In every profession, they exist, especially the arts. They are the nay sayers. The doom and gloomers. The miserable masses. They are the people who tell the young musician he’ll never make it. They tell the talented artist she should study something “practical.” They tell the acting student to get ready to wait tables.
Among writers, however, these Nellies seem to be even more certain of your impending failure. They are so certain, in fact, that if you aren’t very careful (and extremely confident), you might start to believe it, too.
Writing is a very personal experience. You are baring your heart, showing a part of yourself to the world that may not be the nicest, kindest or best part. You have to be brave to be able to do that, but it can also make you feel very vulnerable.
I was invited to join a writers’ group once, and I was very excited about it. I had barely begun to write at this point. In fact, I had just submitted my first short story to a magazine. After reading a great deal, I’d learned that agents and publishers were inclined to look more closely at your work if you had a publishing history of some kind. My credits of creating a few advertisements for Japanese architectural magazines when I lived in Japan a very long time ago were not exactly the kind of history that interested them.
I went to the meeting, which was held at one of my favorite places, Barnes and Noble. I saw it as a good sign. With my notebook in hand, I was nervous, but hopeful. I had so much to learn, and I was certain the people at this writers’ group would be a great resource for me, a support group. I was wrong.
The writers sat around a table, eying me with suspicion. They were not what I expected, although I didn’t think I had expectations. With one or two exceptions, it looked like an aging hippie convention. It was a group of women with long grey hair, slovenly clothing, bare feet shoved into flip flops and miserable expressions on their faces (which were completely devoid of any make-up, by the way). None of that mattered to me, but I immediately came to the conclusion that these people did not look like professionals, and they certainly did not look successful.
I decided not to judge. Writing is a solitary business, and I myself spend a great deal of time in yoga pants with a shawl wrapped around my shoulders and no make-up on my face. In fact, that is what I look like at this very moment. But I am at home. Alone. Dressing well and appropriately is not caving to society. It is presenting yourself as a serious and professional person. Dressing like a slob in public does not make you a better writer.
But I digress. When they asked me introduce myself, I did. I told them I had just submitted my first short story and the name of the magazine. All of them began to shake their heads, almost simultaneously.
“You’ll never get published in that magazine. It is impossible to break in. You won’t even hear back from them,” said one of the women.
Then it began. The attack of the Negative Nellies. They talked, and talked, and talked about how many times they had been rejected (hundreds). They said getting published was impossible. They spoke quite personally of their own heartbreak and frustration. I felt bad for them, but when I began to feel their negativity creep under my skin, I had to distance myself. Their failures were not mine.
There were a few success stories in the group. One lady had been published in a magazine that shared shocking stories sold under the premise they were true. She hadn’t been paid yet for her work, and said the magazine was famous for not paying their contributors. Another woman, the huge celebrity of the group, had an agent and had published an e-book. The hippie woman with a giant pink kitten emblazoned on her t-shirt sitting next to me explained that it was erotica. It made me feel a little depressed. These women had worked and slaved for years, and yet the only thing any of them had really achieved was a smut book. It was sad.
I left Barnes and Noble dragging my feet. Even the smell of the Starbucks wafting through the store was not enough to make me happy. I kept hearing their words in my head. You’ll never get published. You’ll never get published. When I saw the rows and rows of published books on the shelves, I straightened my spine and told that voice in my head to shut up. I didn’t know anything about these women. They might be lazy. They might be incompetent. They might lack talent. And I told myself again, their failures were not mine.
I went home more determined than ever, even if it was just to prove them wrong. And the next day, when I opened my mailbox, I had a reply to my short story submission. It was a handwritten note from one of editors of the magazine. She told me she liked the story, but it was too long. She asked me to cut down the word count and resubmit it. It was a short little note, but it made all the difference in the world.
I did exactly as she said, and we sent the story back and forth over the course of a few months. Finally, she felt it was ready to present it to her boss, and her boss would decide if it would be published or not. Her boss declined, but it really didn’t matter. I had crossed some sort of personal hurdle. Just that one editor believing in my story was enough.
Eventually I sent in seven more short stories to different magazines and contests. Two were published. Two received Honorable Mentions. Another hurdle crossed. I never went back to that writers' group. Once was more than enough.
Don’t listen to the Negative Nellies in your life. It doesn’t matter if you are a writer or a painter or a candlestick maker – do what you love, and do it to the best of your ability. With enough hard work, skill, and a bit of luck, things might just work out for you.
I saw one of the Nellies from the writers’ group the other day. She asked me how the writing was going, and I told her. I’d signed with a fabulous agent. My first book was on submission. Everything was going well.
She shook her head. “That really doesn't mean anything. I have to warn you, it is very hard to get published.”
At that moment, I realized I was almost completely immune to Negative Nellies. I’d built a sort of coat of armor around myself to guard against their jealousy, spite, and even their nasty, negative vibes. I wasn’t angry with her. I pitied her.
She smiled and offered me one last piece of advice as I turned to go. I heard it very clearly, as well as the sound of desperation in her voice. "Don't get your hopes up."
I smiled right back at her and said, “Too late. They already are.”