Getting Past Rejection? Make More Spaghetti

[Another entry in the new monthly column, The Freelance Life, by Ethan Gilsdorf, about the trials, tribulations, triumphs --- and tips to share --- along the path to becoming a freelance writer.]

by Ethan Gilsdorf

I had a plumb assignment lined up. An editor at a pretty sweet publication liked my idea for a story. The editor assigned it. I wrote it up as soon as I could and filed the story. The editor was still excited. I'd be getting notes and suggestions to improve the story any day now, I was told. The story would run this summer.

Then, crickets. For weeks, nothing. All summer long.

The story was pegged to summertime. It had a shelf-life, an expiration date. When I still had not heard back from the editor by Labor Day, I figured my story has been killed.

After a series of humiliating emails --- of the "Hello, are you there?" variety --- I finally got the official word. Yes, sorry, the editor confirmed, the story had been killed. And now it was too late for me to send the article elsewhere and try to get it published. As of today, I'm still hoping to get my kill fee. Nothing is guaranteed.

Rejection. Defeat. Hope. Encouragement. Success. Despair. Hope again.

These are the cycle of emotions that I still confront, even though I'm a fairly regularly employed freelance writer/critic/journalist who is lucky to see his name in print or pixel often. Yet, every time a story gets killed, or a promising contact at a magazine leads nowhere, or an editor or my agent rejects a book idea, I can't help but feel that pang of pain, that sinking "clunk" in my gut that says, "Not good enough. Not smart enough. Not ready for prime time. Dude, you're history. Pack it in."

Maybe I have a fragile ego. Maybe I am not tough enough. But sometimes I think, Ethan, what are you doing? Why do you put yourself through this emotional wringer every time?

So much of freelance writing landscape is strewn with land mines that can set off these emotional blasts. This is often the case in all lines of writing. It's the inevitable situation that all of us engaged in the at times seemingly futile effort to get our words in front of the eyes of actual readers confronts on a regular basis.

And yet, I need to remind myself, and we all need to remind ourselves, this is the name of the game. Ninety-five percent of my brilliant ideas will never see the light of day. There's no way all of your brilliant ideas for articles, poems, short stories, novels, screenplays, YouTube sensations, will or should have an audience.

So we need to have hope. Need to remember, the more you send out, the more you toss out there --- ideas, pitches, submissions --- the more likely one of your strands of spaghetti will stick to the wall. My brain sometimes feels like spaghetti, it's many strands my many scattered thoughts. So I think ideas-as-spahetti is the perfect metaphor. Boil, cook, drain, toss and see what sticks.

It's an odds game. The more ideas out there, the more that will hit their target. My book was rejected 23 times by 23 different houses before it found its publisher. And some of these will get assigned and some will appear in print. And some will die a young death.

And you will keep thinking of new ideas. I know you will.

I'll end with another depressing story. I got a second plumb assignment this year, from a well-known glossy magazine. The story was assigned, I did my geeky research and interviews, I wrote it and filed it, and it was supposed to appear in the publication's June issue. Come April, the editor told it would be bumped to November. Fine, I said. I can deal with that. It's not like the story has been killed.

Then, on Friday, I heard that this story would not be appearing in the November issue, or in any future issue. Once again, a story killed. And, once again, it's probably too late to place it elsewhere.

But that's OK. I am telling myself. I'll get my kill fee (I hope). I will live to write again, think of more ideas, pitch them, and make more spaghetti, and toss that messy clump into the universe and see what sticks, and where.

Ethan's 12 Habits of Highly Successful Writers seminar runs Friday, September 20th. This fall, he has launched a suite of classes at GrubStreet called the Freelance Essentials Series, which teaches students the skills and craft to become working freelance journalists. Upcoming classes in the series include: 

  • Freelance Essentials: Writing Killer Pitch Letters (Oct. 11)

  • Freelance Essentials: Writing and Pitching the Op-Ed (Nov. 9)

  • Freelance Essentials: Freelance Idea Clinic (Nov. 23)

  • Freelance Essentials: Nuts and Bolts for the Freelancer (Dec. 13)


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About the Author

A GrubStreet instructor since 2005, Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, essayist, critic, poet, teacher, performer and nerd. He is the author of the travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, named a Must-Read Book by the Massachusetts Book Awards. His essay "The Day My Mother Became a Stranger" was cited in the anthology Best American Essays 2016. His fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, The Quarterly, Exquisite Corpse, The North American Review, The Massachusetts Review, New York Quarterly and dozens of other literary magazines and in several anthologies, and he is the winner of the Hobblestock Peace Poetry Competition and the Esme Bradberry Contemporary Poets Prize. Gilsdorf got his start in journalism as a Paris-based travel writer and food and film critic for Time Out, Fodor's and the Washington Post. He has published hundreds of feature stories, essays, op-eds and reviews about the arts, pop, gaming and geek culture; and media and technology, and travel, in dozens of other publications worldwide including the New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Boston Globe, Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Wired, Salon, WBUR's The Artery and Cognoscenti, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Art New England. A regular presenter, performer, and event moderator, he frequently appears on programs such as NPR, The Discovery Channel, PBS, CBC, BBC, and the Learning Channel, and also lectures at schools, universities, festivals, conventions, and conferences worldwide, including at this TEDx event, where he nerded out about D&D. Gilsdorf is co-founder of GrubStreet's Young Adult Writers Program (YAWP), and teaches creative writing at GrubStreet, where he served on the Board of Directors for 10 years. A GrubStreet instructor since 2005, he teaches essay, memoir, journalism and other workshops, and is also the instructor of GrubStreet's 8-month Essay Incubator program. He’s also the lead instructor for the Westerly (RI) Memoir Project. He has led writing workshops for non-profit social justice organizations and also teaches writing and Dungeons & Dragons classes for younger students, in schools, libraries and community centers. He had also served on the Boston Book Festival Program Committee and as a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He received his BA from Hampshire College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University. Follow Ethan’s adventures at or Twitter @ethanfreak, and read his posts on Grub's blog, GrubWrites.

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