: I gave a copy of Letters to Josep to a well-known rabbi a couple months ago, and though I know he is very accessible, I have been too chicken to follow up with him. Josep has also sent the book to a few public figures in Catalonia, only one of whom acknowledged receipt so far. I’ve had an e-mail sitting in my inbox for more than a week, addressed to another author and public figure who I know likes me and enjoys my writing and would probably be more than happy to help… but I still haven’t worked up the courage to hit “send.” While I am really hoping to get some kind of positive response from any or all of them, I’m completely terrified that they’ll respond negatively. What if they hate it? Or, more realistically, what if they think it’s “nothing special”–like that critic mentioned at the top of the post?

Nothing special.

This phrase brought to mind something I remembered from the writing of researcher Brené Brown. She calls it “fear of mediocrity.” People today are terrified to be mediocre, to be average. I don’t want my stuff to be “decent,” I want it to be exceptional. I want to be exceptional. I want to be a great writer.

This desire to be exceptional at everything is a form of perfectionism. We want to be the best at everything we do. But we can’t be. We can only be the best at what we are.

I may one day be a great writer. More likely, I will continue to improve at what I am now: a good writer.

A good-enough writer.

As a good-enough writer, I’m probably not going to go down in the history books. I’m probably not going to win any prizes, nor are my books going to become bestsellers. I’m going to get some scathing reviews on Amazon. I’m going to get some criticism from people of all walks of life. (That happens to great writers, too.) It’s going to hurt. I’ll give myself chocolate when it happens, I’ll take what constructive criticism I can use, and I’ll move on to bigger and better things.

Not being great doesn’t make me unworthy. It doesn’t mean my work shouldn’t be shared and enjoyed by other people.

What if what that guy said is true, and my work is mediocre?

So what?

I know the true value of what I’ve done. And the artistic/literary quality is just the tip of the iceberg. Letters to Josep was more than collection of letters about Judaism. It was even more than a tribute to an important friendship in my life. It was the sweet fruit of a bitter struggle, a very troubled and turbulent period in our lives. Starting the blog was a sort of crazy, wildly creative coping mechanism. And then, the decision to turn it into a book and publish it myself was a great act of courage–a decision to stop sitting back and waiting for someone else to determine whether my work was “good enough.”

What I achieved with LtJ was far more than its value as a piece of writing. And I deserve to be proud of it, even if somebody thinks it’s “nothing special.”

…I know all that. In my head.

As I moaned about all this to my long-suffering husband last night, I asked him if he thinks it will always be like this. Will I always be terrified of criticism? Will the soul-crushing anxiety about the future always overwhelm the sweet satisfaction of success? I think the answer is yes and no. It’s like rejections. They always hurt, but after a while, it becomes easier to shrug them off, especially when you get enough praise and encouragement to hold as a shield against the criticism.

So… I decided that I need to give more space to the positive feedback. Negative feedback has this way of swallowing up all the good things people have said. So I made this graphic; gathered from quotes from some of my favorite bits of feedback in the last few years. As I gathered them, I noticed that at the center of everything, there were five words that resonated the most, that felt like the main reason my writing matters. So I put those words dead center.

I hope to be adding to this in the future, and I plan on making an effort to keep a record of all the lovely things people say to me about my writing, so I can take it out and read it carefully when I need it.

why-my-writing-matters

Someday Your “Yes” Will Come

When I started writing this post, it felt kind of funny.

Hypocritical, almost.

I mean… this is the blog I explicitly started on the banner of shifting focus away from success stories and happy endings, and towards talking about rejection. My first post was powerful precisely because of my particular position at the time–a writer who, for many years, had consistently failed to get her stories published, and despite this, continued to believe in her work and to keep trying. Without the “and then.” Because there doesn’t need to be an “and then” for that effort to be worth something.

But if you don’t give up, if you keep creating, and keep trying, and keep saying “yes” to opportunities, and keep risking rejection… one way or another, one day, you will have some kind of “and then.”

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.

Two months after I wrote those words in my introductory post to the Rejection Survival Guide, my short story, Immersion, was published in the Jewish Literary Journal.

And then, my short story Scarf Sisters was accepted for publication in arc 25, literary journal of the Israel Association of Writers in English (to be published this winter).

…And then, I found a publisher for my novel.

Yeah. You read that right.

excited gif

I’ve been sitting on this news since the end of September, waiting until it was on paper before making official announcements. We just signed the contract.

