If you create for long enough, you’ll encounter something just as devastating as a scathing rejection: none at all. The silent rejection can do just as much to undermine our confidence as heavy-handed criticism, and sometimes more, because our imaginations fill in the worst possible explanations for non-response.
I’ve been challenging myself to reach out to potential collaborators more, and climb out of my Lonesome Writer box to create experiences that cross boundaries between the arts, combining writing, music, visual arts, and more. I’ve found the biggest challenge isn’t coming up with ideas, or identifying potential collaborators--it’s finding the courage to reach out to those people. Let me tell you what happens:
Every time I write a pitch for a collaboration, no matter how meticulously I craft it or how much I believe in the idea, for a brief moment after I hit “send”--especially on cold calls, but even when I send to friends--I am transported back to high school. I’m the really weird kid who seems to have friends but isn’t sure how she got them. I am never quite cool enough, and I’m always in danger of “trying too hard.” I immediately berate myself for even assuming the idea was worth sharing in the first place. I worry that I’ll come across as full of myself or delusional for thinking I had a chance at convincing that person to collaborate with me.
The truth is, those fears don’t go away. But after that flare-up, they die down to their background levels. That is, until the silent rejections pile up. In that silence, my imagination goes back to all those fears, assuming that they are the real reason I’m not getting traction.
The second-worst part about silent rejection is you’re never quite sure when the door is completely closed. It’s easy to say that, after a month (or insert arbitrary unit of time here), you can consider it a “no.” But it all depends on the industry and the ask. In publishing, many agents and editors will tell you to wait at least eight weeks before following up. I sold my first book about six months after submitting it to its eventual publisher--and I’d even formed a false memory of receiving a rejection from them! (A good reminder to keep meticulous records of my submission history.)
For out-of-the-box situations it’s even harder to say when the silence means a “no.” One time, I nearly wrote off hearing from someone, only to get a reply about six weeks later--they’d been traveling. Other times, I’ve been surprised that someone who hadn’t replied to my initial query at all wound up proactively seeking me out for a different opportunity much later. While these may seem like reassuring incidents, they can also feed the uncertainty and self-doubt about when to move on.
Realistically, I know that a lack of response often has more to do with a person’s busyness or other priorities than it does with the merits of my project itself. After all, I have no right to expect anything from a person I am approaching, unsolicited, with a request for their time, energy, and ideas. And, like them, I’ve had to turn down collaborations at times when I’m simply too busy to add another project to my schedule. It’s rarely personal. But the voices of self-doubt have no time for that reasoning. They tell me, “They probably saw it and thought, ‘What a crock of shit.’” Or, “They’re probably embarrassed for you that you even sent this.”
I tried for too long to fight the negativity I associate with silent rejections by denying my feelings and talking myself down. I tried to tell myself, “Don’t be silly,” or “They’re probably not thinking that.” It didn’t work.
What does work?
Accepting that it’s natural to feel hurt.
Accepting that taking a risk, and reaching out to someone (as long as it was in a respectful and non-harassing way) is worth the pain, because I can continue to grow and learn from the experience.
Accepting that it’s okay to surround myself with people who affirm my creative worth, as well as those who challenge it. Seeking affirmation and validation doesn’t make me weak, nor does it undermine my commitment to growth and improvement. In fact, in order to grow and improve, we all need encouragement. Parts of the writing world seem to have an ascetic attitude when it comes to encouragement and praise as learning tools; but in addition to teaching students how to accept and use criticism, I think we should teach people how to accept and use praise, because not only will it improve our writing, it will also give us the courage to seek more learning opportunities. My community of “creativity cheerleaders” has done more than anything else to give me the strength to face silent rejections.
My “creativity cheerleaders” give me the confidence to say: “So what if the rejectors really are thinking I should be embarrassed by my efforts to reach out to them?” I’m proud that I’m willing to embarrass myself a little bit, in order to learn and grow. It doesn’t make silent rejection painless, but it does make it conquerable.
In that spirit, I encourage everyone reading this to make at least one big "ask" that makes you nervous this week. Whether it's querying an agent or editor, asking a friend to read your work, reaching out to a potential collaborator, or something else entirely, do it with respect and optimism. You may be turned down. Or, you may get a slightly different answer than you were hoping for (perhaps someone can help, but not right now, or they want to collaborate, but in a different way). You may not hear anything back at all. But you will continue to hone your asking skills. And as Amanda Palmer taught us in her book, asking is an art.