Random House: Surviving Rejection (After Rejection)
By Anna DornSeptember 19, 2022
I COMPLETED my first novel draft while I was working as a law clerk at DC Superior Court. I wrote most of the book at my desk, in the body of a judicial order template, the same template I used to declare defendants innocent or guilty of whatever petty crime they’d allegedly committed. Because I worked in a cubicle surrounded by my busier peers, I didn’t want it to be so obvious that I wasn’t doing legal work. But in all likelihood I was pretty obvious: I wore massive Sony headphones in an attempt to prevent coworkers from asking me things, and was constantly minimizing Tumblr as colleagues approached my desk. I was about as enthusiastic about that job as a vegetarian is about filet mignon.
That book was called The Esquires, and it was a smutty, incoherent novel about a group of degenerates at an elite law school. The main character was a fictionalized version of myself, a law student with no interest in the law, aimless and listless and desperate for a creative outlet. I didn’t show it to anyone, but I was convinced the book was a masterpiece, both commercial and avant-garde.
Writing fiction had been a private pastime of mine since high school. Back then I mostly wrote Floridian love stories, dreamy tales of surfer teens sneaking around on steamy tropical nights, aspirational fantasies typed into my family’s desktop computer in landlocked, buttoned-up Washington, DC. I hadn’t taken a writing class so I didn’t understand anything about conflict or stakes — that you have to torture your protagonist for readers to care. So I mostly wrote about the life I wanted: romantic, sun-kissed, and stress free. Not long after I went off to college, my mom got a new computer and the cloud didn’t exist, so these teen novels are gone forever.
When I became desperate to escape the law and finally started telling people I wanted to write books, I was met with a lot of suspicion. My mom said I was crazy, comparing me to her friend the failed basket-weaver. At the time I thought she was being cruel and dismissive. I was angry at her and everyone who didn’t believe in me and felt desperate to prove them wrong. Growing up I felt misunderstood. I assume most people who aspire to have an audience feel this way: desperate for the masses to validate us in a way that our loved ones have failed to.
Becoming a writer requires a level of delusion. Maybe a lot of delusion. Because I wrote in private, I wasn’t subjected to criticism and therefore wasn’t aware of my flaws. Isolation fed grandiose fantasies. For years I was convinced that I was the female Bret Easton Ellis. Up until my early thirties, when I published my first book, I was certain that if I could just get my writing before the right audience, it would dazzle. And I would be universally recognized as a precocious genius.
In between organizing misdemeanor case files by date, I became convinced that The Esquires was my Less Than Zero, edgy and brilliant and unlike anything that had ever been written.
I didn’t have any writer friends and had no idea how novels got published, so I asked Google. The search engine informed me I needed an agent, which required circulating a query letter. I sent this first query letter to probably 50 agents, all of whom were way out of my reach, and not a single one responded. The agents were right not to respond: the book was a mess, and the query letter was insane. Formatted like a brief, I listed in roman numerals (“IV. Imagine if Legally Blonde were written by the Literary Brat Pack”) reasons I was certain the book would be a bestseller.
The rejection was overwhelming, but not upsetting. Probably the agents’ refusal to engage (again, they were correct to ignore me) made the publishing world more inaccessible. And the further away it was, the easier it was to remain in la-la land.
During this time I literally moved to L.A. I would walk around saying that writing was easy, that it was “just typing,” not unlike texting or tweeting. I’d pick up books by Ottessa Moshfegh or Sally Rooney and think, I could do better. I had no sympathy for people who got stuck or blocked or couldn’t finish their novels. Writing to me was like breathing: automatic and necessary to live.
But now that I’ve published three books, I appreciate that writing one is really fucking hard. That it takes years and 30 drafts and so many words that end up trashed. And that the sentences you think are brilliant when you’re writing are probably obvious and/or cringe and you’re likely going to end up deleting them or being embarrassed if you don’t.
These days I’m more insecure than ever. Being close means the stakes are higher. Being an author is no longer this fantastical dream inside my head that can be whatever I want it to be. It is, I guess, a technical reality.
I recently overheard someone refer to my career as “popping off” and I thought they were talking about someone else. I don’t feel successful at all. All I can see are the reviews that aren’t written, the agents and editors who rejected me, the money I haven’t made. This is of course typical human behavior, giving more weight to the bad than the good. But I suspect it’s more common for writers. Because we’re being rejected all the time.
Sometimes I worry I get off a little bit on rejection. Most writers do, probably — why else would we do this to ourselves? A friend who’s about to release her debut novel told me she had to block Goodreads on her computer; the bad reviews were too painful. I understood where she was coming from. Seeing random strangers offended by your book feels shitty, as I think most of us write to make audiences feel seen and happy — not pissed.
But I also get a sick thrill out of reading my bad reviews, probably in the same way I sometimes like to floss until my gums bleed.
There is absolutely nothing deep, interesting, charming, or worth reading in the first 40% of this tiresome novel and I just don’t have enough days left in my life to hope that the latter 60% is better and more meaningful.
this is one of the most vapid, self-involved, boring books i’ve ever read in my life
Couldn’t get through the second chapter. Feels bad giving a new young author a poor rating publicly but this book is horribly cringe I’m sorry Anna.
