How to Survive Rejection
Keep giving the marketplace your best.
Posted Jan 12, 2012
At some point early on in a Hollywood career--whether an actor, writer or director--a person has to come to terms with rejection. I ought to know. Prior to becoming a licensed psychotherapist, I spent 17 years as a screenwriter. Now, in addition to my private practice, I write novels and columns like this, so I certainly have a very clear view of rejection--I hate it.
Occasionally I'll read about some creative type who's apparently so well-adjusted that he sees having his work rejected as just another event, one bead on a long string of similar beads; in other words, the rejection has no more (nor less) meaning than having his work accepted.
I confess, I can only stand back and admire such creatures. And wonder what planet they come from.
Because frankly, when I toiled in the screenwriting vineyards, I wanted people not only to accept what I wrote, but like it. A lot. Hell, I wanted them to love it. (Even while acknowledging the well-known truism that, at a certain level, they could never love it enough...)
On the other hand, having my work rejected was cause for anguish of near-Biblical proportions--the familiar gnashing of teeth, rending of garments, etc. On one such occasion, a friend of mine looked at me and said, somewhat testily, "For God's sake, don't take it personally."
"How should I take it?" I replied. "Impersonally?"
That, in a nutshell, is the paradox of rejection. It isn't intended as personal, but it's impossible not to experience it that way.
Let me give you an example. Years ago, as part of the writing staff on a popular sitcom, I joined the producers in a casting session, auditioning actresses for a guest shot on the show. After seeing about a dozen young women read, we chose one. Later, on my way out of the building, I happened to overhear a couple of the others walking away, dejected.
"I should have dressed differently," one of them said. "My agent's right, I don't dress sexy enough. Next time, I gotta show ‘em the goods."
"I over-played that last part of the scene," said another. "I went for the laugh. I should've played the real emotions she was feeling."
Of course, I'd heard similar laments from actors and actresses before. "If only I'd done this, or that..." "If only I were thinner, prettier..." "If only, if only..."
What made it even more ironic in this case was the fact that we'd cast this particular actress because it was getting close to lunch-time and we were all hungry. As it turned out, all the actresses had been attractive and competent, so we just picked the next one who wasn't taller than the show's star and made tracks for the studio commissary.
Our agenda--in this case, hunger--could never have been known or predicted or prepared for by the other women auditioning.
The same is true for TV and film writers. In my experience, not only is it a mystery why certain good TV pilots or spec screenplays get rejected; often it's a total mystery why they get accepted. I don't have a writer patient who hasn't been perplexed when something he or she considers a lesser work is bought, while something they feel represents their best work is consistently rejected.
As my anecdote about the audition demonstrates, the agenda of the marketplace--the sometimes incomprehensible, ever-changing, and often-maddening needs of studios, networks, producers and agents--is out of your control. And not about you.
Therefore, their rejection--of your spec script, your audition, your short film--is not some injury personally directed at you. However, as I said before, your experience of the rejection is personal. In fact, it can't be anything else.
So let yourself be angry, frustrated, even grief-stricken--after all, as a somewhat kinder friend of mine once remarked, when a painful thing happens, a period of mourning is appropriate.
But now the good news: Since you can't know (or control) the outcome of any story pitch, audition or spec script, you're free to just do your work. Rather than shaping your creative endeavors to please others, or in some effort to latch on to or anticipate the next trend, your best bet is to do what excites and moves you, to make your creative growth the ultimate goal.
In other words, as I wrote in a previous column, "Keep giving them you, until you is what they want."
Which means, stay true to yourself, and keep giving the marketplace your best until it takes it.
Remember, too, that rejection comes and goes, but so does acceptance. For any artist, over the long haul, it's mastery of your craft, wedded to the sheer love of doing it, that sustains.
And, finally, though the powers-that-be can accept or reject your work, you can do something they can't: create.
The plain fact is, you are the sun, and the industry is the moon. It only shines by reflected light.