Even the best get filleted

confidenceHelga’s Post #73 — CBS Sunday Morning’s topic du jour was of course Oscar night. What made it worthy of note is that the focus was not on the likely winners and celebrities, but on those who lost out. Here is the narrative at the start of the show:

If Oscars are the pinnacle of Tinsletown praise, negative reviews by film critics surely are the depths. Worse yet, the sting of criticism has a proven staying power, giving new meaning to the song lyric “You must remember this.”

How appropriate! I had already finished my weekly blog post, which by coincidence was all about criticism and rejections suffered by unpublished writers. After watching Sunday Morning I went to work and revised it, adding some snippets from the show.

An interview with author and film critic Leonard Maltin seemed especially poignant. In the 40 years that he’s been writing books and movie reviews, he has earned a slew of accolades. But those aren’t what he remembers. “I save all the reviews my books have gotten over the years. And I can cite the negative ones for you pretty much from memory,” he said. And the positive ones? “Not so much.”

The fact is, criticism sticks. No one is immune, including the famous and beautiful. Take Kathy Ireland, American actress and supermodel in the 1980s and 1990s, best known for appearing in 13 consecutive Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues. She recalls a critic who said “I had a voice that could kill small animals. Not a real confidence builder!”

And that kind of pain is hard to shake for any of us. So why are the unpleasant things so unforgettable? Scientists call it negativity bias. The theory is that bad news makes a much bigger impact on our brains, and it’s been that way since the caveman days, when our lives depended on being able to remember, above all, what could kill us.

“We’re still walking around with this Stone Age brain right between our ears, with these ancient circuits in it,” claims psychologist Rick Hanson. “So as a result, people are much more likely to remember bad news about somebody else, than they’re likely to remember good information about somebody else – thus, negative ads in politics.”

The trouble is, we’ve got a brain that’s really good at learning from bad experiences. And it’s relatively bad at learning from good experiences. According to Hansen, “The brain is like Velcro for the bad, but Teflon for the good.”

The thing about criticism is that it really doesn’t always roll off our backs.

Negative words do affect the brain, says Dr. Martin Paulus at the University of California in San Diego. “When you hear a criticism – say somebody says to you, ‘You suck as an actor’ – that word ‘suck’ immediately gets translated from hearing it as a word, to something that is a threat to you.” He says that at least two regions of the brain work harder when processing criticism, and can keep the brain from doing much else.

“If I engage the brain in criticism, and it’s really working hard on that criticism, it can’t work on anything else, it becomes all-consuming. And so when you engage the brain in very strong negative things, then obviously these negative things become part of who we are. They literally affect you to your core.”

Strong words. Of course, there is such a thing as pushing back.

Tonight, the movie people will get picked apart, as will we all at some point.

But that’s only if we allow that. While brains tend to remember the negative, there are ways to put criticisms in their proper place. Actress Sylvia Miles shares how she does it: “I’ve learned to find ways to see the positive side of everything. Because you stay healthier if you’re happy and you’re smiling and you feel good. And I’d rather get a laugh than a frown, you know what I mean?”

Very apropos for us writers. With that in mind, I thought you might like to read how a writer friend of mine is dealing with criticism.

I had coffee the other day with said friend who I hadn’t seen in a while. It was an excellent session, and as always when writing buddies meet, we ran out of time far too soon.

After we got the usual topics covered, like travels taken and planned, great places to buy clothes, and a few minutes of benign gossip about friends, we got down to the serious stuff: writing. Our progress or lack thereof, new projects in the works, books we are reading that inspire us, and the topic I want to dwell on, submissions to agents and editors.

So, how is it going, I wanted to know. What about follow up on pitches to agents and editors from the Surrey conference? How many submissions did you send out? Anyone asking for the whole manuscript?

Instead of the usual and predictable glum reply when a writer bemoans rejections of their work, I got something quite unexpected – and refreshing.

Yes, the rejections keep coming. But, she said, her eyes wide with excitement, they are getting better and better.

Pardon me?

Well, it turns out my friend has garnered some positive rejections. Until she elaborated, I hadn’t heard of such things. How can rejections be positive?

Several agents asked for her entire manuscript after reading the first few pages. Nothing unusual in that. I recall having the same experience in the past, only to be more disappointed when the manuscript got rejected after waiting two or three months, sometimes longer. What’s different in her case is the quality of the feedback she received. Rather than the routine and annoying two-sentence form letter, it was extensive and detailed, with margin notes and thoughtful suggestions. Not surprisingly, this letter did not make her miserable like the others before. It encouraged her to continue using her talent and marketing her book because she was told the story has great premise. Reason for rejection: It was almost as good as one of their major author clients’ books, and the identical genre. She would be competing with their client. They thoughtfully suggested another agent.

So here is what I find encouraging: My friend received a rejection, but she turned it into a positive event in her writing career. In a way, it was a turning point. The agent confirmed her talent and built up her confidence even though she got turned down. Another rejection had similar results. Great interest in her manuscript, kudos for her writing, but didn’t fit their list.

Now she could have just filed them away in the rubble of the other rejections, feeling less confident with each successive one. But she did the opposite. She allowed herself to be built up as a competent writer who doesn’t give up. She chose to listen to the two positive rejections, taking from them what she needed to make her an even better and more determined writer.

Lesson learned? The choice is ours. One response to rejection is to wallow in self-pity and misery, robbing us of our confidence bit by bit with every new rejection letter until there’s nothing left. We feel like a failure and by extension we’ve become one. Or we can use the messages as an energy booster to our writer persona that will build up our resolve and make us stronger and better.

Of course these are not the only options. Many writers chose to self-publish after being rejected time and again. It’s a choice that gets easier with technology and it’s available to ever writer. Much depends on the reasons why we write.

But that’s an entirely different debate, one I am sure my other writers in the group will take on in future posts.

A final word on lessons learned. In the event that any literary agents or editors read our blog, please take note. Your rejection, if done with tact and empathy, might contribute to nurturing a successful author – perhaps a bestselling author.  Surely you are familiar with empowerment through positive, but sincere feedback. That writer, if treated with respect and caring, might knock on your door a year later with a much-improved manuscript. And because you have taken on a mentoring role of sorts, she signs up with you. Would that be such a bad investment?

All said, take heart and persevere, fellow writers. Even the best get filleted according to literary agent Steve Laube. You can see his list of ten famous authors who were rejected on his website. Sometimes the one wielding the knife isn’t always right.

In closing, I thought you might enjoy seeing one of the most infamous rejection letters ever written to none other than Gertrude Stein:5372020303_5d5d60edf5_o

9 thoughts on “Even the best get filleted

  1. What a wonderful, heartening post Helga! Thanks for the pep talk. I’m very interested in the psychological research on criticism, how the brain focuses on negative feedback as a threat. It feels like something I’ve always known, but didn’t know I knew. Makes so much sense.

    When you see my post for tomorrow, you’ll see a companion theme, which I finished before I read yours. Happy writing!

    • Thanks, Silk. It’s a fascinating topic indeed. I too would like to gain a better understanding about the power of feedback and the brain’s reaction. I didn’t know just how influential negative feedback is and the havoc it can create for us. Especially for us writers who are battling all sorts of challenges to start with.

    • You are welcome, writeinpeace. We all need a little pick-me-up once in a while. You will also like the latest post from co-writer Silk who gives a little different positive spin on the future of writing, namely storytelling.

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