How to stay sane. Part 2 – coping with rejection

Frankly I’m not feeling man enough this morning to find exactly where in the interminable Being and Nothingness Jean-Paul Sartre starts talking about waiters, but when he does things get interesting and surprisingly practical.

Picture yourself smoking cigarettes in a Parisian cafe, sitting opposite Sartre. Looking at a miserable, surly waiter Sartre observes that the waiter’s problem is that he has become his job. If you asked the waiter what he was, he’d say ‘I am a waiter’. If you criticised his performance as a waiter he would be cut to the quick. (Sartre calls this living in ‘bad faith’.)

There is another waiter, however, who is full of banter and good cheer. His happiness, according to Sartre, is because he remembers that his job as a waiter is the result of his own choice. He has chosen that very morning to get up and come to work. If you asked him what he was, he’d say ‘I am a person, who happens to have chosen to work as a waiter’.

The cheerful waiter sees himself as a person, not as a waiter. He makes sure he separates what he does for a living from who he is as a person. (Sartre calls this living ‘authentically’.)

The most helpful thing the idea of living authentically has done for me is to enable me to cope with rejection.

The worst way to receive a rejection, and believe me I have been there, is to see it is a rejection of you and all that you stand for. Experiencing rejection this way is unbelievably painful, and can provoke bouts of rage, self-loathing or at the very least a good deal of sulking.

Much better, and far saner, is the Sartre way. To accomplish it, you have to separate yourself from your work.

Remember too that the rejection is usually made by a single fallible person with specific tastes. The sane way to see the rejection is therefore that one of your pieces, written last May, has been rejected by one person. It is NOT a rejection of you, merely of a thing you once made.

Having your work rejected is never fun, but this perspective has certainly helped me keep my sanity.

As a final observation, I remember a specific poem that had been roundly rejected by everyone I sent it to. I kept it in my drawer as I thought it was pretty good. Ten years later the same poem was snapped up by the first person I sent it to at a top magazine. Sometimes you have to accept that the world is not yet ready for the thing you have made, which is why you should think twice before throwing your work away.

Below Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir, thinking about waiters.


source material

I have a friend who is fond of saying that success happens when preparation meets opportunity.

As someone who makes a living from writing, part of my preparation is never to leave home without taking a Moleskine notebook and my Panasonic DMC-LX1 camera tucked into my tatty manbag. So I can scribble things down whenever an idea hits me, or photograph anything interesting I spot.

The other day, for all kinds of complicated reasons, I found myself in a museum suddenly struck by an idea of penetrating brilliance after looking at a display case of dried moths. Handily I whipped out my notebook and started making notes which later turned into a poem.

Recently I found myself sitting opposite a rather eccentric woman, knitting furiously on a crowded commuter train. Thanks to my notebook I could record what said to the man, a complete stranger, taking a seat next to her:

“Do you have a cold?” She said looking up rather ferociously from her knitting.
“Er… No.”
“Good. Because the way to stop getting colds,” she paused darkly, “is not to sit next to one.”

Who knows where I’ll use this yet. But it is the sort of dialogue that’s hard to make up. It’s a moment magpied away for future use.

Most importantly though, carrying a notebook and a camera changes your attitude, and your vantage point. When you go for a walk, you are not just getting some exercise or travelling from A to B. You are a collector, full of attention, on a mission to collect source material.