I just counted up the number of rejections I received last week, by email and snail mail, and the total was eight. This was higher than normal, so it was definitely a banner week for my work to be passed on!
All of these rejections were for stage plays, both full-length and one-act, that I had submitted to a variety of theater companies and playwriting competitions across the country. This got me thinking about how my attitude towards, and response to, rejection has changed in the 25-plus years that I’ve been writing.
When I first started, fresh out of USC Film School, each rejection I received was extremely painful, like a dagger aimed straight at my heart. I was exclusively writing screenplays then, and every time one of my scripts was turned down by a studio or production company, it affected me profoundly. My typical response would be a deep melancholy that would last for several days. The rejection and the disappointment that accompanied it seemed to seep deeply into the marrow of my soul.
In retrospect, a lot of this had to do with the fact that I was just starting out in my writing career and every script seemed precious. And it wasn’t just the script that was being rejected, it was me. Each rejection made me question whether I was really a writer or just another wannabe, a poseur.
In response to this crippling melancholia, I eventually evolved a different strategy for dealing with rejection – anger and dismissal. I built up a wall around my self-esteem by angrily dismissing whoever had rejected my script as an idiot or moron who was clueless about good writing. William Goldman’s famous dictum from ADVENTURES IN THE SCREEN TRADE, “Nobody knows anything,” became my mantra. In hindsight, I don’t think it was much of an improvement to be walking around angry and bitter for a few days, as opposed to sad and depressed.
Fortunately, as the years passed and I continued to write, each piece became a little less precious, each rejection less a personal affront. I began to inure to rejection and to see it as an inevitable part of a writer’s life. Writing stage plays really helped to bring this into focus because they are more of a renewable resource. Unlike a screenplay, a play is not limited to a single production.
All eight of the rejections I received last week were for plays that had previously been selected for production or for staged readings elsewhere. In other words, they had been winners of other competitions. One short play, ANYTHING ELSE?, had been one of six plays selected for production from 650 submissions in the 2010 Festival of One-Act Plays at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson, New York. I hadn’t change a word of the play, yet it was turned down without comment last week by two other festivals. How is this possible?
The answer is obvious – it’s all completely subjective and somewhat random. Every reader brings a different taste to the task of script evaluation. This particular lesson was brought home to me in dramatic fashion last year after I submitted another short play, a dark comedy entitled THE SURPRISE PARTY, to the Dubuque Fine Arts Players (DFAP) in Iowa for consideration in their National Playwriting Contest.
The play was not selected, but as part of the process the DFAP sent me the actual critique sheets of the two readers who evaluated my work. (These sheets are akin to the coverage that screenplays receive). Each reader evaluated my play on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being best) in 10 different categories, so the maximum possible score was 100.
The first reader gave my play a perfectly respectable overall tally of 70. But the second scored it with an execrable total of 12.5! That’s right – a total score of 12.5 out of 100, or an average of 1.25 out of 10 in each category. Reader Number 2 (I will refrain from calling him or her an idiot or a moron) obviously hated the play. Perhaps dark comedy doesn’t play as well in some quarters of Dubuque, Iowa as it does in New York City – THE SURPRISE PARTY was later selected from several hundred submissions and produced at the 2010 International Cringefest here in Manhattan. How to account for this? It’s all completely subjective and somewhat random. (This is my new mantra.)
I would be lying if I said that rejection had no effect on me these days. There is still genuine disappointment associated with it, but that seems normal to me. And it is usually brief, a matter of minutes rather than days. It is no longer crippling; it’s just a part of the process.
The gifted playwright and screenwriter John Guare gave this clearheaded assessment in a November 14, 2010 article in The New York Times:
“What a long career does give you, during the long nights of thinking and rewriting, is a healthy perspective: As writers, we’re always starting all over again,” Mr. Guare said. “That’s what I tell younger playwrights, that you have to learn how to live with despair, resentment, rejection and failure. Because if you can’t, you need to find another line of work.”
Sobering words, indeed, but somehow strangely inspiring. I have them framed above my writing desk.