It was one of those crazy situations where all the components have been slowly building and lining up for several years unbeknownst to me, and all it took was one conversation to make everything fall into place. The first piece of the puzzle was a poem I wrote on a whim, in response to a submission call years ago. This led to its publication in the Veils, Halos & Shackles anthology. The publisher, Yael Shahar of Kasva Press, contacted me to give me my contributor’s copy. She happened to be someone I sort of know from various online settings and through mutual friends; an author in her own right. From here to there, we ended up exchanging books and ideas, and when I mentioned that I write fiction as well, she enthusiastically invited me to send her my manuscript. Two days later she called me to tell me that she wants to take it on.

This is the “yes” I’ve been dreaming of for almost 15 years.

Well… sort of.

Technically my fantasy was a “yes” from a literary agent. I dreamed of getting published by a major publishing company–without any prior credentials or platform–and then sitting with my feet up waiting for the rave reviews, fan mail, and royalties to come pouring in.

I may as well have imagined using a unicorn as a footrest.

So, this is the “yes” I’ve been waiting for… adjusted for deflation of my ego and expectations over the years.

And in this rare, very long-in-coming moment of accomplishment… here’s what I want to say to those of you still drowning in “nos.”

Keep going.

I KNOW HOW ANNOYING IT IS TO HEAR THIS FROM ME RIGHT NOW.

SERIOUSLY.

If I were reading this entry six months ago I would have wanted to throw a book at myself. A few months ago I posted an entire tirade against telling people not to give up! But let me clarify that what I mean when I say “Keep going.

I don’t mean “Keep sending the same submission to the same exact market forever and ever and eventually someone will like it.”

What I mean is this:

Keep doing what you love.

Keep listening to yourself.

Keep creating when that is right for you.

Keep engaging with your work and embracing constructive criticism and opportunities for growth.

Keep taking breaks when you need to.

Keep your mind open to other possibilities and solutions–and be humble enough to try “lower-prestige” opportunities. You gotta start somewhere.

Keep trying new things.

Keep putting yourself out there.

When you do this, when you are persistent and flexible and in love with what you’re doing, eventually, magic will happen.

The magic may not look like what you dreamed. But you know what? Up close, even getting everything you ever dreamed can be, in the immortal words of Wicked lyricist Stephen Schwartz, “a little… well… complicated.”

Once upon a time, I thought of a literary agent as a kind of fairy godmother who would swoop in, wave her wand, turn my manuscript into a magic carriage, and sweep me away to Authorland.

Comic of girl standing opposite fairy godmother saying,
Preach, sister. Used with permission.

But in the past few years I’ve learned that that’s not how it works. Even if you are lucky enough to have an agent, you don’t just hand off your manuscript and sit back waiting for the world to be blown away by your genius. You have to put yourself out there, you have to make connections, you have to keep writing and keep promoting until the book is pouring out of your ears and you never want to look at it again.

But I do have some good news about Authorland: you don’t get there via magic carriage. You get there by writing a book! No fairy godmothers required!

I got to live my dream of walking into a bookstore and seeing my book on display, not because of an agent-fairy-godmother, but because I believed in my work enough to publish it myself and put it out there without the validation of a higher authority.

And it was that–the putting myself out there, the daring greatly, the thinking outside the box, the grinding, consistent, difficult work of submitting and revising and clarifying for myself what success means to me–that got me a publisher for my book in a totally unexpected way.

I mean… I’m not exactly on my way to being a literary superstar here. I probably never will be, and I’m okay with that. Because at the end of the day–that’s never really what I wanted. And that fact is something I had to clarify for myself very carefully before I got to this point.

There are no glass slippers in my story. Just my own tired, blistered feet.

So… to those of you with equally tired feet. Those of you with inboxes and mailboxes and phone calls full of “nos.” Those of you who are questioning whether it’s really worth it to keep pursuing this dream. Those of you who are brave enough to keep going and who continue to believe in your work despite all the rejection and criticism.

To that brokenhearted woman I was, a year and a half ago, crying her eyes out at 3 a.m. because she finally let herself feel the pain of all the disappointment after a particularly difficult rejection.

Someday your “yes” will come.

It might take 15 years.

It might take hundreds of rejections.

It might require a serious shift in expectations and flexibility about what that “yes” will look and sound like.

And I know how hard it is to keep hoping for so long after so much disappointment. God Almighty. Trust me. I know.

Throw a book at me if you must. I know your pain.

But it will come. I promise you. It will. It will, if you just. keep. going.


P.S. If you want to know more about my forthcoming book, be sure to sign up for my newsletter here!

Letters to My Self-Doubt Demons

Dear Never-Good-Enough Demon,

You are an insane and unreasonable perfectionist with completely impossible standards.

Chill the heck out.

Sincerely,

Daniella


Dear Who-Do-You-Think-You-Are Demon,

Let’s make this one thing clear.

Just because I am not a Great Writer™, doesn’t mean my work does not deserve to see the light of day.

