By Christina Katz
Many a literary icon has stood before a crowd at a writing conference counseling young or new writers on how to develop a “thick skin” and persevere. They typically draw on an old file of rejection letters as an example of hard-wrought experience accumulated in their greener years.
The promise goes: if you submit your writing often, eventually someone will recognize your literary talent and you will finally be “in.” Success, like that of your literary icons, presumably follows. But only if you are ambitious about submitting work until you break through — or break down.
Unfortunately, such old-school advice is prone to wearing out eager writers with overwork, discouragement and repeated rejection before they have a chance to find their footing in an extremely competitive and increasingly complicated literary marketplace.
In the past, writers might have been able to justify time invested in aiming high, in hopes of direct feedback from an editor on the quality of their writing. But busy as editors are today, with job descriptions expanding and coworkers disappearing all around them, rejections more often come to a writer as silence, not a handwritten note. So accumulating rejections has little short- or long-term career-growth value for the writer.
The person who broke this spell for me about eight years ago is a writing mentor of mine, Wendy Burt. She gave me refreshing advice that was news to me at the time. What she suggested was simple, yet radical: Aim lower. Even better, she suggested, aim for targets I might actually be able to hit on the first try.
I’d never heard such common sense coming out of the mouth of a writer before. But come to think of it, I didn’t personally know many actual, working writers back then. I mostly had a line up of literary icons I worshipped from afar. So, instead of aiming high and going for a “nice” rejection, I should aim lower and actually hope to hit the mark? It sounded just crazy enough to try.
Turns out the advice Wendy gave me was not only practical but constructive. I could stop aiming absurdly far and high for my level of experience, and I could start, humbly, hoping to finally hit my marks and gain some real writer experience.
I started submitting to publications that were looking for submissions by writers of my level. At the same time, I stopped waiting to break into publications that were swarmed with unseasoned writers like me. Big projects like writing a nonfiction book (a leap quite a bit beyond my experience level at the time) were abandoned. And small, doable projects were embraced, one at a time, one after the other.
Not surprisingly, when my aim became more appropriate, I started accumulating clips at a rapid rate, which led to publication in higher-quality and wider-reaching publications. My career, formerly stalled, started to take flight. I was leaving a trail of bull’s eyes in my wake. The transition was complete. I embraced writing simply as a job, not as part of a quest for literary greatness.
With this block removed from my mind, I started to feel like a modest success, which echoed reality. I was a modest success. I found that there were a lot of things I could do with my modest success beyond writing–practical things that also earned money and helped me become better known.
Over time, I found that little successes could be leveraged into bigger successes. I started to develop increasingly professional habits. I accepted that some habits I’d formerly eschewed needed to become part of my routine, like market research and pitching my work. These were skills that I’d formerly looked down on, but soon the tasks of “lesser writers” were coming in handy. Using them consistently over time, I eventually landed and wrote a nonfiction book as a natural extension of the professional momentum I’d created.
This is actually an attitude that works for anyone in any creative field. Get off your high horse, if you happen to sitting on one. Roll up your sleeves and get to work with the common folk. Lofty goals, no matter how dreamy and real they feel in the shower, might actually be getting in the way of real progress.
Once I stopped aspiring to a literary fantasy, I wasn’t waiting for my due greatness any longer. And I wasn’t suffering gobs of rejection to get it, either. I was just a working writer racking up bylines and paychecks.
What has become apparent to me in the process is that my writing success actually has had more to do with the economics of willingness, and less to do with my impossible dreams of eventual greatness.
If you can relate, perhaps forget about accumulating rejections you can share like so many battle scars and go for likely successes instead. You’ll land them when you use appropriate aim.
Christina Katz, author of Writer Mama, How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids, is working on her second book for Writer’s Digest Books. She has also written over two hundred articles for magazines, newspapers, and online publications and has appeared on Good Morning America. Christina is a popular writing instructor who has taught hundreds of writers over the past seven years. She blogs daily at The Writer Mama Riffs and is publisher and editor of two zines, Writers on the Rise and The Writer Mama. More at http://www.thewritermama.com/.