Back in January, I set myself a goal: to get published on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Partly I wanted to prove I was funny, and having a piece nestling alongside classics such as ‘Hamlet (Facebook News Feed Edition)’ seemed like definitive evidence. Also, I wanted to test a theory about confidence.
Writing takes confidence – in sitting down to work through ideas on the page and submitting the resulting piece somewhere. The reward for this is often shattering rejection, which is not a recommendable confidence booster.
I always thought confidence was something you had or you didn’t (with myself definitively in the latter category). But the latest research shows that confidence is something you can build, sort of like a muscle – and the way to build confidence is by taking action. It’s a circular relationship: taking action builds a little confidence, which makes it easier to take a little more action, which builds more confidence. This is according to Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, authors of The Confidence Code (summarised in this Atlantic article).
So I decided I would build confidence by continuously sending submissions to McSweeney’s until they accepted one. Thus, the other reasons I made McSweeney’s my target: the pieces can be as short as a few sentences (so it’s easy to churn through them) and the rejections come in timely fashion. (Plus it meant I could spent a lot of time reading McSweeney’s and calling it ‘work.’)
My plan was to submit a piece and then write another, so as soon as the rejection came, I could submit a new piece right away. This was how I chose to take action – to build confidence despite rejection.
The plan sounded great in theory. I expected the first few rejections, which made them easier to take – like getting shot while wearing a bulletproof vest. Around submission number four, however, a few months into the year, I wrote a piece I thought was perfect. By that time, as the confidence-building theory suggested, I was feeling pretty darn good about myself.
So when that rejection came, it was like I’d mistaken a regular merino vest for my bulletproof one, and now I was bleeding out all over the keyboard. I did not submit another piece that day. I did not submit another piece that month.
But the confidence I’d built was still there – it just needed some recovery time. I sent in three more pieces. When the editor accepted ‘Settling the E-Books vs. Direct-To-Brain Digital Text Streaming Argument’, I was surprised. I didn’t consider it the best of the pieces I’d sent – in fact, I probably wouldn’t have sent it, except it was the only idea ready when the usual rejection/submission day came around.
Of course, the publication was a phenomenal confidence booster – but I wouldn’t have got there without all the rejections prior. It turns out the hackneyed ‘do one thing a day that scares you’ might be true, at least when it comes to confidence.
Ashley Kalagian Blunt is a Sydney-based writer published by McSweeney’s, Right Now and Griffith Review. Her travel memoir The Pomegranate’s Daughter was selected for the 2015 Varuna Publisher Introduction Program. Before coming to Australia, she lived and worked in Canada, Korea, Peru and Mexico. Find her at @AKalagianBlunt.