Just because I may never be able to write with the brilliance of J. K. Rowling, Dara Horn, or Ernest Hemingway, does not mean my writing is of no value.

So please stop citing my general inferiority as a reason to despair, give up, or cease my efforts to improve my writing and get it published. It’s just stupid.

Sincerely,

Daniella


Dear I’ll-Never-Have-Another-Good-Idea Demon,

Okay… you know, let’s do a little thought experiment where this fear materializes and I die never having written another story I love.

Now read this carefully because it’s important.

It won’t matter.

Much as I enjoy defining myself as a writer, much as I dreamed of one day introducing myself as “Daniella Levy, author”–author is not all I am. My writing, and its quality, does not define me as a person, and if I never accomplish anything great with my writing, that doesn’t mean I won’t have accomplished anything worth being proud of.

I am a human being. I am a friend, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a mother, and an aunt. I’ve raised three little boys to the ages of 7, 6, and 4, and they are happy and healthy and kind little guys who are not afraid to cry, who stick up for each other and for their friends, and who spontaneously express gratitude. That is probably the biggest accomplishment of my life so far. It won’t get me into any hall of fame, but who cares?

If I never write another story I love, I will still pray with tears streaming down my face; I will still sing at the top of my voice while washing dishes; I will still love deeply and fiercely; I will still support my friends and family; I will still wrestle with God; I will still bake the most delicious challah for Shabbat; I will still listen, I will still give solid hugs, I will still do what I can to inspire and encourage people, and raise my children to create a better world than the one I will leave.

The most important story I will ever create is that of my life, and it won’t need to be written anywhere.

Sincerely,

Daniella


Dear You’re-Nothing-Special Demon,

Neither are you.

Also, being special is overrated. I am me, and that’s enough, and you don’t get to tell me otherwise.

Sincerely,

Daniella


Dear This-Is-All-Pointless Demon,

I apologize for the impersonal nature of this letter. I receive hundreds of proposals from various demons and I wish I had time to respond to them all individually. I carefully consider every submission I receive, and I’m afraid I did not find yours to be a good fit for me at this time. Please note that this is a highly subjective market and another writer may feel differently.

I wish you the best of luck in your search for a creative person to torture.

Best,

Daniella

How to Not Strangle People Who Are More Successful than You

Poet and blogger Trish Hopkinson recently reposted an article I wrote about rejection and the value of hope. That article was a sort of precursor to this blog, and it made me feel very warm and fuzzy to see it popping up again. I got some really lovely responses to it the first time, and even more this time around.

One of the responses that was most significant for me was from a writer of fiction who experienced a great deal of rejection before getting published. As I’ve pointed out before, I have a complicated relationship with most success stories, but I found this one to be inspiring, because her path to publication seemed to look a heck of a lot like mine: lined with frustration, disappointment, repeated failure, and worst of all, the infuriating “almosts.” Her dream coming true did not happen like a bolt of lightening; it was like a rose bud opening slowly, petal after petal. It just rang very true for me.

A few days earlier, however, I had sort of the opposite experience. I learned that a friend of a friend of mine got an agent. And yes, even with all my “the only opinion that really matters is your own” “find your own definition of success” feel-good self-compassion stuff, I was overcome by an intense, ugly, toddler-esque jealousy. Why her and not me? Why her and not me?

You know what I’m talking about, right? Anne Lamott has a whole chapter on it in her book Bird by Bird: “Some wonderful, dazzling successes are going to happen for some of the most awful, angry, undeserving writers you know–people who are, in other words, not you.” “Those writers will get the place on the best-seller list, the movie sales, the huge advances, and the nice big glossy pictures in the national magazines where the photo editors have airbrushed out the excessively long eyeteeth, the wrinkles, and the horns. The writer you most admire in the world will give them rave reviews in the Times or blurbs for the paperback edition. They will buy fancy houses, big houses, or second houses that are actually as nice, or nicer, than the first ones. And you are going to want to throw yourself down the back stairs, especially if that person is a friend.”

Anne (I can call you Anne, right? We’re friends. In my head) goes on to describe her own struggles with jealousy and some coping mechanisms she’s worked out for herself. I highly recommend reading that chapter–and the book in general, especially if you’re a writer.

The thing is, it’s not just jealousy that happens. It’s jealousy, and then it’s the shame you throw on top of the jealousy: “How can I feel such an ugly feeling? I should be happy for her!” One of the things Anne found most helpful was to stop telling herself that. You do not need to be happy for people who are doing better than you. You just have to not be a jerk about it. It’s okay to feel jealous. It happens to all of us, and it’s a natural response to the situation. The question is what you do with it.

