Can We Talk Frankly About Anxiety and Rejection in Writing?

This is a frank, honest one because there’s enough pretence in this era of social media and highlight reels. As I’m writing this, local areas are flooding, every news article announces a new update on pandemic, or murders, or hate crime, and my own anxiety is eating me away from the inside out. Rejections have been particularly hard. I call it the ‘spiders under the skin’ feeling that crawls tirelessly from morning until night; a feeling all too many of us are familiar with, but which we have to hide.

At times like these, you can feel like burrowing yourself under the duvet and sobbing onto the cat until sleep comes to tease you, unreachable.

But you don’t. You put your ‘normal’ face on in the morning, paint on your smile and dive straight back into perceived normality when inside, your thoughts are telling you you can’t write, everybody hates you and the world is ending anyway. You’re thumping your fists against a bowl of glass and no one can hear you. You’re thinning away to a ribbon of smoke, spreading into the plaster of the ceiling.

How on earth can we write in times like these?

It may seem impossible at first. But something niggles the longer you stay away from the writing desk. You’ll want to write something, you know that. Your gut is telling you: write. Your heart is telling you: write.

Your head is saying: what’s the point?

For weeks, I’ve been unable to even read poetry because it only confirms my worst fears: I will never write as well as these people do. Every beautiful line I should be marvelling at is just another trigger for my brain to say: ‘And look! This is why you shouldn’t bother. You don’t have this sort of capability. Give up.’

Rejection only confirmed it for me. As writers, we know rejection is part of the industry. We learn to take it on the chin; to appreciate the feedback, hone our work and try again. And usually, I can do this pretty easily.

But sometimes, I know that when anxiety and diabetes burnout rear their ugly heads again, rejection is just a way of confirming my worst fears. So yes, rejection sometimes really does hurt. 

And this is okay.

Rejection is part of writing. Feeling emotion is part of feeling human.

So, how do you write when the world feels dark and the voice in your head is telling you that you can’t?

Here’s some tips.

1. Write a blog post

This is what I’m doing now, of course. I knew I needed to write today, not only to help myself work through it but to let others know they can too. We don’t talk about things like this often enough. They don’t fit the pretty highlight reel.

But whether it’s an anonymous blog to really let off steam, or just a tiny little post about something you feel passionate about, it’s good to have this safe little space to let your own voice run free and with honesty.

Are you a keen baker? A running enthusiast? Got a thing for crafts? Write about it. It takes off the pressure of a blank page and the overwhelming goal of writing a Booker prize-winning novel. Blogging can be done for the sheer joy of it.

Writing might feel difficult, but if you write about something you’re passionate about, that enthusiasm will shine through.

2. Write a letter

I still write letters to friends. It seems impractical really, given that a Whatsapp message could get everything to them in seconds. But there’s something much more considered and thoughtful about the act of taking time out to sit at a desk and handwrite someone a letter.

And believe me, there’s nothing that will make their day more than a heartfelt message from a friend in between those gas bills and dental appointments.

Write a letter to a friend or a family member. Or, write a letter to your sixteen-year-old self, giving them advice. Perhaps write to your future self, twenty years ahead.

It’ll give you perspective on how far you’ve come, and why you still have so much to offer to reach where you want to be. Writing a letter to yourself as you would a friend is a great way to learn to be kinder to yourself.

Letters: there’s a reason they appear so often in the Harry Potter series. They’re pretty magical.

3. Write a sentence. Write another. See what happens.

This week, I wrote a prologue and first chapter. I didn’t plan to. It just happened. 

It was 4am and the character was going through turmoil in my head and demanded to be written. I had a vision of her, snipping her hair over the sink quite nonchalantly and I wanted to know why, and what this meant, and what her story was. So I wrote that image. Then I wrote the next paragraph.

And the next.

Every day, I build on this little story. This character is someone I’ve started to spend time with every day. I have no idea where she came from, or where she’s going, but I like her and she surprises me all the time.

Just write down a sentence. Carve out ten minutes a day before work to do a paragraph a day until you feel you have to get to know that character.

Then let that character surprise you. They will.

4. Keep a diary

One of my favourite quotes by Anne Frank is: “Paper has more patience than people.”

Diaries have had their place throughout history. Say the word ‘diary’ and we think of Samuel Pepys, Anne Frank, the fictional Adrian Mole, and probably yourself in your teenage days, dressed in a band t-shirt and sitting on your bed post-argument with your parents, writing away furiously (you’re cranking up The Smiths already, right?).

Diaries are beautifully honest, non-judgemental spaces in which to pour our innermost thoughts. The words that come out in diaries are the words that need to come out.

It’s why they’ve endured for so long; for both writers and for readers.

We want honest writing. We want to read stuff that’s raw and unpolished and real.

I’ve lost count of the times a psychologist has jumped upon the fact I’m a writer and urged me to keep a journal. There’s a reason for this. They help us work out the tangle of feelings that otherwise feel like a huge web of knotted fairy lights and help to pluck them free, word by word.

You don’t have to show anyone. Just write how you feel in that moment and write it for you. Let the words do their magic.

Some parting advice…

I recently asked people to give their own advice on dealing with rejection. Because although we learn to appreciate feedback and work on our craft, sometimes there are times when rejection really bloody hurts.

And we feel pathetic.

Trust me, we all feel the burn of that ‘We regret to inform you, but the standard of the work was so high…’. Despite what your mind is telling you, you’re not alone.

Here’s some of the responses I received on how to handle rejection, to help you put it into perspective:

  • “For me rejection (many times, of many things) has been a way of learning that I’m just not good enough at some forms of writing. However, I can usefully write in other forms. And all along the way I keep learning. This isn’t to say that rejection is a sign you anyone should give up, but rather that I, personally, am always reconsidering and adjusting what I do. The key thing, for me, has always been about reaching my goal – being clear, and adding value – in whatever way works best.” Donald H Taylor, Chair of LPI and Learning Technologies
  • “I set the goal to make 100 submissions. It helps me focus on putting myself out there, doing that bit of the work. I know not everything will land and that’s more OK if my focus is on what I can influence: Writing and submitting. I can’t influence the other end.” Christine Locher, Author and Coach
  • “I’m just starting out in the fiction stuff, so I haven’t figured it out, other than send so much out there, you aren’t reliant on one person or prize to validate your stuff. (But get feedback too, from folk who have no interest in stoking your ego, and listen to it where you can).”Julie Drybrough, Facilitator, Coach and Blogger
  • “The ends cannot justify the means. When you want to write, your foremost question should be: “Why?” If the goal is to educate some or to improve your writing or to do it just for pleasure, rejection doesn’t matter. But it’s advisable to have it proofread first by couple of experts.”Billy Paul Ebenezer, Leadership Coach

Listen to feedback. People who give genuine, constructive feedback aren’t out to pull you down, but to help you be your best self. Keep adjusting and reviewing. Are you still on track? What could be changed? Is there something new you could try?

Stop obsessing about where you could be and how far you are from perfection. Instead, go back and reflect on how far you’ve come. Remember, we all get rejected. No one is immune to it. Let yourself feel emotion. Let yourself get the anger out. But don’t for a second let it stop you writing.

Even if it’s just a sentence for yourself every day, don’t stop. A ‘no’ in your inbox isn’t your signal to deprive the world of your gift. Be resilient. Be persistent.

The voice in your head doesn’t have to stop you getting your ‘yes’. But putting down your pen will.

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