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

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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.”

Homage to flowers with Shakespeare’s help

Longer days, blue skies, vaccinations, and flowers are the best treatments to erase the winter and Covid blues, and lately I’ve been able to experience them all. But there’s no guarantee of daily sun until after the Fourth of July; it will take until mid-June for days to reach their full length; and now that … Continue reading

Are we ready for normal, new or otherwise?

Many writers are talking about the new normal as if it was about to fling its door open and welcome everyone in; more suspect is the notion that everyone is clamoring to get in. I struggle between living in the abnormal and in the return to the new normal, and whatever will follow that. A … Continue reading

Doing things you’ll never do well

In a recent issue of “The New Yorker,” writer Margaret Talbot reviewed three related books* that argue for “the value of learning to do things you’ll never do well.” Not only is trying something new an “antidote to perfectionism,” but it is good for our brains. The only negative effect associated with trying something new … Continue reading

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.
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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!

    Vicky

    “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!
    Evelyn

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