Here’s the thing–we all have different paths to walk. And they can look radically different from each other. Some people have really easy paths. Some people have really hard paths. I don’t know why. It doesn’t have anything to do with their virtue or their skill. Being very talented and skilled helps, but without the right circumstances lining up for you, you won’t move an inch.

When your eyes stray to other people’s paths you might go out of your mind. “How come she gets roses and all I get is thorns?!” “Who gave him a golf cart while I have to walk?!” “WHY THEM AND NOT ME?” And you might even look at the paths of people who’ve done worse than you and brush off your shoulders in self-congratulation: “Yes, well, clearly I am more capable/talented/otherwise superior.”

Nope. That’s not how this works. In an insanely competitive market like the arts, skills and talent are not enough. It’s either Divine providence or dumb luck, depending who you ask. We have to accept this.

plans-modifiedAs a religious woman, accepting that some higher Being has a plan for me comes naturally. If you believe everything is random and has no purpose, you probably won’t find this idea very comforting. But if you believe that there is some order to the universe and that things happen for a reason, you must believe that the path you’ve been given is not because you are better or worse than anyone else, but because that is the path that is right for you.

And the main thing is to keep walking. Even when it looks like it’s leading you nowhere. It’s leading somewhere. It may not be where you think you want to be. But I sincerely believe that it’s where you need to be.

So if you’re going insane from jealousy, remember this:

  • It is totally normal and legitimate to feel jealous. What is not legitimate is to lash out or be cruel to someone because you are jealous. Be kind to others as well as yourself!
  • Jealousy is made of hurt, anger, and fear. Ask yourself: what hurts about this? What is making me angry? What am I afraid of? Write it down, or tell a friend. Break the jealousy down to its components and examine it thoroughly. Don’t shove it under the rug. Remember our affirmation from the Creative Resilience Manifesto? “I allow myself to feel everything”? Jealousy is one of the uglier feelings we must allow ourselves to feel. But this is part of the deal; everything means everything!
  • Once you have unpacked your jealousy and given it the attention it deserves, think about something concrete that you can do right now that will help you feel that you are moving forward, even the tiniest bit, on your own path. Create something new. Brainstorm a title for that untitled piece. Submit something. Send that e-mail asking about a promotion opportunity. Taking action will help you own your path and turn your frustration into hope.

Has there been a time you felt consumed by this kind of jealousy? How do you cope? Tell me about it in the comments!

A Happy Confession

I have a confession to make.

In my first post on this blog, I wrote: “I’ve been writing stories since I was four years old… Not one of them has been published.”

As of today, that is no longer true.

My short story, Immersion, was published today in the Jewish Literary Journal. It’s about a religious Jewish woman who copes with heartbreak in a rather unusual way. You can read it here.

See, I don’t get rejected 100% of the time. Only 99.99999%! 😉

It’s a niche journal, not too fancy, but you gotta start somewhere, and I found the editors to be professional and insightful.

Here’s praying it’s the first of many.

In the meantime, don’t you worry, in the past 24 hours I got another two rejections for another of my stories, which had me despairing and questioning all my life choices, as per usual. 😉

4 Strategies for Surviving the Wait for a Response to Your Submission

You know what’s worse than getting a rejection?

Waiting for a rejection.

Okay, maybe not worse. But it’s really hard. Especially when it’s a very long wait, and especially when the stakes are high. I have had five full manuscript requests from agents in my life. The wait between the request and the rejection is nothing less than harrowing… and it lasts. for. ever.

What do you do with yourself? How do you not sit there staring at your inbox, chewing your nails, for 2-3 months straight?

This post is a collection of strategies I’ve discovered. Please share your strategies below!

1) Let Yourself Dream

I know this may go against the common wisdom–“don’t get your hopes up”–and I’ve mentioned before that I have a bone to pick with that “wisdom.” But I’m not talking about your expectations from reality. I’m talking about letting yourself fantasize about the outcome you wish for.

“But…!” I hear you protest. “I’m a Real Adult! I can’t spend my life in Lalaland dreaming about fame and glory!”

No, but you certainly can–and maybe even should–spend part of your life in Lalaland.

Fantasy can be a powerful coping mechanism. It has its dangers, yes. But being that you’re a Real Adult, you probably differentiate rather well between fantasy and reality. If you’re a creative person, you probably have a vivid imagination, and you probably fantasize about achieving your dreams already. Contrary to what you may have been told, this is a Good Thing. I’ll show you why.

Close your eyes and imagine your phone rings. On the other end is someone giving you the best news you could possibly hear right now. Really picture this carefully; imagine their voice, the feel of the phone against your ear, and really hear the words and let yourself react naturally to what you hear.

How do you feel?

