According to the definition of a recent grant application, I am an emerging writer. This means I have been writing seriously for close to a decade, but have not yet published a full-length work. In this short/long time, I have learned that rejection is not something one can easily overcome or avoid. A threatening, pervasive force, rejection in the abstract would make me feel arrogant, nastily anticipatory. Rejection in the moment could throw me off for weeks, months if I allowed it.
If you are serious about the endeavour of writing, you will be doing it all your life. Building resilience and a sense of peace in your practice is fundamental to any writing discipline. I have learned to approach writing as a two-pronged method: as a trade, and as a spiritual practice. It is necessary for me to balance this to survive as a writer, as someone who has built my life around the thing I love. This may not be true of everyone, but my thoughts on resilience and rejection cleave to both those principles.
Rejection was hardest at the beginning when I had no publications, nobody other than myself reading my work. This was the point that my critical eye was issuing forth, in directions frequently more punitive than productive. In a way, being at the beginning of my journey as a writer was the most humiliating point. Yet to make any money or do the hard graft of sitting by myself for hours and hours, I didn’t even really know I could devote time to myself, to my own ideas and feelings. I had all this conviction and burning creative energy and no idea where to put it. It is hard to overstate how much I did not know how to speak about my own work. At times, hot-faced and painfully lingering over sending a draft, it felt like I was the first person to ever show their work to anyone else. It sucked, and when I started writing on my break and in the early morning, the stakes were sky-high.
Now, the stakes are high but I have the context. I understand my particular methods and boundaries. I understand how elitist publishing is, that I need to find a way back from jealousy and entitlement if I am to produce work I am proud of. Now, I automatically dedicate time to writing and I allow my early drafts a certain degree of mess. If I receive a rejection for something big, I generally give myself a day to indulge my feelings, and possibly a nice takeaway. Wallowing only works for me when I have a clear deadline to get over it, otherwise I begin to despair in a more debilitating manner. Allowing myself this time to feel bad can feel good, a miniature moment of giving up, which then (usually!) feeds the stubborn, angry impulse to keep going.
Venting with other writers is also important and nourishing, but isn’t always possible. For the sake of those who don’t know many writers: I have, over three years, applied for a specific bursary three times before I was successful. I have submitted fiction to The Stinging Fly three times and not been successful, and I am in my sixth round of submitting work to Granta and Hotel Magazine. I received detailed rejections last year from editors who had requested over ten pages of my work. I have rewritten a specific story for a journal on the editor’s advice and it was still not accepted. I have never been longlisted or shortlisted for any prizes or competitions. None of this means I am a failure, or a bad writer, and I anticipate many more and much higher-stakes rejections as I progress. This is the way I will find my own place in literature, my own complex groove to carve out.
Of course, the context for all of this is the rising cost of living, and the lethargic position that the creative arts can occupy within their respective industries. In my experience as a writer who organises politically within the literary industry, it is clear that literature is often employed and deployed as another limb of its funding government—meaning we lose a certain amount of life and combativeness in our literary culture, and Irish government-funded writers and publishers stay silent in the face of national crises. The only way to get through this is to find a way of not being crushed, to continue to give freely of yourself in work that may not get published, be well-liked or even read. To find a piece of your writing practice that will always be your own private oasis, the place where you do not compromise. This will feed you spiritually in the moments that it may not feed you physically. For me, not being crushed means understanding writing as a (poorly remunerated) trade, as something publishers, magazines and editors pay for and as such impersonal; simultaneously it is something that has kept me alive and willing in this world. Often, when writing several short stories, I will also work on private projects, poetry or political essays, to keep my emotional creativity alive amid editing and deadlines. Equally, working on community writing projects, like the Irish trans anthology, has led me to people and ideas I would never have met otherwise, and has shaped both my creative and political convictions.
Originally this piece was commissioned and written several months ago. Since then I have had to alter my essay, as in that time I have signed with an incredible agent and been commissioned for many more exciting publications. Money will always be tight. There is never enough time or silence. But I am happy I risked prioritising writing, grateful that others have risked it with me, because whatever happens I would always rather risk than regret.
This essay forms part of a series of reflections on rejection.