The Lessons of Failure You may learn more from your rejection letters than from your acceptances

lesson failureBy Brian Ray

Some writers I’ve met use rejection letters as wallpaper in their offices. Others keep their letters boxed up in a closet, as if they were medals of honor. If I had kept all of the rejections I’ve received from scholarly and literary journals, I could have used them to cover at least one wall of my apartment. As artifacts, the letters weren’t that important to me; what was much more valuable was the experience of failure.

The Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti said, "The more you fail, the more you succeed." I began publishing early and often as a graduate student, and while I’ve learned from my successes, I’ve learned a whole lot more from my failures.

Stories of rejection and failure were my favorite part of artist and author biographies I read while pursuing my M.F.A. Edward Albee’s early career inspired me, especially how he continued to write through long spells of failure. In his early 20s, many people would’ve regarded him as a joke. When he won his first Pulitzer, years and years later, a friend told him, "You can’t lose them all."

I relished stories of failure by many of my favorite writers, like Márquez, Didion, Atwood, DeLillo. Doing research in art and art history for my first novel, I also became intrigued with Giacometti—not just his sculptures and paintings, but his attitude toward failure. For him, much like for Camille Claudel, success and failure lived in a strange mix, so much so that they both ultimately destroyed what many of us would consider masterpieces.

Such stories helped me weather my own struggles. For example, I submitted my first article, about complexity theory in Don DeLillo’s Underworld, after my second year of graduate school. In hindsight, I’m surprised the journal editors even sent it out for review, but I’m grateful they did. The comments I got back from peer reviewers were harsh but thorough. After trying to salvage that wreck for two months, I decided to trash the whole thing and start a new project. Such failures are far from a total loss. I learned more about planning research and structuring journal articles from that experience than I did from my best graduate seminars.

My first academic article about composition was accepted about three years later, early on in my Ph.D. program. By then, I thought I’d finally figured out academic writing. I wasn’t prepared for my next article to get a complete rejection. Over the next two years, I stayed with that project and tried tailoring it for different venues in my field. I tried a range of frameworks, submitting the essay to an edited collection and then to a second academic journal. What I learned: Some ideas need time to marinate, some spoil, and some aren’t that great to begin with. But again, the experience wasn’t wasted effort. The research I did for each incarnation of that article paid off in other ways. Writing it helped me organize my thoughts and gave me concrete goals to direct my reading.

The best way to figure out how to write well and get published is to do it for real, which requires sending things off and getting rejected. With luck, you get some acceptances along the way, and the sting and embarrassment of the failures are diminished.

What remains is the advice—admittedly worded sometimes in ways that hurt. But so what? For every handful of form rejections, or terse review letters, I’ve encountered an editor or reviewer willing to work with me on pieces that weren’t perfect but that had merit. One article I ultimately published during my doctoral years wasn’t even sent out for review by the first journal I sent the piece to. I took that editor’s brief comments under advisement and completely rewrote the article, even introducing a new method. That version still underwent revision at another journal before acceptance.

A trick I’ve learned to avoid being distracted by the potential for rejection is to always be working on an article or a book, even when you have something else under review. Another trick is to always be working. I’m constantly looking for ways to become a more efficient researcher. I know writers who work between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. nightly, since that’s when they’re least likely to be interrupted. I often write in those hours, too, but I also sneak bits of time for my research. With 10 or 15 minutes here and there, I can at least log on to WorldCat and sift through potential sources for a project and add some articles to my reading list, printing them or emailing them to myself for later. With smartphone apps and services like Dropbox, I can skim for books and even order them if I’m, say, waiting for a friend to show up at a coffee shop, or a student to show up for an individual conference.

In fact, you might say there’s never a time when I’m truly not doing research on some level. My wife doesn’t completely understand my obsession, but she accepts it.

As one of my professors said: "You’re always choosing between research and something else. Do I go hiking this weekend, or do I spend it in my office? Do I do the laundry now, or wait until this draft is done?" I devote close attention to how I spend my time, even on things like watching television or cooking. Some people simply don’t want to live like that. But I try to keep the big picture in mind: I won’t always have to guard my time so closely.

I’ve heard colleagues offer long explanations for why they’ll work on something for "at least two years" before submitting it anywhere. Perhaps they put off submitting their work out of fear of rejection. But that delaying strategy simply does not jibe with the realities of academic life today (it’s a fine approach, I suppose, if you don’t want tenure). Research and scholarship are social activities, regardless of how long we spend in the solitude of our offices and libraries. Your work is meant to be shared. Most articles or books undergo the same rejection, the same revision, and the same painstaking production process.

So rejection in graduate school taught me the importance of failure. And it turns out, all the while, I was also learning how to balance work and life. While doing research for that doomed DeLillo article, I was working full time for an academic summer camp. I was in charge of the health and safety of 14 adolescent males, 24 hours a day, for about eight weeks. At least once a week, I had to wear a pager for a 24-hour shift. If a medical emergency occurred for any of our roughly 200 campers, I had to transport the injured kid to the hospital and wait there, sometimes for hours.

I can’t quite remember how many times, around midnight, I had to stop work on my article to answer the medical pager or fill in for someone who had been exhausted by a rough day of med-pager duty. But that was my job. So I would throw a legal pad in my messenger bag, grab a couple books, and head off to the hospital. If I were lucky, I could at least work in the waiting room for 20 or 30 relatively uninterrupted minutes.

My group of campers, young as they were, picked up on my struggles. During the camp’s talent show, they put on a skit about me. One of them dressed in a button-down shirt and khakis. He sat on the floor, typing away, surrounded by books, while other campers re-enacted a typical evening’s chaos. The parody version of me responded stoically to a number of crises, returning to his work only to be interrupted again a few seconds later.

For me the skit represents what life is like for academics, especially those who want to publish a great deal. We try in vain to reduce the chaos of our lives, and ultimately make personal sacrifices to get the work done.

Brian Ray is an assistant professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. He is author of two novels and the forthcoming book Style: An Introduction to History, Theory, Research, and Pedagogy.

Article source: The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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