Probably flooded with excitement. You may feel a tingling in your limbs and your heart pounding. Even though the situation you’re imagining isn’t real, the excitement is.

Science tells us that experiences that take place only in our minds can have the same or very similar effects on our brains as the real thing happening. Martial artists who practice kata (forms) in their minds actually improve their technique. And if there’s a decent chance that what you’re going to experience when you get a response to that submission is the disappointment and sadness of a “no”… why not give yourself a chance to experience the excitement and joy of a “yes,” even if it’s only in your imagination?

If all you experience from submission is disappointment and pain, you’re likely to burn out fast. Who wouldn’t? Who wants to constantly subject themselves to disappointment and pain?

But if you make the excitement and hope part and parcel with the experience of submission, you are much more likely to keep at it.

2) Create Something New!

This is a pretty common recommendation, and in this context, I think it’s a fairly good one. Obsessing over your submission is not going to influence the decision of whoever’s considering it. Might as well invest those energies in a new project and do what you love, right?

If you’re not feeling inspired, invest in what writer Amity Gaige calls “inspirational research” or what Julia Cameron calls “filling the well.” Read good fiction. Visit an art exhibit. Take a walk in nature. Listen to music you love. If you’re a writer, paint. If you’re a painter, write. Etc.

3) Keep ‘Em Rolling

I’ve read recommendations to send out query letters in batches of 6-8 queries and wait to hear back on them before the next batch. That way you can see what kind of responses you’re getting and adjust/revise your submission before submitting to more. Fairly practical advice.

The problem is, this makes your life a sickening emotional rollercoaster. You send out the submission. 6-8 weeks later you get a wave of rejections (or hopefully, requests to see more, or acceptances! But, sadly, most likely rejections). Then you send it out again. So you have a period of hope, followed by a period of disappointment, followed by a period of hope, and on and on…

When I was still actively seeking an agent, I had what I called a “query-a-week policy.” I sent at least one query letter each week. That way, when I got a rejection, I knew that I still had another few queries out there and wouldn’t have to wait a whole new “cycle” for a response. This maintains a steady level of hope.

And hope–if I haven’t emphasized this enough–is one of the biggest keys to resilience.

The “rolling submission” method doesn’t have the advantage of the “study groups” you get from submitting in batches. But you can still adjust your submission as you go.

I don’t know about other fields, but I know that literary magazines tend to have reading periods. There are lists and groups online where you can see current calls for submissions. Keep on top of those and try to submit on a regular basis. And if you’re feeling impatient about hearing back on a submission–go ahead and make another submission!

4) Pray or Meditate

You don’t have to be religious to engage in the practice of self-compassion and wishing yourself well. I’m a religious Jew, and when in doubt, I like to whip out my book of Psalms. But meditation is wonderful, too, and you can find excellent guided meditations on YouTube an other places on the web. For our purposes, I recommend finding one that focuses on inviting blessing and abundance into your life, or “metta” (loving-kindness) meditation, which involves cultivating compassion for yourself and others. Here’s one I found helpful while I was waiting to hear back on a full manuscript request.

Part of what’s so difficult about waiting is that it is so passive. You’re waiting for something to happen and there’s nothing you can do to make it happen faster! But praying or otherwise wishing yourself well helps you move from that sense of passivity to a sense of activity–doing something active to prepare yourself emotionally and spiritually for the outcome.

What are some strategies you employ while waiting to hear back on a submission? Which one of these have you tried, and how have they worked for you? I’d love to hear!

Stop Telling Me Not to Give Up

I’m sure you’ve heard those stories. The ones about extremely famous people, who experienced some form of rejection or failure, and went on to “prove them all wrong.”

Some are true. (The Beatles were rejected by Decca records. Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper and told he lacked creativity. Albert Einstein really was a late talker. Etc.)

Some of them are exaggerations or inventions. (Michael Jordan wasn’t cut from his high school basketball team. C. S. Lewis was not rejected 800 times before he was first published. Harry Potter was rejected by a dozen publishers, but J. K. Rowling already had an agent at that point, whom she snagged after sending only two query letters.)

The point of these stories is, of course, that rejection and failure don’t mean you can’t succeed. I think that is an important and inspiring message.

But I also think these stories are misleading, and even harmful, when taken at face value.

Here’s why.

The Danger of Survivorship Bias

A very well-meaning person once heard that I was trying to get my novel published, and told me not to give up. She saw the weary smile on my face and said, “It’s only the ones who give up who don’t succeed.”

I looked her square in the eye and asked, “Have you ever considered the possibility that you don’t know about the ones who kept trying, their whole lives, but didn’t succeed, because they didn’t succeed?

