Facing Emotional Wounds

by Chris McMahon

For most writers putting your work in front of others is the hard part of the business. That’s bad enough at the best of times, but often the stakes are high. It might be a novel you have worked on for years, something you have poured your heart and soul into, perhaps something you have imagined would be the one that would finally prise open the door of the publishing world.

So when that manuscript is rejected, it can sometimes leave a real emotional wound. Circumstances can make it worse – perhaps there is no feedback and that lack of response is a blow in itself. Or maybe the editor takes a phrase from the rolodex of generic rejection tags (probably after reading one paragraphs of the work itself) – and casually demolishes your belief it the work. Perhaps a peer or rival nabs the very opening you were pursuing, rubbing salt into the wound.

As much as we think these things should not impact on us – how we should all be cheerful marketing machines with bullet-proof skin – the fact is that more often than not, they can completely floor us.

I have shelved manuscripts for years based on publisher’s rejections. Should I have responded this way? After a handful of setbacks? Well – obviously not. But that’s a little beside the point.

I recently read a book called  by Fear is Power by Anthony Gunn, whose background is in sports psychology. It’s a fantastic read that I would recommend to anyone.

One of things he talks about in the book is facing what he calls your ‘Fear Wounds’. In the context of the book, a whole swath of emotional reactions associated with avoidance are broadly lumped into the Fear basket. In terms of using his advice, the ‘classification’ is not really important.

Here are Anthony Gunn’s steps is facing Fear Wounds:

  1. Reface the fear in your mind first. Here he advocates the use of techniques related to Mindfulness. This is essentially allowing yourself to experience the wound – and all the emotions associated with it – in a pure experiential state of acceptance. It might sound straightforward, but believe me this is hard to do. Especially if the incident that created the Wound is one you have leaned to habitually avoid examining, by – for example – not going anywhere near that rejected manuscript.
  2. Reface the Fear in small steps. I guess in the case where it was a harsh rejection that created the wound, look at making smaller submissions where the stakes are not so high, like competitions that are a little bit away from your core genre, or that you can take in a light-hearted manner.
  3. Know why you are facing the fear. This one is very important. Have a reason to do this! Anthony Robbins calls this Leverage.
  4. Have a Role Model. I personally find this one hard. But if you can think of a person who has conquered your own unique challenges and prospered, it might be beneficial to use them as a source of inspiration. ‘Heck if they can do it – I can!’
  5. Believe in yourself. Also a hard one – particularly if you have a core belief of worthlessness or work in isolation without a supporting peer group. But working to achieve a positive self-belief is crucial. Hey – you’ve got nothing to lose!

A key element is to accept the wound – and not beat yourself up thinking it has to go away for you to be functional. Would you expect physical scars to magically go away? Would you stop yourself from running if you recovered from a car accident with scars on your thigh? No. They are just there.

Well there are the steps. Once more, I would recommend you get hold of Anthony Gunn’s book.

I hope you find these steps helpful – I know I did.

What were your worst rejections?

7 thoughts on “Facing Emotional Wounds

  1. I had an article rejected because it did not talk about a certain individual (who had nothing to do with municipal politics in the town), did not go into enough detail about something (the article was almost over-length already), and I had not looked at every single municipal record for every single year in the period in question (over 50 years). In short, I did not write the article that the reviewer would have written had he/she/it bothered to write an article. I was more angry than hurt, but I’d also been warned that sometimes that happens. The publisher invited me to completely redo the research, to write the reviewer’s article, and then resubmit it. I politely declined the “generous” offer.

    1. Sounds like they wanted one hell of a lot of work for one article. I hope they were offering to pay you by the hour . . . if only!

      I had a SF/Fantasy hybrid at a publisher a few years ago. The publisher rang me and said ‘She like it – but could I take out the Science Fiction elements?’ Ahh!!!! I should have said yes and just written a whole new novel, but at the time – well – let’s just say the SF elements pretty much defined the whole story.

      Oh well.

  2. I had a short story that received a “Cut the size by two thirds, I like the premise” sort of waffle. I edited twice, neither sufficient, finally got a detailed “What we think you ought to do” from multiple (conflicting) critiquers. By which time the anthology deadline had passed and I stomped away pissed.

    Eventually, dissecting the multi-critique, I was able to distill a few useful hints, and rewrote the story. And it is _much_ better. I think I’m a better short story writer for the experience, but it was a frustrating several months. I don’t know if this was showing my lack of formal creative writing, or is endemic to all people tackling a story length they aren’t experienced in.

    And it made me swear that if I ever critiqued something, I would try to more specific advice about _how_ a story _might_ be shortened or otherwise improved.

    1. Editorial by committee – that’s the worst. It’s like trying to re-write a piece after getting crits from a crtique group – it almost never results in a better piece. I can see the attraction of that sort of collective editorial approach for magazines as it spreads the workload, but it makes it almost impossible for the writer. It’s hard enough to please one Editor, let alone three or six.

      I know exactly what you mean about non-specific feedback. I paid for a retreat a few years ago where you got feedback from two professional writers. The first was excellent – he went through the manuscript with concrete suggestions. The second writer turned up with a single A4 sheet with six hand-written points, which she proceeded to communicate verbally. All of them were non-speciiic waffle. I was furious.

  3. Yeah, I got “cut it” when I needed “This is a short story, you don’t need the worldbuilding, you don’t need that much character background. Try combining the last two battles and cut all that time and unimportant playing-with-your-magic-system in between.”

    Which is probably too much work for a single story . . . but a simple “Rejected, you need to learn how short stories work” would have hurt less. But . . . would I have learned anything?

    1. I think sometimes when you get that general feedback, the person themselves only has a vague idea that something is not working, but don’t actually understand it clearly themselves.

      I had a similar cruel experience. I won a competition on a sample and outline for a short story. In prior years, that competition had been 6k stories. I missed the small print – it was 2k! I had to cut down from 6k to 2k and somehow preserve the story! I made it to 2300. The last 700 words from 3k to 2300 really pushed me I can tell you. Thankfully I word one-on-one with an excellent & experienced editor. That was a great experience.

  4. In my experience, there’s a lot in common between writers and musicians. Both spend years – lifetimes even – pursuing a Muse who may or may not be a phantom.

    One big distinction is in the dealing with rejection. A musician tends either to bull through it or to become mic-shy. Some of course are mic-shy to begin with, and have made a mistake in following that path. Perhaps they should have been accountants (sorry, Larry Correia, please don’t beat me up), but the response is immediate.

    The writer on the other hand, is a solitary creature by and large. The anti-social acts of the writer receive no feedback until the emotional investment is pretty big, and even good beta readers will, out of the best of intentions, err on the side of kindness (NTTAWWT, until one reaches a reality interface).

    I think the point I’m trying to make is that feedback is probably the most important factor here. If I go all Mixolydian on a standard as an improvisational musician, I can tell from the audience pretty much immediately. (Any else remember the scene from Back to the Future, where the Chuck Berry routine goes horribly wrong?)

    One of my sons writes achingly well, and is horribly mic-shy. My other son is positively fearless in public speaking but has trouble with narrative line (not all that good for the debate team). The shy one gets to learn guitar, and the outgoing one gets the writing assignments.

    On reflection, blogging helps. It’s low impact, doesn’t require the emotional investment of lengthy fiction, and has (once one reaches a certain level, which I haven’t) an almost immediate feedback.

    (Review of comment: tl;dr)

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