That Beach Ball Feeling
I can clearly remember my first rejection.
I had thought my short story was good…I’d worked hard on it. I’d read it aloud to my writing group, and they’d loved it…or so they’d said. I printed it out, checking there were no errors throughout and using A4 white paper, wide margins and a cover page. I’d done my market research; I’d chosen a magazine that I was sure would jump at the chance to publish this story.
And yet, a rejection had arrived, paper-clipped to my submission, its logo clearly announcing that the magazine did not want my work. And so curt was the wording on this slight slip of paper, I was sure they would never want my work. Never want to hear my name spoken in public again.
It was as if someone had released a little valve on me (somewhere around my solar plexus, I think). The sort of little valve that beach balls have so you can blow them up. Sending off my story, I’d felt blown up; all colourful and bouncy. Now I was entirely deflated. My head buzzed with disappointment. I couldn’t move, not even to put the rejection slip down.
I didn’t think I’d ever be able to write again.
You may have felt like this when your tutor’s comments were not what you expected or hoped. Writers and artists are particularly prone to these feelings. They created something using heart, hands, imagination, soul. Such creation is personal, and the reactions of others, even the well-minded and constructive reactions of tutors, can just be too much to bear.
But finally, if we are to call ourselves writers, artists, we have to get back to creating. This is particularly important when taking an OCA course, because feeling as deflated as a beach ball must not stop you in your tracks. There is always the next assignment. You will have to start something new. So here is my strategy for getting the bounce back in your beach ball.
7 Steps to Reflecting on Tutor Feedback
Walk away from the comments. It’s unlikely that you can go straight back to writing until you have perked up your personal self-esteem. The last thing you should do right now is contact your tutor with a defensive rebuttal. My advice is – treat yourself to a bit of a personal wallow. OCA health and safety rules prevents me from recommending a binge on chocolate or whisky, but here’s a list of other indulgences to salve the spirit.
- A soppy musical/western on afternoon telly
- A brisk walk, whatever the weather
- Phone a friend to ask how they are
- Re-reading a book you love
- Window shopping or surfing (hide your credit card first)
- Talk to your pet. Or someone else’s pet
- Candle-lit bubble bath with sweet music
- 15 minutes of meditation
- Treat the kids (or a friend and their kids) to café ice creams.
You know what truly picks you up when you are low. Share your personal indulgence recommendation in the comment box below.
Once you’re feeling stronger, you can start to examine the tutor report in more depth. Remember, the feedback you’ve received is there to help you improve your skills. To begin with, read it through a couple of times, because things that stood out as critical when you first read it, might seem valuable once considered more deeply. Remind yourself that the tutor’s job is to explain how to improve your work, and that is what they’re doing. Read as many times as needed to fully understand what is being said, and if there’s anything still unclear, email your tutor to ask.
Follow the feedback and rewrite. Not all tutors make it plain they expect you to rework your assignment, but doing so can initiate a sudden learning curve in your understanding of your own skills. Even if you’re not sure you agree with your tutor’s advice, give it a go. All practice is grist to the mill. When you’ve worked on the feedback in the report, take a break, then go back and read both copies – the original you sent in and the newly redrafted work. N.B: always keep original saved copies separately to saving new work, until you’re ready to delete the older version.
Write up your progress. Students on creative writing courses are asked to keep a writing diary, in which thoughts and feelings can be recorded. As these diaries (unlike the learning logs of other departments) are for your eyes only, you can say what you like in them, and when you’re feeling blue about your tutor’s comments, this is the perfect depository. Tell yourself how you feel, then tell yourself what you’ve been doing about it. Finally, explain to yourself the experience of rewriting your assignment, and that of reading both copies. Note down any improvements, especially those you can take forward and employ in further work. Also note any ideas that sprang independently from going back to your work.
Read. Not only does this give you a break from thinking about the slump in your esteem, it’s also the most important thing writers can do. Check if your tutor has linked their concerns about the assignment submission to any suggested reading, and start with that. If not, do some reflective thinking yourself, about which pieces will help consolidate what you’re learning at this time. For instance, if you were advised to include more dialogue, read a book for Young Adults, where dialogue is used in abundance. If you’re asked to look at imagery in your poems, google that phrase and see what poets on the net come up with. Treat yourself to a browse round a library, bookshop, or a charity shop with an expansive bookshelf. Examine the books before choosing, keeping the reflections on your tutor’s comments at the forefront of your mind. But also pick a book just for the sheer joy of reading it, too.
Take a proper, but short, break from your studies, in preparation for moving on to the next assignment, or new course. If you normally work daily, just take a day off. If your work is patchy and sporadic, set a decisive, workable date to start again and stick to it. In the meantime, concentrate on the rest of your life. You need to get that deflated beach ball feeling into perspective, difficult though that may be when your art is your life.
Okay, it’s time to begin your coursework again. Before you do, read through your writing diary and add to it any thoughts that feel pertinent at this time. Check the tutor feedback (unless it’s scored onto your brain) once more, and make a list of the things you can bring forward into this following assignment. Write these out and pin up where you write. Begin again. Maybe you won’t be flawless this time, but you will be improving, which is all you should ask of yourself.
Back in the early nineties, when I was sending out my first work, I began to notice something was changing. Those first rejections were anonymous; thin slips of printed paper. But after a while, although I was still getting rejected submissions, they came back with letters, often (in those days!) handwritten – quickly dashed off, but nevertheless a personal message from the editor. They still said thanks…but no thanks, but they also offered specifics about the work – advice on improving it.
I read these carefully. No one likes altering the work they thought was perfect, and not many of us want to hear criticism, but it did occur to me that the editor didn’t have to write at all, and if they did, I ought to listen to what was said.
And, finally, the day came when instead of an A4 envelope containing my rejected work, I received a letter, offering me a sum of money for it. I couldn’t believe my luck. But now, when I look back, I realise it wasn’t all luck. Obviously, getting published does need a big dollop of good fortune, but it also requires careful planning, some talent, and the ability to take criticism on board and do something constructive with it.
Believe me, I still need my afternoon movies. I think every writer always will, even after publication when newspaper critics stand ready to tear your work to pieces. But I continue to bear in mind that there are ways of turning deflated beach ball moments into real improvements to your work.