The Beatles were not the only musicians to be rejected by Decca. They were probably not the only good musicians to be rejected by Decca, either. How many music sensations did we never get to hear because they didn’t manage to find a recording company that liked their sound? How many truly amazing manuscripts were buried with their authors and never saw the light of day?

We’ll never know, but sadly, the answer is probably a lot.

We only hear about the ones who succeed, so we think they are representative. They aren’t. They are representative of the very small percentage of cases, of people who had just the right balance of talent, courage, and dumb luck/Divine assistance to make it big.

We need to face this truth and stare it in the face. We are not all the Beatles. We are not all J. K. Rowling. We are not all Walt Disney.

That doesn’t mean we should stop trying.

Freeing Ourselves from a Narrow Definition of Success

When I was contemplating the possibility of self-publishing Letters to Josep, I found myself approaching this question: what does it mean for me to be successful as an author? What specific, concrete results or experiences am I really dreaming of achieving?

When I sat down and thought about this, I came up with two things:

  1. I want to walk into a bookstore, see a book on the shelf, pick it up, hold it in my hands, and be able to say, “I wrote this.”
  2. I want something I wrote to change the way someone thinks or feels about something important to me.

That was it.

And I realized that I did not need an agent or a fancy publisher or even to sell more than a dozen copies to make that dream come true. I was willing to concede the brick-and-mortar bookstore part; after all, those establishments are becoming a rare relic of a pre-Amazon past.

But as it turns out, I didn’t have to.

Letters to Josep on display at Pomeranz Booksellers in central Jerusalem
Letters to Josep on display at Pomeranz Booksellers in central Jerusalem

Within a week of releasing Letters to Josep, someone wrote to me to tell me what an impact one small line from the book had had on her.

So under my definition of success, Letters to Josep was a success.

Typical inspirational success stories tell us that success means becoming rich and famous. They don’t give us room to ask ourselves what success really means to us.

Sometimes Giving Up Is the Bravest Thing You Can Do

If we buy into the idea that if we only try hard enough, we’ll succeed, one of these days we’re going to turn around and say, “This just isn’t working. I’ve given this everything I have, and I still haven’t succeeded. Why?”

I am writing this blog because I reached that point with my latest novel not so very long ago.

Let me tell you something. It is not easy to query more than 100 literary agents over the course of 18 months.

It is not easy to persist in the face of so many rejections. And there were little milestones along the way that made me feel that I was going in the right direction; encouragement from agents, keep going, keep trying. The manuscript evolved and improved dramatically over the course of that time thanks to the feedback I got from agents and friends. But all efforts turned up dry. All partial and full manuscript requests were turned down. All gates that opened led to dead ends. And at a certain point I realized that the querying process was no longer giving me hope, only anguish.

Sometimes we need to give ourselves permission to rest.

Sometimes we need to know when it’s time to walk away–temporarily, or permanently–from a pursuit that is taking away more than it is giving us.

“Giving up” has such a negative connotation in a culture so obsessed with productivity. “Quitter” is one of the worst insults in American English. But there’s a concept in economics called the “sunk cost fallacy.” It’s when you continue to invest in something that is clearly not profitable only because you’ve already invested so much in it.

Sometimes giving up is the bravest thing you can do. Sometimes you need to recognize that you’ve invested everything you could in something that did not bear fruit, and it’s time to cut your losses. Giving up from a place of self-compassion and faith that you are doing the right thing for yourself is completely different from giving up from a place of fear.

And… you can always decide to pick it up again when you’re ready. I still Google agents from time to time. I will only query when it feels right.*

Investing in the Right Things

There is one piece of advice that all writers get that is absolutely, 100% true.

“Keep writing.”

I used to be annoyed when I got this advice. It sounded kind of like “Keep dreaming.” “You’re not good enough yet. Maybe you’ll be better if you keep practicing.”

And I found it infuriating to be told that just because I was very young, I couldn’t produce anything worthwhile.

While it was true that I was an unusually mature teenager and that my age didn’t necessarily mean I couldn’t produce good literature, I still lacked something that could only be gained with time: experience. Anything I could have written at age 17, however talented I may have been, is going to pale in comparison to something I wrote at age 27. And I hope and pray that will be true of something I may write at age 37 or 47.

The perk of being an artist, my friends, is that we are like fine wines; the passage of time and experience itself gives our work depth, complexity, and color that cannot be achieved by anything else.

Sometimes we need to realize that the emotional energy we are investing in trying to get our work out there might be better spent invested in creating the next, greater work of art. Your “self-doubt demons” might drive the fear into you that you will never create anything better. This happens to me all the time. Sometimes I’m able to ignore those voices. Sometimes they suck me into their vortex of “never good enough.” It’s a struggle, but the important thing is not to let them stop you from doing what you love.

