Saturday – 12:3opm – 1:30pm, Soul Cafe
Words and Image by Press Room Contributor Bridget Lutherborrow
Fail Harder sounds a lot like one of the other roundtables on the program, Going Bust, but this one is specifically about rejection and imposter syndrome – the side of failure that’s more about what goes on in your own head. The session is moderated by Laurie May and Elizabeth Flux, both of whom have worked as gatekeepers as well as writers – Laurie as a programmer and Elizabeth as an editor. “We’re here to tell you how important crushing rejection actually is,” says Laurie. It means we have to rebuild into more functioning human beings and it makes our work better.
The moderators start by relaying some of their own worst rejection stories. Elizabeth submitted to McSweeney’s, waited most of her life, and then got a one-sentence rejection saying why the piece wasn’t right. “A few chuckles but not really laughs” – for a piece about why headaches are tiny men running around in your head. Laurie deals with a lot of grant rejections, especially in what she calls “rejection March” – the time of year when all the applications you worked on over Christmas start rolling in at once. Now she’s started sewing them all together to make a dress.
Throughout the hour we try to nut out ways to harness the positive side of rejection. From a show of hands heaps of people in the audience have been rejected and not asked for feedback. Reasons brought up include not feeling you had the right, sadness, not wanting to wallow, not having fears confirmed and getting a generic reply. But asking for feedback can help you hone your craft. One audience member says asking for feedback gave them more confidence because they found out they were the second choice for a job. There could be millions of reasons you were rejected that don’t have to do with your talent or skills. In terms of publications – there might be two similar pieces, or you already published with the same place recently and they want to give someone else a chance. With festivals – keep trying, you might not be suitable that time, but you might be next time. Taking rejection well is endearing, so keep in touch.
It’s important to be aware of your own protective mechanisms. If you’re going to ask for feedback, Elizabeth’s advice is to write the email and let the draft sit in your inbox for a while. It’s best not to call, because writing will give you more control over how you react. Give yourself time – there is a window in which it is bad to respond. Also, don’t let pride get in the way when going to apply again. Liz applied to be the Voiceworks editor two years before she got it. She was upset about the rejection, but got feedback, got experience, and was eventually successful. It’s useful to examine where you should let go of the negative emotions associated with rejection. One way to do this can be shifting your idea of success to just finishing the work or just submitting – these are things you can control.
This is all well and good, but what happens when the person undermining you isn’t yourself or someone at a party, but a member of your family? Liz experiences some pressure from her family to make money from her writing or have it widely read, but she uses it as a motivating factor. Without the pressure to measure her work in this way she might get complacent. As a poet, Laurie writes about a lot of personal things – including domestic violence and alcoholism. One of her first pieces of writing, called “Houso Kid”, went through all the housing commissions. Her mum claimed she was writing it to make her family look bad and that she shouldn’t be doing it. You have to set aside time for yourself to recover from family interactions if you need it, says Laurie. “You should move! Can you move?”
Despite the fact that, as Liz points out, “we are in a room that is not round and there is no table,” conversation flows easily throughout the session and the audience are happy asking questions and adding their voices. Every writer, publisher or programmer would do well to consider how to make rejection more personal and constructive, and this roundtable offers a lot of insight. As Laurie points out: “Everyone gets rejected. Every success has a mountain of rejections underneath it.” It’s worth remembering your own rejections when delivering someone else’s, and perhaps it’s also worth remembering the person rejecting you has had their own share too.