The Cure for Failure Deprivation Syndrome

For a few seasons, I watched “American Idol.” I marveled at the resilience of the young people who, in front of millions, listened to some pretty raw criticism—“That was horrible!” was a frequent Simon Cowell comment.

Of course, the ones I saw were the finalists; they’d already shown their mettle against hundreds of other candidates. But I wonder what happened when they were voted off. Did 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 the first lousy grade in their lives, or some professor hadn’t liked their paper. She named this phenomenon “failure deprivation syndrome.” These students 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.

Later in my life when I started writing and first exposed myself to formal critique, it wasn’t so bad. People were generally polite and constructive. I took the suggestions that made sense and revised. I even enjoyed the challenge of reworking my stories and screenplays and felt satisfaction at the improved versions. In the Novel Incubator class, I had to steel myself for 11 opinions on a full draft of my novel—twice! Again, I weathered the momentary sting, sat down, and did what needed to be done. Maybe I wasn’t like those Harvard students.

And then I began querying agents. I’d tried a few years previously with another novel. I actually heard from three of the four agents I contacted. One sent a form letter saying she wasn’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’d had previous contact, was even more generous with her feedback, although 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 that novel, a New York agent told me she didn’t feel simpatico with my protagonist. I put that novel aside for awhile and focused on my second novel. An acceptable response to rejection, I thought at the time.

More recently, over a period of a few months, I queried agents about that second novel—the one I’d worked on during the Novel Incubator program, the one that had received thorough critique and undergone many and substantial revisions. I thought it was ready for prime time. I researched seemingly appropriate agents and followed up on leads suggested by others. There was some interest, mostly early on in the process–some positive feedback for the premise of my novel, some praise for the query letter itself, a few requests for pages. One agent told me that although my novel was different from what she was expecting, she thought it was “saleable.” That kept me going for awhile. But mostly it was form letters saying “your novel isn’t right for our list” or worse, silence. I gave up at 26 agents. An improvement over the last time, at least.

I wouldn’t say I am a sore loser. A sore loser complains, blames others, doesn’t use feedback to improve. I‘ve shown I can take responsibility and listen to suggestions. Nevertheless, I can’t say I’ve handled rejection well. It slows me down and sometimes stops me dead in my tracks. I am a deer caught in the headlights.

I am aware that people we now think of as great authors often had their novels rejected many times. I have a copy of Pushcart’s Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections (Eds., Bill Henderson and Andre Bernard, 1998), itself a best seller to remind myself of the variety of viewpoints out there (and that agents, reviewers, and publishers all have bad days). What did George Orwell do when he was told, “It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA?” How did John Le Carré carry on after reading, “You are welcome to Le Carré—he hasn’t got any future?” Perhaps they didn’t suffer from failure deprivation syndrome.

But if, like me, you find yourself mired in the quicksand of rejection, how do you pull yourself from the muck? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Give yourself permission to take a break from the offending activity (e.g., querying agents).
  2. When in doubt, eat chocolate. Chocolate will improve your mood.
  3. After consuming a lot of chocolate, exercise to rid yourself of the excess calories and increase your endorphins.
  4. Now tired from exercise, read a really bad novel. This action will have two effects. It will make you feel superior, and with luck, it will put you to sleep. No doubt you are sleep-deprived from all those nights you laid in bed scolding yourself about what a failure you were or thought up forms of torture for all the people who’ve rejected you in your life.
  5. Once you are well-rested, do something you are good at, no matter how trivial, and for which your success is guaranteed. Special candidates are those activities that set you apart from others and have garnered you previous praise—like being able to tie a knot in a cherry stem with your tongue.
  6. Gather round a group of people who love you and ask them to remind you of your stellar qualities and your previous accomplishments. Write these down and post them on your fridge to keep you from comfort eating beyond the initial batch of chocolate.
  7. Resist the temptation to read articles about “How I Found My Agent,” especially from writers who have published four or five novels and were introduced to their agent by their best friend, who just happened to be in publishing.
  8. For your daily meditation, repeat 10 times, “Just because I have been rejected by 26 (or fill in the number) agents, I am still a worthwhile person. I wrote a novel!”

And that, my dear writing friends, ideally is all the acclaim any of us should ever need. Eighty to a hundred thousand words or more, refined and polished. No one who has done that should ever consider herself a failure.

But I’ll never say no to chocolate.


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