When I decided to be a writer, I settled on a goal that might sound modest, but isn’t: I wanted to make a living from my art. Eight years later, I sold my first novel “The Girl in the Road” to Crown Publishing, a division of the biggest publishing house on the planet—and the goal of self-sufficiency was (at least temporarily) met.
Around the same time, though, further good fortune seemed to fall from the sky: I ran a successful IndieGogo campaign for my play, “What Every Girl Should Know,” which sold out its run at the New York International Fringe Festival and won Best Ensemble; and, during that run, also won the North Carolina Arts Council Fellowship for Literature.
All of these were big career victories. A lot of other artists approached me, asking “how do you do it?,” as if there was a silver bullet. But I had a very clear awareness of the context of those victories and felt a growing need to share it. To demonstrate, I compiled six years’ worth of spreadsheets of submissions to literary journals, workshops, conferences, theaters, graduate schools, play groups, grants, fellowships, residencies, and prizes. The number of submissions totaled 566. I color-coded every response I ever got.
The data were revealing. First and foremost, of all the things I’d ever submitted to or applied for, I’d gotten only 3 percent of them. That’s a 97 percent rejection rate. That means I got 32 rejections for every acceptance. The two works for which I’m most well-known, the play “What Every Girl Should Know” and the novel “The Girl in the Road,”had each been rejected 67 times. In fact, the same week we sold “The Girl in the Road” to Crown, I was rejected from the third of three MFA Creative Writing programs I’d applied to.
I’m not faulting them for passing over my work—selection committees and artistic directors have a really hard job, with so many talented artists applying for so few opportunities, and decisions often come down to factors that have nothing to do with the work, or even with taste.
So the anti-resumé remains my deceptively simple answer to the question, ‘How do you do it?’: that I persisted during all those years of rejection for no other reason than that I loved writing so much I wanted to spend all my time doing it. Writing must be its own reward, even for the most talented and hardworking writers, or they’re going to have a tough time.
“The Girl in the Road” came out in May, and it’s been incredibly well-received. But my anti-resumé reminds me that rejection will always be a part of my career, as in any career, as in anything worth doing. And there are no successful artists I know for whom this isn’t also the case. They love their work. That love buoys them through inevitable and even overwhelming rejection. So I promised myself that, no matter how “The Girl in the Road” was received, I’d start the next book right away. Now I’m 20,000 words in and reminded that just the daily practice of sitting and writing is still the best part. And, like I found that no amount of failure would change that, I hope that no amount of success will, either.
*Methodology: I included all formal creative submissions made without the aid of any agent or intermediary. Works are named in various stages of development (for example, “The Girl in the Road” was just a proposal in 2008). Literary agents are not named for reasons of sensitivity. “Personal rejections” include all rejections that came with a handwritten note, personalized feedback, and/or encouragement to submit again.