When ancient gladiators like Russell Crowe fought in the Colosseum in Rome, receiving a “thumbs down” from the Emperor meant a horrific death by spikes, battle axes and lions’ teeth. As brutal as that was, a gladiator’s life is a breeze compared to the emotional agonies experienced by writers who submit their work for someone else to read and evaluate.
Writing is hard enough to do in and of itself, and when you add on the personal challenges of dealing with other people’s responses to your work, the opportunities to experience fear, dread, resentment and terror grow exponentially. We are social creatures who are exquisitely tuned in to issues of acceptance and rejection by our human tribe. A writer’s life inevitably includes both of these, often with a predominance of the latter, and you have to find a way to tolerate the down-pointing thumbs if you want to stay in the game.
Logically you know that everyone has different tastes and preferences, and that your writing will never be met with universal applause. You also know that publishers have specific likes, dislikes and political pressures that you don’t fully understand, and loads of other submissions to sift through, making publication a crap shoot even if you’ve written something great. Maybe they are too dumb to “get” your work. There are many factors that you can’t control.
But despite such sensible explanations, there still might be a vulnerable ego quivering inside you that experiences criticism or rejection of your manuscript as incontrovertible evidence that you are unworthy, untalented, a fraud, hated by others, and deserving of an agonizing, brutal, public crucifixion.
Real, or even just anticipated rejection is a powerful emotional challenge, and it is hard or impossible to write if we feel like we will be fed to lions when we let someone read our work. That sensitive ego is capable of shutting down your writing. It’s a self-protective mechanism at some level, but if it makes you unable to write, or to submit your writing, you have a real problem to contend with.
In his journey to redemption, Russell Crowe got beat down many times in The Gladiator. Somehow he found the strength inside himself to keep standing back up and continue fighting after every thrashing. In a way that involves much less dismemberment, a writer’s journey also incorporates finding ways to sit back down at the keyboard and write in the face of criticism, rejection and indifference. The sweet, gentle ego inside can learn over time what to fear, what to ignore and how to weather the storms.
Fortunately, rejection for a writer is seldom life-threatening, and if you go through it a few times but still manage to keep on writing, you eventually develop some perspective. You learn that you don’t have to go into panic mode when some dumb thumb goes down.