The self-hating part of me adores my haters, cherishes the NOPE. And: I’m young! The bad reviewers have great taste and absolutely know what’s up. An editor is never more attractive than right after she rejects me. She is brilliant and has her finger on the pulse. When an editor likes my book, I worry about her. I wonder if she’s okay, or if she’s just dumb.
Relishing rejection can be a form of emotional cutting. Do I think I deserved to be punished? Do I deal with my anxiety over rejection by eroticizing it? Am I identifying with my rejectors in the same way I once picked up books by successful writers and thought I could do better? Am I in a twisted psychosexual relationship with my haters? Maybe! But getting a sick thrill out of the hate is a maladaptive coping mechanism.
When I teach writing, I tell my students that they have to find a way to make peace with rejection. I recommend detaching the ego from the work, which is hard, but doable. I encourage them to think of their own tastes, how fickle they can be. I’m fully aware that my evaluation of a book is roughly 95 percent dependent on my mood when it reaches me. Often I’ll pick up a book and “not get it” and then pick it up again a year later, and it’s suddenly my favorite book ever. As author Tao Lin has said many times, “There is no good and bad in art,” just preferences. And it’s true.
But for this reason, rejection as a writer feels so random. (They don’t call it Random House for nothin’!) The amount of time and effort and heart I put into a project doesn’t always correlate with how it’s received by agents, editors, critics, and audiences. Often the books I write the fastest and with the least emotional and intellectual investment are the ones to which people respond most positively. But I think part of coping with rejection means accepting that maybe it isn’t random. And that maybe the books I write quickly and easily are a byproduct of the rejected books I agonized over. There is no better way to learn how to write a book than by writing a book. And sometimes those books you write aren’t meant to be read. Sometimes they’re just part of your process.
Rejection almost always makes sense with hindsight. When I was in my twenties working as a judicial clerk in DC — you know, when I was writing The Esquires — I was desperate to get this job in the appellate division of a federal public defender’s office in Baltimore. I really wanted to be a writer, but I hadn’t yet accepted the possibility that “writer” could be a “career,” so I went after the law job closest to being a writer. An appellate lawyer just writes briefs all day. The statement of facts in a brief is novelesque, stories presented in a persuasive and theatrical fashion. Public defender work means the stories are juicy — much more exciting than corporate law. And the rest is an argument not unlike an English paper. The federal office meant it was prestigious and well paid, but it was still a government job, meaning I wouldn’t have to work that hard. Also, Baltimore seemed cool — much cooler than DC. Baltimore had art and music scenes, a creative energy.
I got to the final round of the interview but did not get the job. And I was devastated. I felt like a loser and a failure and everything seemed hopeless. But now, 10 years later, I’m thrilled I didn’t get the job. I can’t imagine my life turning out positively if I’d moved to Maryland! Whereas now I live in Los Angeles, my dream city, with the perfect weather and most dramatic sunsets, where I can hike in the largest urban wilderness area in the country year-round. Where I spend my days writing and teaching and editing, thinking and talking about books constantly, and I hardly even remember being a lawyer. Not to be a woo-woo Californian, but this is the Los Angeles Review of Books so I won’t hold back: I believe that when I was rejected from that job, it was part of the universe’s plan to get me where I needed to be.
Now I try to find that trust when I’m being rejected. Maybe after a day or two of wallowing, I try to see that I’m being rejected for a reason. Maybe a work was rejected because if it was published it wouldn’t be good for me. I’d feel exposed and have a nervous breakdown, or get sued by a petty person to whose fabricated life details I’d paid homage. Or maybe I’m being rejected to pave the way for a better editor to say yes. I have to believe that the universe is looking out for me.
Rejection hurts now in a way it didn’t used to. But it’s normally when I’m about to jump off a bridge that I get a sliver of good news. When the light shifts or my antidepressants attach to more receptors and things seem a little less bleak. And I keep going.
I’m working on shaking my deep-seated belief that confidence is tacky and self-hate is chic.
I’m having an easier time shedding the latter. Is there anything more boring than listening to a pretty and smart girl go on about how she’s ugly and dumb? Maybe it’s listening to a pretty and smart girl go on about how she “loves herself.” Maybe the latter isn’t confidence. Maybe I’m rethinking how I define confidence. Maybe confidence is just being fine with who you are and not talking about it. Accepting that it doesn’t really matter if you’re pretty or ugly or smart or dumb or if your work is good or bad and these things can never really be measured anyway. In the grand scheme of the universe, we’re all specks of dust.
When I think back to that 26-year-old convinced she was the female Bret Easton Ellis, I’m not totally sure who she is. But I’m grateful for her. Knowing what I know now, I probably wouldn’t try to be a writer today. I sympathize with my initial naysayers; trying to make it as a writer is insane, and the odds are completely against you. But I’m already in the deep end. Twenty-six-year-old Anna pushed me here. And now I guess it’s time I learn to swim.
Featured image: The Beach at Sainte-Adresse by Claude Monet, 1867.
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