So I’ve been thinking a lot today about the long haul of writing, about rejection and acceptance, about my own anxieties about the work of writing and how they dovetail into greater social insecurities. Which is to say, I’ve been doing some me-work, but I kept thinking back to this thing a workshop instructor once told us.
It was at the end of the course, and he was making some general Writerly Advice kind of pronouncements with which to send us out into the world. The students were all women; the instructor was a man who by then had a MFA and a couple of nice books and awards and things under his belt.
And he told us how, when he was in his MFA program, he noticed a trend in how the women and men dealt with rejection. When a woman’s story was rejected, her initial reaction was, “my story wasn’t good enough.”
When a man’s story was rejected, his initial reaction was, “they don’t get my genius.”
Now this was all part of a larger monologue about being selfish about your time, and trusting your voice, and so on. That we could all use a little ego. And at the time, I felt like I was taking his words on board; certainly since then I’ve gotten pretty thick-skinned about rejection letters and the like.
But I found myself coming back to it today. Because it’s not just about rejection letters, this writing ego. It’s about getting the words on the page in the first place. It’s about reader feedback, good and bad. It’s about all the varieties of rejection letters, not just magazines and journals but agents and editors and presses large and small. It’s about one-star reviews and getting left off the program. And it’s about realizing just how many other great writers are out there and trying to justify your space among their number.
When was the last time I wrote something and really felt not only proud of it, but that it kicked ass, that it was a damn good piece of writing? Because those are two different things. You can be proud of your work and still believe it pales in comparison to everything else in the world.
I am blessed to know a few wonderful women writers, and I am always cheering them on: your story rocks, I love what you did with x and y, you’re absolutely amazing. And I mean it; it’s not empty language, I truly believe their work is amazing. But when was the last time I thought of my own work that way?
Even imagining it feels . . . well, silly. If I imagine myself saying that about my own work, saying “I am an amazing writer”, I start blushing with embarrassment. I can get as far as saying “I’m a good writer” without cringing and even then I feel the urge to qualify it in some fashion. Do I believe my work is amazing? I can’t even tell, because I feel so damn tacky, so gauche, just thinking about it.
Yet I’m starting to think I need to work on this. Not just for myself, but for everyone around me. How can I really value another’s work if I don’t value my own? How can I make a case for the strength of women’s work if I think my own is just okay? If we all sit around telling each other we’re great but we can’t say it about ourselves, doesn’t it risk becoming empty cheerleading? Because my praise of others won’t negotiate a better pay rate for either them or myself; while it might get them to submit to that exclusive publication, it won’t make them promote themselves once they’re accepted, it won’t make them see that acceptance as anything other than a wonderful one-off. Without that deep-seated faith in myself—and even here, see, even here my instinct is to softpedal and say “faith” and “belief” rather than “pride” or “ego”—but without that deep-seated pride in my own work, I risk starting every new story from zero, rather than placing it in a larger career arc.
I’m good at reacting. I’m good at taking the rejection and moving on; I’m good at seeing people talk about some trait I lack, some trait they believe is necessary to be a writer, and thinking “fuck you, I am a writer.” But when I’m all alone with the words, when it’s a matter of the work before me and how I see it? I’ve got to figure out how I can hold out my words to the world and say “look at this, it’s damn good.” Full stop.