The Case for ‘Getting Your Hopes Up’

I cultivate hope.

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

I have found that of all the affirmations on the Creative Resilience Manifesto, it is these two that tend to meet the most resistance or confusion.

“It’s not that I don’t believe in hope…” people say. “It’s just that that kind of investment makes rejection so much harder to deal with. We can’t live our lives like that, plunging from hope to disappointment and rocketing back up again ad nauseam on a dizzying emotional roller-coaster of submission. Isn’t it better to learn to moderate our emotions and keep ourselves steady, so we can stay focused on our work?”

First of all: I want to make it clear that the path I propose may not be right for everyone.

It’s definitely not for the faint at heart.

I also don’t want you to think that I’m so great at taking my own advice! I, too, sometimes check my hope, either subconsciously or because I don’t have the strength to deal with the roller-coaster. I think it’s totally normal to need to step off sometimes and fall back on your old, comfortable coping mechanisms. It’s not all or nothing.

However.

I do sincerely believe that embracing hope fully is the ideal. And I’m going to devote this post to explaining why.

Let’s start here:

Should We Learn to “Moderate” Our Emotions?

I used to think this was the healthiest approach as well.

Two things happened that changed my view: embarking on a very meaningful and enlightening process of therapy; and becoming acquainted with the work of social researcher Brené Brown.

Brené Brown became famous for her TED talk about the power of vulnerability. If you haven’t seen it yet, definitely take 20 minutes out of your day to do so.

Her main point is that vulnerability is the key to creating meaningful connection and living life with courage and “wholeheartedness”. We can’t selectively numb our feelings, she says. If we numb sadness and anger, we also numb love and joy. So if we want to truly experience the good things in life, and maintain relationships that are open and honest and healthy, we have to stop running from the feelings that scare us and face them head on.

I grew up thinking that it was my responsibility to control my emotions. “Don’t be sad.” “Stop being so sensitive.” “You care too much.” Most of all: “don’t be angry.” The problem is, these feelings don’t actually just go away when you tell them to. If you’re successful enough at suppressing them, they turn into something else–something else that is often a lot more destructive.

This is what Brené Brown and my therapist taught me:

You cannot, and should not, control how you feel.

You can, and should, only control how you respond to what you feel.

Many of us respond to painful or scary emotions by numbing or suppressing them–or, to put it more gently, “moderating” them. Keeping them in check.

The real question is: what are we sacrificing when we do this?

And is the cost of letting ourselves hope really that much worse than the cost of preventing the disappointment?

Prophylactic Pessimism: A Win/Win Strategy?

The second affirmation at the top of this post mentions something called “prophylactic pessimism”. It’s my term for the technique of shutting down hope to avoid disappointment. We all do it to some degree, and it has a logic to it: if I always expect the worst, the worst that can happen is that my expectations will be met, and the best that can happen is that I’ll be pleasantly surprised. Win/win, right?

I certainly thought so. I wrote about it in my guest blog post for Trish Hopkinson, Riding the Rejection Roller Coaster:

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.

What if I told you that prophylactic pessimism doesn’t actually prevent disappointment?

What if I told you that all it does is turn that disappointment into something else?

Here’s what happened when I perfected the art of prophylactic pessimism:

  • I was less motivated
  • I was sadder and more jaded about life in general and the publishing industry in particular
  • I gave up more easily
  • I believed in my work less
  • I started fewer projects
  • I burned out quickly
  • I avoided taking risks that could have led to promising opportunities
  • I shrugged off my actual successes and dismissed my triumphs as not really meaning anything
  • When I did actually receive that rejection I had “practiced” for–I still felt awful!

I thought it was making me tough, impenetrable, resilient–but it was only making me numb.

Nonetheless, at the time, it seemed better than the alternative.

But one day I decided to do an experiment. You can read about it in greater detail on the guest post mentioned above. I decided to embrace hope just once; to let myself believe that a full manuscript request would end with an offer of representation.

It was scary. It really was. I knew I was setting myself up for a big, big disappointment. And when that rejection finally came, it was devastating. It was, as Brené Brown calls them, a true facedown moment; one of the worst I can remember. I had stepped into the arena of hope, just like Brené said to; I had dared greatly and faced my fears; I had made myself completely vulnerable; and I got sucker-punched and knocked flat on my face.

But. While the fall was definitely worse than it would have been if I had prevented myself from hoping…. I was surprised to learn that my recovery was much, much faster than it had been in other cases.

Gradually, I started to walk into that arena more and more. Sometimes I was too afraid and didn’t think I was strong enough to take the fall. But every time I did, I found that getting up again was easier; and more than that, my entire attitude towards my writing career was changing dramatically.

I started to realize that I was no longer constantly questioning whether I was ever going to succeed; I just knew that I would. The question was becoming how.

