Oh, literary rejections. Cue the heavy sigh. As someone very new to the publishing world (who went from fearing rejection to finally starting to submit in earnest in 2014), this is a topic that’s now frequently on my mind. So far, just a couple of months into expending real energy on journal submissions, I have learned two things: that I am more resilient than I expected, and that rejections still suck. Sometimes not very much, and sometimes a lot.
But this process, like most challenging things, has actually shown the proverbial silver lining. It feels fantastic to be focusing on the literary world again – something I haven’t spent much time on since college. I am discovering excellent journals, both online and through print subscriptions; I am reading compelling short works (a satisfaction in and of itself); and best of all, I don’t feel the nagging irritation that I’m ignoring one of my main life passions.
Oddly enough, all of this echoes a different challenge that I’ve encountered in recent years, one that has also revealed unexpected benefits: rehabilitating my marvelous and snuggly dog Jasper.
When I adopted Jasper, he was 13 pounds underweight, riddled with parasites, and his fur was so dry and dull that it looked like a matte coat of paint. You could see every rib and vertebra, and people gave me dirty looks when we walked down the street. None of that fazed me. But soon after adopting him, I discovered a problem that required more than improved nutrition and a couple of vet visits: his significant fear issues. Jasper is afraid of people he doesn’t know, especially men, as well as countless objects such as the toaster, fire alarms, garbage trucks, car rides, and, yes, even pink and purple pony toys that neighborhood kids leave on their lawns.
One thing I quickly (and rather desperately) learned is that you can help a dog overcome its fears with gentle, scientifically backed methods known as counter-conditioning and desensitization. It is slow-going – sometimes “glacially slow,” as one veterinarian called it – but it works. And it’s simple: by pairing the feared stimulus with a pleasant reward at a comfortable distance, one can gradually learn to tolerate and even enjoy it.
Strange though it may seem, this process can also apply to dealing with literary rejections. Here are a few tips gleaned, initially, from the pages of dog training manuals:
1. Pick a reward
When facing something that frightens you, it’s important to have an incentive to overcome that fear. By pairing a desirable stimulus with a feared stimulus, you can “improve” your emotional response. For Jasper, the deliciousness of hot dogs can overcome nearly anything scary (with enough repetitions). Determine what your “hot dog” is – perhaps a decadent latte or a long-term luxury purchase – as a reward that will help offset the unpleasantness of receiving a rejection, or several. Believe me, you deserve it.
2. Know your limits
In dog training, we refer to “threshold” – the point at which a dog can notice a scary stimulus but remain calm. Similarly, you should know your own threshold for rejection. There’s going to be a point at which the number of rejections is discouraging. It’s different for everyone – yours may be 10, your friend’s may be 100 – but it does matter. It’s important to take a break when you begin to seesaw from “hopeful” to “despondent.” Remember, you are in this for the long haul.
3. Be realistic
Rehabilitating a dog takes far longer than one might expect. There are no quick fixes, and sometimes progress is nearly imperceptible because it happens so gradually. But then, one day your dog does something you never thought was possible and the progress you’ve made becomes suddenly clear. (Happy dance!) Literary rejections are similar. Sometimes you receive rejection after rejection, but then, in an eerily understated way, the acceptance letter hits your inbox. That moment dwarfs the rejection letters – and you suddenly realize that the rejections were essentially part of that acceptance. This is the process.
4. Be kind to yourself
If there’s one dog training precept that I follow religiously, it’s compassion. When you’re dealing with a frightened dog who might have any number of socially unacceptable reactions, it can be tempting to scold him or attempt to punish her. Sadly, this only intensifies the problem. Far better to always treat the dog with respect and empathy – reward him when he does well, avoid situations that he isn’t ready to handle yet. Due to our work together, Jasper trusts me completely, in every situation, and we have a very strong bond. The publishing world is the same: you need to be gentle with yourself, because there will be many stings and sadnesses along the way. Trust in your work, as much as possible; try to focus on why you’re writing in the first place (the primary reason is probably not publishing); and don’t be afraid to indulge in a pint of ice cream now and then.
You will get there.