When this Author Refused to Publish A Poem with a Cartoon Rhino In It, He Learned a Valuable Lesson About Handling Rejection And Writing Outside His Comfort Zone. 

A few years back I took a master class in poetry with a prolific high-profile Australian poet. For reasons that escape me now I took a dislike to this poet and the gushingly enthusiastic way he was responding to everything the participants were writing, so I set about writing the stupidest poems I could to see if I could pierce his manic bubble of universal appreciation. Every time we were asked to write something that day, I tried to top my previous effort for ridiculousness.

My last piece was a faux-sonnet that stole half of its lines from a Bert and Ernie bit from Sesame Street and ended with a hand-drawn picture of a rhinoceros. He loved it. A week afterwards a friend who'd been in the same class told me the master class host wanted to publish the Bert and Ernie poem in the UK-based poetry journal he was guest editing. I said no, in no uncertain terms, not wanting to put my name to something that I'd deliberately written badly out of spite.

To this day I haven't been able to work out if that was the right decision. Sure, a poem I wrote and hated wasn't published, but I also missed out on appearing in a high-profile international journal. Who knows what kind of doors that poem might have opened, either in terms of publication opportunities or pushing me to explore new ways of writing?   

Writers often tell each other that, if something gets rejected, it's probably just because it wasn't the right fit for that publisher. Journal editors and publishers often say something similar when they reject people's writing. It's not you, it's me, the rejection letter might as well be saying. There's nothing wrong with you. I just want to publish other writers. I'm sure there's someone out there who'll publish you the way you deserve to be published. I'm just not that someone.

This is a completely understandable approach from the point of view of a publisher. When you're rejecting someone's writing you're usually not looking to start an argument or a fight, or even a conversation. You just want the writer to take it on the chin and move on.

But what if this kind of rejection keeps coming your way? What if nothing you write rings anybody's bells? What if your twenty-first-century genius mashup of technical writing, haiku and magic realism continues to fall on deaf ears? What if everyone says, "It's not you, it's me"? Doesn't that mean it is you after all?

Well, maybe. But even if it isn't you, if you can't find anyone to publish what you're writing it might be time to think about writing something different.

There are plenty of stories about people pushing on after rejection upon rejection until they found the unmitigated success they deserved. One legend has it that the guys who invented Superman had their first Superman comic rejected five times before it was finally published and became the international sensation we know today.

We only ever hear about the times that this kind of blind faith and persistence paid off, though.

When it comes down to it, "keep on keeping on and you'll get there" is far too empty an affirmation to be of any use. If you're going to be a writer you have to be prepared to accept that there will be times when you are the only person who likes a particular thing you've written. Not everything you write is going to be published. That goes for the stuff you think is great as much as it does for the stuff you think is maybe just okay.

We only ever hear about the times that this kind of blind faith and persistence paid off, though.

Sometimes the only thing left to do is take a close look at what people are publishing and try to write something a bit more like that yourself. Your first inclination might be fuck that, I gotta write what I gotta write, but there are definite merits to learning to write outside your own natural inclinations.

Whatever your personal tastes might be, if you've embarked on a career as a professional writer it's extremely unlikely you're only ever going to find work writing the kind of stuff you dig. Every Guardian columnist or game reviewer who's stuck at their writing long enough has a hidden past writing annual reports or search engine marketing copy. If you want to be a writer long-term, writing stuff that goes against your natural inclinations as a writer is as much part of the deal as writing stuff that you love to write.

This principle applies as much to the jobbing writer as it does to their creative output. Every kind of writing or writing style you tackle has something to teach you about the craft. The skills you pick up from travel writing could be useful for describing locations in your novel. The brevity you have to practise when writing for the web could add a twist of sparseness to your poetry. A stint writing flash fiction could come in handy for that childhood reminiscence section of your memoir.

By moving outside your comfort zone you can expose yourself to influences you might otherwise not have encountered. These new influences can serve to deepen and enrich your writing in unexpected ways.

It's important to tackle these new approaches and styles with an open mind. If you go into this kind of reinvention cynically you could end up writing something you hate, which will leave you unhappy whether or not it ends up getting published.

Since the incident with the cartoon rhino I've tried to be less cynical about writing beyond my personal preferences and comfort zones. I've tackled some less familiar styles with an open mind and have been pleased by the level of success and positive feedback I've received for what I once would have said were the kind of poems I never would have written.

Just as it's important to approach a reinvention of your writing style without cynicism, it's important not to let a long string of rejections inspire cynicism or even revenge in your attempts to remedy things.

There are some writers out there who seem to have decided that it's wasn't what they were writing that was the problem - it was it's who they were that was getting them rejected. To remedy this they pretended to be someone different so they could improve their chances of getting published.

The urge to adopt a pen name or false persona is completely understandable, particularly when it comes to memoir or autobiography and the importance of that intangible quality of authenticity that sometimes blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction.

This approach can open doors, but the risks can be high if you indulge in too much reinvention. For every Miles Franklin or AS Byatt writing under a pseudonym to counter gender bias there's a James Frey or Helen Darville fabricating their pasts in a bid to legitimise their writing.

Pseudonyms and false back-stories are both venerable authorial approaches. That said, if you get busted trying to remedy your string of rejections, by faking your entire identity, you may be able to ride out the shit-storm and use it to further your public profile, but you might also end up facing an even longer, if not permanent, string of rejections as a result.

Writing outside your comfort zone is not an easy thing to do. It requires pushing back against habit, a fear of the unknown and a sense of comfort in knowing (or being convinced you know) what you're good at. You also run the risk of channelling your discomfort into anger and the desire for revenge. But if you can move past all of these things and avoid the potential pitfalls, you might discover things about your writing abilities that you wouldn't have otherwise.

This is an Ideas piece, part of a series where writers discuss ideas around the craft of writing. To read more like this, click here:

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Adam Ford's picture

Adam Ford

Adam Ford is the author of Man Bites Dog, Not Quite the Man for the Job, The Third Fruit is a Bird and Heroes and Civilians. He's also the author of the sporadic zine Jutchy Ya Ya. He lives in Chewton, in Central Victoria, with his wife and their two daughters, a cat, a dog and the ghosts of numerous chickens. His website is www.theotheradamford.wordpress.com.