The Lack-of-Wings Predicament

You may have seen a meme going around with a quote from a poem by Erin Hanson. I should mention that it works a lot better in context. But this is what appears on the meme:

‘What if I fall?’
Oh but my darling,
What if you fly?

And I’m just like… really?

You think I should jump out the window and risk breaking my neck over the chance that I might fly?

Let’s be real. We have to weigh the risks of falling against the chances of flying. I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that most people reading this are not in possession of a pair of wings. Therefore, let me state the obvious: jumping out a window to see if you can fly is not called “brave,” it’s called “suicide.”

The choice not to jump is a lot less glorious, but sometimes it’s the right one.

So… my creative friends… this is what I want to tell you, and myself, today.

You are allowed to give up.

You are allowed to rest.

You are allowed to define what success means to you and operate accordingly.

You are allowed to choose which pursuits are most worthy of your energies–based on what’s right for you now.

And when you’ve decided to walk away from something, and someone tells you to not to give up… you have my permission to roll your eyes, curse under your breath, and keep walking with your head held high.


*I feel an obligation to add a footnote here for the sake of full disclosure, but please do not let it distract you from the very important message of this post. Just a few months after writing this entry, my novel was accepted for publication by a small publisher. More thoughts on what it means not to give up in my post about that acceptance, “Someday Your ‘Yes’ Will Come.

The Creative Resilience Manifesto: How to Stay Strong in the Face of Criticism & Rejection

In my first post I introduced what I’m calling the “Creative Resilience Manifesto.”

It’s basically a collection of affirmations, beliefs that have helped me stay focused on my goals as a writer and weather the storms of difficult rejections.

The purpose of this post is to elaborate on them and explain why I think they are important.

If any or all of the affirmations resonate with you, you can print them out and post them near your workspace, on your bathroom mirror, or on your fridge. When you get a rejection, take a deep breath and read them aloud to yourself. (You can find the manifesto without the explanations here. I hope to create a pretty PDF version of it that you can print out–or to inspire a graphic artist to do so! How about you? 😉 )

I create because creation is an act of love.

Creation is taking elements that exist–words, paint, clay, musical notes, movements and gestures, mathematical formulas, whatever–and connecting and combining them in a way no one has ever done before, breathing your own life into them.

Like the Creator breathing life into Adam, this is an act of love. When we create, we channel the Divine.

When we create, we give expression to the dreams and thoughts and images and sounds from within us. This is an act of love for ourselves. We create because we love to.

When we share what we create, we give of ourselves to the world and leave our unique handprint on the tapestry of humanity. This is an act of love for the universe.

I share my creations because I believe in their worth.

When we share to seek approval, or to please or impress others, we make the worth of our work conditional on that approval. That means that when someone we share it with disapproves or criticizes it, we crumble.

Creation is an act of love, and true love is unconditional. A resilient sense of worthiness cannot be conditional on someone else’s feelings about our work. We must start out believing that our work is worthy to withstand disapproval, criticism, and rejection.

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

Disapproval and rejection are always going to hurt. But they don’t have to destroy us.

We don’t need the approval of some “higher authority” to tell us that our work is worthy.

We have been trained to think this way. “If my book is published by one of the Big Five publishing companies–then my work is worthy.” “If my poem is accepted by a high-ranking literary magazine–then my work is worthy.” “If my piece is put on display in a prestigious gallery–then my work is worthy.” “If my piece is approved by an elite professor–then my work is worthy.”

This is BS.

When it comes to your work, you are the highest authority.

When I was a teenager and already the author of several novels, I thought I wouldn’t be a Real Author™ until I was published by a “traditional” publishing company. I thought I wouldn’t qualify for that title until I was “approved” by an editor in an office somewhere.

It took until just a few years ago, when I read one line by singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer, to realize that that wasn’t true. She says, “You’re an artist when you say you are.”

That’s it.

That’s all it takes.

“And you’re a good artist,” Palmer goes on, “when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected.”

If you find an audience, even if it’s an audience of one, who believes in your work–you are a good artist.

And your work is worthy of sharing because it can cause other people to experience or feel something deep or unexpected.

This has nothing to do with the approval or validation of some “authority.”

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

There is a colossal difference between believing that your work is worthy, and believing that your work is perfect.

Constructive criticism hurts. All criticism does. And you definitely shouldn’t take everything anybody says about your work as gospel. If you do, you’ll end up creating only what other people think is good, and not what you think is good. And remember whose opinion is the only one that really matters?

