A little while ago, my child asked if he should apply for a role he wanted at school. He was nervous. I said yes, definitely, why not? Then he asked if he should also apply for other roles that he didn’t want, in case he didn’t get the one he really wanted?
I said no, just apply for what you really want. You’ll either get it, which is great, or if not, at least you’ve opened up an honest conversation so people can know and help you.
Meanwhile, I saw something that I really wanted, but didn’t think I’d get.
‘Are you going to apply?’ asked my son.
‘Um, eee-errrm…’ I said. (No. But how could I say no?)
The role I wanted was a governor position in a school that I’d adored and supported for a decade as volunteer. I was absolutely in love with the place, a quiet, gentle but dynamic little sanctuary — a jewel — that carefully educated and cared for the local children. To be formally part of this school, and contribute to it, would be a dream come true. (I was a professional writer, and mum – maybe I could offer some useful skills?) I’d volunteered there for years and knew it inside out… BUT… I also knew that they didn’t want me. I just didn’t know why. Three years earlier they’d approached me out of the blue to ask if I’d be a governor. I’d replied ‘yes’ , we discussed it a couple of times, and… then it was never mentioned again. After a term of silence, I followed up and they confirmed it was cancelled, but couldn’t say why. It was confusing, disappointing, oddly humiliating, and not something I ever wanted to repeat — but with my child asking how to conquer fear of failure, I could hardly not apply… For his sake, I sent in the forms.
It was a good call; my child followed my example, applied for his thing, succeeded, and came away beaming with the role that he wanted. A delightful, happy, gold dust moment that we celebrated.
I then withdrew my application, leaving the school to engage with their preferred candidates. Withdrawing from somewhere I’d wanted to belong still hurt (thanks and much love to the parents who said they would’ve voted for me), but life’s too short to be where you’re not wanted. I moved on, and joined another team elsewhere.
Belonging is massively important to me. When I first set up as a freelancer, I waived my notice period just so that my clients were under no obligation to keep me one minute longer than they needed. On this basis I worked with fantastic teams — some for over 20 years — knowing they were choosing to work with me. To be known, wanted, valued, trusted and included — to belong on a human level — is a really, really wonderful feeling.
When we feel we belong somewhere, we can commit fully to giving the best of ourselves without reservation.
Aside from story submissions where it’s often understood, I’d never been rejected via silence before. It was an absolutely miserable process – protracted, isolating, and confusing – but it allowed me to bring this experience to my fiction, and really helped me appreciate both rejection and successful publication.
(It also helps that rejection of a piece of work is a lot easier to handle than rejection of yourself as a person, but it’s a parallel process.)
Firstly, a rejection is a gift when actively communicated. The filtering of submissions by editors means that if a piece of work is not a good fit, or not of suitable quality, or would in some way not be enjoyed by readers, it’s not published. A rejection, therefore, does everyone a favour. We don’t need to feel hurt by this; we can just accept it as part of a necessary assessment process. Active rejection is also a token of respect and courage from the person rejecting us: they took valuable time to consider us, and even more time to let us know the outcome so that we can move on and work with what we have. This is a double gift that can lead to ongoing conversations and success. Rejection, on several levels, is simply a mark of consideration.
Then there’s acceptance and success; some stories are instantly accepted for publication or prizes, and that’s a wonderful moment — but the fact that the filtering system exists means that our success isn’t random — it’s meaningful. We could have been rejected, but we weren’t. Even a rejected story can be edited, improved, resubmitted, and accepted by another publication where it will show increased craft, fit with its counterparts, and bring joy to readers. The filtering process validates and gives real meaning and integrity to all our acceptances and successes.
And that, after all, is what we want.