Sunday, March 28, 2010

On Failure Deprivation Syndrome

I’m sitting here watching “American Idol” and marveling at the resilience of these young people who in front of millions listen to some pretty raw criticism—“That was horrible!” is a frequent Simon Cowell comment. Of course, these are the finalists; they’ve already shown their mettle against hundreds of other candidates. But I wonder what happens when they are voted off. Do they cry? Say they’ll never sing again? Resolve to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and start all over again?

Years ago, when I was a career counselor, one of my colleagues at Harvard noted that she regularly saw students who came to her devastated because they had received their first lousy grade in their lives, or some professor hadn’t liked their paper. She named this phenomenon “failure deprivation syndrome.” These young people had never failed at anything, and they didn’t have the tools to handle it.

As I thought about my own life, I realized that I, too, had not suffered big setbacks at least in terms of standard achievements by which we gauge success. I did well in school, was accepted into all the colleges and graduate schools I applied to, and generally got the jobs I wanted. Sure, I worked hard and aimed for things that were reachable given my talents. You could say I deserved my rewards. My early love life was another story, but after a slow start, I even landed the guys on whom I’d set my sights. I guess I should consider myself lucky.

And then I started writing. Let’s face it. This whole business is not for sissies. Last year, I sent off queries regarding my novel to four agents; I actually heard from three. I’m told that it’s quite common to not receive a reply. One sent a form letter saying they weren’t taking on new writers. Another took the time to write back, “I didn’t love it, and I have to love it.” And a third, with whom I had had previous contact, was even more generous with her feedback, though I didn’t understand what she was telling me to do. Later, in a one-one-one manuscript review of the first twenty pages of one of my novels, a New York agent told me she didn’t feel simpatico with my protagonist.

Recently, I entered two local short story contests—in one, the odds were about 6:1, and the other, 40:1. I thought my stories were pretty good. I wondered whether I was close to the cut or tossed out after the first read. Unfortunately, I’ll never know.

I wouldn’t say I am a sore loser. A sore loser complains, blames others, doesn’t use feedback to improve. I believe I take responsibility and listen to suggestions if they are offered. Nevertheless, I can’t say I handle rejection well. It slows me down and makes me reexamine my goals. I know that people we now think of as great authors often had their novels rejected many times, and I have a copy of Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections (Ed. Bill Henderson and Andre Bernard), itself a best seller to remind myself of the variety of viewpoints out there (and that agents, reviewers, and publishers all have bad days).

But how do you know whether for you it’s just a numbers game and that someone out there will eventually like you well enough to represent you, or that your manuscript really does need more work, or that you really don’t have the talent? The agent who gave me the feedback I didn’t quite get did say that maybe someone else would like it as it was. Was she saying, “I could see how some people might respond to this, so keep sending it out?” I stopped at four agents, and maybe I should have just kept sending out my novel. Instead, I decided to take the disparate and unclear pieces of advice and do more revision. So now having stalled on that task, I am in a nowhere land. I’ve made it convenient for myself. If I don’t get it out there again, I can’t be rejected again, can I?

All of those who write need to ask ourselves why we write; how much effort to we are willing to put into it after the first one or two drafts and the inevitable suggestions; how badly we need external affirmation for our labors, especially in the form of publication by someone other than ourselves; and how much indifference or negativity from an increasingly deluged and strapped publishing industry are we willing to endure to get to that place. But I suppose that if John Le Carre could keep going after hearing, “You’re welcome to Le Carre—he hasn’t got any future,” I shouldn’t throw in the towel just yet. After all, it’s never too late to learn something new—even how to weather a little rejection.

Now didn’t I just hear about NPR’s latest 3-minute fiction contest?

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