Learning from mistakes

I got a rejection letter from an editor at HarperCollins, who included a report from his professional reader… As I read the report, the world became very quiet and stopped rotating. What poisoned me was the fact that the report’s criticisms were all absolutely true. The sound of my landlady digging in the garden got the world moving again. I slipped the letter into the trash…knowing I’d remember every word.” – David Mitchell, British author with two novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize

“Rejections slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil – but there is no way around them.” – Isaac Asimov

Media Commons

On January 11, the feedback on my novel, for which I’d been waiting a month, arrived. The accompanying letter began innocently: “There are many wonderful things about the manuscript you have created. The era, the exotic location, the big issues (religion, faith, children, family, culture), and characters with enormous obstacles all provide the basis for a very dynamic novel.

It ended with a more dispiriting conclusion. “To that end, I want to give you the strongest tools available for digging into the rewrites. That means I’m going to suggest what may feel like major changes. Keep in mind it’s not just that a person has to write well, they also have to write engaging [sic].”

Fourteen pages of comments later, everything she suggested did feel like a major change, and I didn’t know how to respond except by feeling a huge letdown. I’d been working on this novel for so long and suddenly I felt humiliated, that I’d wasted years of study and work and should have put my retirement to better use. Worse than the disappointment was the thought of facing a complete rewrite.

Friends were consoling and reassuring: “You’re a good writer.” “I like your story.” But the comments couldn’t make up for the critique.

The good thing about receiving disappointing news is that although the words might stick with me, the initial feelings–the tight chest and sense of hopelessness–faded. I got over my disappointment, first by recognizing the truth of what the editor said. Then, I stopped castigating myself for having spent the time writing. The pandemic has kept me and everyone else indoors for nearly a year and my activity choices were to write or clean out closets. At least I’ve been engaging my brain.

In 2015, Psychology Today reported on “8 Ways to Bounce Back from Disappointment.” Tip number eight was, “Find your grit.” It’s difficult to keep showing up, but by doing so, you will gain respect from others and feel better about yourself.” 

I am showing up and paying attention to the feedback, starting with chapter one. Last week, I received a critique from my writers’ group with responses that confirmed I had learned something from the editor’s critique. One person said my protagonist was “coming alive.” Another said, “Held my attention throughout. Not a boring word anywhere.” A third said, “I really liked the sense/feel of the scene!””

Positive feedback won’t always be this good and negative feedback won’t always be helpful. So it goes when you’re dealing with “not quite inventions of the devil.”

Fitting In

Years ago, I worked at a community college in an offbeat part of town. A well-known duo, elderly Pansy and her son George, added to the quirky nature of the neighborhood. The couple, known everywhere, never went out without their finery, so as to be prepared for any social event serving food, whether they were…

Using our senses for sanity

When my cat spots a rabbit in the backyard, he devotes his eyes, all his muscles, and every paw-step to his prey. My ability to pay attention is much less impressive than the cat’s. “Where did I put my glasses?” “Have you seen my car keys?” “Why did I reach into the refrigerator? Oh, now…

Broken pottery and other inconveniences

Recently, I’ve reverted back to life as it was during the months of quarantine, a time when ideas for new blog topics were as scarce as cat food and toilet paper. Quarantine returned last week after my husband and I tested positive for Covid. Even if I had a topic, I had no time to write,…

About stillalife

I retired June 30, 2010 after working for 40 years in the field of education and most recently doing school public relations/community outreach in a mid-size urban school district. I wrote for superintendents and school board members. Now I'm writing for me and I hope for you. In this blog, I offer my own views coupled with the latest research on how to preserve our physical and mental health as we age, delve into issues most of us over 50 can relate to like noticing wrinkles and forgetting where we left our keys, discuss the pros and cons of different ways to engage our minds and bodies after we leave the workplace, and throw in an occasional book review, all peppered with a touch of humor, irony, and just plain silliness. Also, I'm on the third draft of my second novel since retirement.
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9 Responses to Learning from mistakes

  1. Darlene Bishop says:

    That a girl—“Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” I know you’ll write (perhaps draft after draft) an amazing story—I can’t wait to read it!!!😘

  2. Vicky Murray says:

    Now YOU can write, Ann!!! Loved this piece. Your comment about disappointment goes beyond your rejection letter. Thanks!


    “You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone–any person or any force–dampen, dim or diminish your light. Study the path of others to make your way easier and more abundant.”–John Lewis, From his 2017 memoir, “Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America”–1940-2020

    Don’t be afraid. . . Be focused. . . Be determined. . . Be hopeful. . . Be empowered. . . Empower yourselves with a good education. . . Lead by example with hope, never fear. –First Lady Michelle Obama, January 6, 2017 “When they go low, you go high.”– First Lady Michelle Obama

    “Take your pain, turn it into your passion and then make that passion your purpose.” –Congressman Elijah Cummings, 1951-2019

  3. Laura Hodge says:

    Based on the chapters I’ve seen so far, I’d say you’re putting the feedback to good use.

  4. Eleanor Owen says:

    This is a gem. Not only showing a philosophy for a meaningful life, but a practical guide for writers. Loved itl

  5. stillalife says:

    Thanks, my wise friend.

  6. Evelyn says:

    Hi Ann
    Sometime ago I read an article about rejection letters and remember one especially that was sent very early in his career to the author, Tony Hillerman, who wrote truly great mysteries about the the police in the Navajo reservations of New Mexico and Arizona. The rejection letter said his writing was good, as was the story, but he needed to leave out the stuff about the Indians. He didn’t, of course, and much later (as a best-selling author) was the recipient of an honorary award from the Navajo nation. So all that is to say is that some criticisms should be given consideration and some not. Hang in!

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