If someone says something negative about your work that does not ring true to you–ascribe it to a difference in taste, toss it in the garbage, and move on. If it does ring true, though, and starts to give you a vision of a way your work could be better–seize the opportunity to engage with your work and play with it some more. (After all, why do we create in the first place? Because we love it. See item #1!)

Constructive criticism is just that–it builds you rather than destroys you. Once you get past the initial wave of hurt, you may find that the criticism actually inspires you.

After I wrote my latest novel, I actually found myself craving constructive criticism. I had so much fun writing the book that finishing it was like losing a friend. Finding opportunities to improve it meant that I could go play with my imaginary friends characters some more.

I cultivate hope.

This is a big one.

So big, I wrote an entire guest blog post on the topic of hope for poet Trish Hopkinson’s blog. You can check out the full post here, but here are the highlights:

I used to be terrified of hope.

Well, I was actually terrified of disappointment. But I saw hope as a seductive and deceptive force that enticed me to climb higher, making the inevitable fall hurt that much more…

Here’s the thing… maybe [hope] entices us to climb higher, and maybe the fall from that place hurts more. But that place it takes us is not just a place we fall from. It’s a place where we see farther, where we breathe better, where we reach higher.

Hope is the basic human emotion that keeps us moving forward, that keeps us striving for a better future, and that fills us with a sense of purpose in life. We deserve to feel it in our lives. Which is why…

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

“Prophylactic pessimism” is forcing yourself to expect the worst outcome in order to avoid the pain of disappointment. As I write in the guest post I linked to above:

I became a pro at “Don’t get your hopes up.” In fact, I made an art of killing hope at every opportunity. When an unread e-mail with the subject “Re: Query” would pop up in my inbox, I would automatically assume it was a rejection. Usually I was right. Occasionally, I was pleasantly surprised with a request to see more material. When I found myself fantasizing about The Call, I immediately shot it down by imagining how awful the rejection of that full request would be. I wanted to be prepared for the let-down, so I practiced it. This system—preventing disappointment by preemptively shutting down hope—seemed to be working well for a while.

Until it didn’t.

We all do this sometimes. Because disappointment hurts. The greater the hope, the more we wanted something, the more it will hurt, and we want to protect ourselves from that hurt by suppressing our desire and our hope.

This may seem reasonable, but here’s the problem: when we numb ourselves to negative emotions like fear, sadness, disappointment, and anger, we also numb ourselves to positive emotions like joy, hope, love, and excitement. (If you haven’t seen Brené Brown’s TED talk on the power of vulnerability, you need to get on that pronto.) I believe that we deserve to feel the highest heights of these positive emotions even at the expense of having to experience the negative ones. That’s why…

I invite myself to feel everything.

Experiencing the negative emotions can give us invaluable gifts: empathy, understanding, self-compassion, self-nurturing. We deserve to cultivate and experience these things alongside the positive emotions.

I think we are so afraid to feel pain because we haven’t been taught how to care for ourselves through the pain. We have been taught to numb it or to “stick it out” or do anything we can to make it go away. We have not been taught to be kind to ourselves, to ask ourselves what we need to heal, and give what we need to ourselves as generously as we can.

When we learn how to do this, when we trust ourselves to be there for ourselves through the pain, it becomes a lot less threatening.

Read more about the case for hope and against prophylactic pessimism here.

Getting criticized or rejected means
I dared to hope,
I dared to create,
I dared to share my work,
and I dared to face disappointment.

How many people do you know personally who have ever dared to risk getting a creative work rejected by an agent, editor, judge, or curator, or criticized by anyone at all?

If you can count them on two hands, you hang with an unusually awesome crowd.

The vast majority of people don’t do it. Most people are too afraid of exposing themselves and making themselves that vulnerable.

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

Every time we submit something, we give birth to a dream–a dream that our work will be accepted. When we get a no, the dream dies.

It’s okay to grieve for it.

In our culture stoicism is often mistaken for strength. It does not take strength to shove your grief under the rug and pretend it never happened. It takes a lot of strength to face your grief head on and let yourself feel it. This is the only way to really work past it. When we deny our grief, it comes out in other, sometimes harmful ways. The only way out is through.

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

If you have ever created something, you are brave. If you have ever shared something you created with somebody, you are very brave. If you have ever tried to get your work in front of an audience, you are unbelievably brave.

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

Life won’t always reward you for your courage, but you can.

I keep a stash of mini chocolate bars in my closet. I call them “rejection chocolates.” When I get a rejection, I treat myself to one. It may seem silly, but it actually makes a big difference for me. It associates rejection with something positive to look forward to, however small and insignificant. And it makes rejection into something more than just the loss of a dream. It makes it a celebration of courage, too.

I highly recommend this practice.


Is there anything you would add to this? What rituals or perspectives have you developed to help you handle rejection?