My earliest memory of rejection – and I mean real, sound-of-your-heart-cracking rejection – came when I was ten. I’d been away on a family holiday in September and I couldn’t wait to get back because the first school footy team of the season was being picked while I was away, with the game a few days after I returned.
We were starting our final year of primary – year six it’s called now – and it was our turn to fill the boots of the boys who’d gone on to secondary school. (There was one lad our age who’d made the team the previous year, although we were pretty sure he bought his way in with a Curly Wurly and a packet of Smiths’ square crisps.)
The first match was to be an eleven-a-side, although for the majority of the season’s games we’d be playing six-a-side, with a first team and second team. The lads in the school pretty much knew who the best eight or nine players were, and I was considered a shoo-in for the first eleven.
When I turned up at school on the first day back from hols, I was told I hadn’t been picked.
I’d not properly discovered girls at this point, and certainly not the weird things they can do to your heart, although I had spent a day or two pining for a young lady whose family had upped sticks a few months earlier and moved back to New Zealand.
So I had little with which to compare the feeling that I felt after being told I wasn’t good enough at football. For a lad who lived for the game – I’d just completed the Panini Euro 1980 sticker book, for Christ’s sake – it was an earth-shattering moment, and one from which I just knew I would never recover.
But recover I did. The eleven-a-side match saw us thrash our rivals 4-1 and by the time the six-a-side teams were picked, I was captain of the second team. The games teacher that year, a Mr Howlett (who claimed to have once trialled with Spurs, but we were never convinced) said he’d been pleased with the way I’d knuckled down in training (and lunchtime kickarounds).
Rejection is an ugly word. Rejection of any kind is a painful experience, but clearly the more personal something is to you, the more it is going to smart like hell.
Other than family and friends, the most personal thing in my life is my writing. Been that way for a long time. But here’s the thing – if someone doesn’t like a non-fiction piece of mine, I couldn’t care less. My time in journalism has taught me that no matter how good an article might be, there’ll always be a few lining up to have a pop at it. Goes with the territory.
But make that fiction.... and that’s a whole different ball game. I submitted some scripts in my late twenties, one TV series and a film treatment. They went off to a few production companies and, despite the odd nibble of interest, ultimately were passed over. The utter dejection I felt on reading the replies, standing in the hallway of the depressing little hole I was renting at that time, felt like every relationship break-up I’d been through rolled into one, with a dash of dropped-from-the-footy-team misery mixed in for good measure.
It was several years before I submitted anything else for consideration, this time the first chapters of a book, and when I did, it was another rejection. Age, thankfully, brings wisdom and understanding, because without it I’d be an emotional cripple. I’ve now more confidence in my work, although only time will tell if that is misplaced confidence. Yet I feel, finally, that I’m ready to take rejection on the chin and just plough through the pain, continuing to polish and submit work until I finally earn a breakthrough, or receive a collaborative letter from every agent and publisher I’ve ever submitted to, pleading with me to just quit, for pity’s sake.
The one thing I’ve not done in all this time is bitch and moan about rejection. Sure, it hurts. But there is little to be gained by putting your work out there and then jumping up and down when someone has the audacity not to swoon over it.
The only thing you can do is take it on the chin and try and improve. It might take a few months to get over it, or, as in my case, a few years. But it does get easier to deal with. Okay, I made that last bit up.
Accompanying John in the bath this week:
Fatherhood: The Truth, Marcus Bermann (absolutely essential reading for all soon-to-be-dads. And funny as hell to boot)