I was starting to enjoy the journey.

I no longer felt like a martyr.

I no longer felt weighed down by the expectations or standards of some external entity.

Sure, I was still terrified; sure, I still regularly experienced disappointment and despair and frustration; but something was fundamentally different. I felt unstoppable.

This was true resilience.

Disappointment Is Not Nearly as Bad When You Actually Know How to Cope with It

So was it worth facing that horribly painful disappointment to enjoy the benefits of fully embracing hope?

My answer is an unequivocal yes.

Because here’s what I learned from the floor of the arena of hope: it is completely possible to face disappointment head-on, in its full intensity, and walk yourself through and out of it effectively–and come out stronger, more resilient, more wise, and more hopeful than before.

But no one teaches us how.

All they teach is to avoid disappointment–and then they tell us it’s our fault for feeling it, because we made the mistake of letting ourselves hope!

Seriously?!

Here are some of the strategies I found:

  • Acknowledging and letting yourself feel the pain instead of struggling to make it stop (which just piles guilt and shame on top of the disappointment).
  • Being kind to yourself and giving yourself what you need, physically and spiritually–whether that’s rest, exercise, meditation, a walk in the park, a chocolate bar, getting a hug from a friend.
  • Sharing your pain with people who will respond with empathy.
  • Rewarding yourself for your courage and reminding yourself that you are awesome for taking this chance.

But the most powerful and most effective strategies for recovering from disappointment? They all involve the active cultivation of one particular emotion.

Guess which one.

Hope Is Not Just the Problem; It’s Also the Ultimate Solution

Here’s an unusual strategy I stumbled upon during that first experiment:

Then I did something kind of bizarre. I wrote a letter to myself from my favorite character in the novel.

“He” reminded me that this business is entirely subjective, and assured me that there is still a chance, and that he believes in me. “Honestly, woman, I don’t know how you do it,” “He” wrote. “I would never have been able to withstand all this negative energy from the universe. You have our support and love and admiration, and that’s got to be worth something, even if we are fictional characters who live in your head.”

Strange as it sounds, that was what helped me start to feel better. By that evening, I was already surfing around looking for more agents to query and chattering to my husband about new ideas.

In a way, writing that letter was calling up an inner voice that I was having trouble accessing through other means at that moment. And when I thought about it, I realized what that voice was.

It was the voice of hope.

That same hope that I thought did nothing but harm was what pulled me out of despair and helped me pull myself together and keep going.

Hope is not just something that sets us up to fall. It’s also the thing that helps us pull ourselves back up.

But we can’t have it one way and not the other. We can’t numb hope selectively. We have to embrace it completely to fully benefit from it. You can’t hope your work will succeed only when you need to get past disappointment, and then turn it off again when you’re anticipating a response to a submission. Feelings don’t work like that.

Here are some more strategies that involve rekindling hope:

  • Engaging once again with the work that you love, and reminding yourself what you love about it and what makes you believe in it.
  • Calling up the encouraging voices that reinforce your belief in your work: rereading any positive feedback you’ve received, or speaking to someone who loves your work about the criticism or rejection you experienced.
  • Starting something new that makes you excited about future possibilities–whether that’s a new project, or sending a new wave of submissions. (I’ve seen people refer to this latter strategy as “revenge submission”!)

Yes, I Know I’m Crazy.

I know my approach here goes against a lot of what you’ve probably been taught about how to deal with life.

But I firmly believe those common wisdoms are flawed and come from an approach that is fearful and unhealthy–one that is meant to prevent us from feeling painful things instead of effectively coping with them and growing from them.

I really, truly believe that the world will be a better place when we all learn to face our fears and disappointments fully, head-on, with unflinching courage. And I really, truly believe that doing this will ultimately make you happier and more resilient, as a person and as an artist.

Rejection Survival Guide Featured on “The Artist Unleashed”

Just wanted to bring your attention to this article, which I wrote for an inspirational blog called “The Artist Unleashed,” about the extraordinary origin story of this blog. I think it’s a good summary of the journey I’ve been on so far and the principles on which this blog is based. Check it out:

In June of 2016, I committed a rather strange act of desperation.

I started a blog: The Rejection Survival GuideIt had been 15 years since I’d sent my first query letter to an agent. Since then, I’d had many ups and downs and starts and stops and even some “almosts”—but never a “yes.” My sixth novel showed the most promise, but a few months earlier, the full manuscript had been rejected for the fourth time. Along with the 100+ rejections I’d racked up from other agents, plus all the rejections for the short stories I’d been submitting to literary magazines, I started to wonder if my calling in life was to get rejected. ​Well, I reasoned, at least I’m pretty good at it.

No, seriously.

(read more here)

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

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?