The life of a creative is filled with rejection.
The beauty and terror of all creative pursuits—filmmaking, writing, art, design, music—is that there is no universal definition of what is “good.” While there are guidelines on how to approach each craft, ultimately, there are no right or wrong answers when it comes to the end result.
All creatives must, at some point in their career, ask themselves these questions:
What does success look like? And am I strong enough to outlast the rejection that precedes it?
When you’re in a spiral of self pity, it’s easy to look at the successes of others and become bitter. For these artists, you think, success came easily. Everyone understands and loves their work, but no one will ever understand or love mine.
This is the lie we tell ourselves when the rejection letters pile up, when we lose another creative battle at the office, when we look over our work for the hundredth time and our fingers itch to rip it to shreds.
This is the lie that all successful creatives have learned to silence.
This is the lie we can put to rest with stories—stories of people just like us, who have worked hard and bared their souls and had their hearts broken again and again in pursuit of a vision bigger than themselves.
These are the stories of people who were brave enough, crazy enough, passionate enough to push through rejection. People who knew when to challenge themselves and when to hold their ground. People who changed the world because they sank their teeth into their dreams and refused to let go.
This is what creative success looks like. It isn’t easy. It’s never absolute.
But it is worth it.
Quentin Tarantino: Pulp Fiction
Hollywood was reluctant to acknowledge Quentin Tarantino’s violent genius when he first broke into the filmmaking scene in the early 1990s. His first major film, Reservoir Dogs, was made after 5 full years of writing screenplays and getting constant rejections. His second movie, True Romance, was purchased for the minimum fee of $50,000.
Tarantino had an equally difficult time getting someone to back Pulp Fiction. A Columbia TriStar executive said of his screenplay: “[It’s] the worst thing ever written. It makes no sense. Someone’s dead and then they’re alive. It’s too long, violent and unfilmable.” It received several other declines before Harvey Weinstein at Miramax decided to fund the film.
Pulp Fiction went on to win an Academy Award for best screenplay, a Golden Globe for Best Picture, and a Cannes Palme D’Or. Since then, Tarantino has written and directed a number of award-winning films, and established himself as one of the leading creative minds in the film industry today.
The very things film executives complained about—violence, length, out of order narratives—have become the hallmark of Tarantino’s wildly popular films. Even in the face of rejection, he remained true to his approach. He believed that someone would eventually get his work, refusing to compromise. And he was right. All he needed to do was wait.
Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird
Source: Danielle Turner
Harper Lee stopped working in 1956 so she could focus on writing her novel—what would eventually become To Kill a Mockingbird—full-time. In 1957, she delivered a manuscript to her publisher J. B. Lippincott Company… and they rejected it, saying it was “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel.”
Over the course of the next two years, Lee worked hand in hand with her editor, Therese von Hohoff Torrey, to completely re-write the novel several times. Lee later told Writer’s Digest, “I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.”
The original manuscript, published in 2015 as Go Set a Watchman, was set much later with Atticus Finch as the narrator instead of Scout. Different drafts had different narrators and series of events. It was a long, grueling process to transform Lee’s original manuscript into the book we know and love today.
When To Kill a Mockingbird was finally published in 1960, it was met with widespread acclaim from critics and readers alike, running at the top of the bestseller list for over 40 weeks. The book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, and went on to sell more than 40 million copies over the course of the next 5 decades. It was also adapted into an Academy Award-winning film just two years after publication.
In an interview with Counterpoints in 1964, Lee said, “Naturally, you don’t sit down in ‘white hot inspiration’ and write with a burning flame in front of you. But since I knew I could never be happy being anything but a writer, and Mockingbird put itself together for me so accommodatingly, I kept at it because I knew it had to be my first novel, for better or for worse.”
Lee could have given up on the book, moving on to an easier story. Many authors do this when faced with rejection. But instead, she took her editor’s feedback in stride, wrestled long and hard with her characters and narrative, and eventually created a masterpiece. It wasn’t quite what she envisioned at first—it was even better.
Whether you think Bono is a genius, a sellout, or something else entirely, there’s no denying U2’s success. They’ve won 22 Grammys. They’ve had 31 songs make it into the Billboard Top 100 list, with 2 songs reaching the top of the charts. They’ve sold over 150 million records over the course of their career, and they’re still going strong.
But the band didn’t always walk on water. Back in 1979, when Larry, Adam, Bono, and The Edge were still in high school, they submitted a demo to a number of Irish record labels, including RSO. They received this cookie-cutter rejection letter in response:
Source: Mental Floss
Paul McGuinness, the band’s first manager, says: “I was amazed at the quality and talent and ambition of these four musicians and yet we couldn’t get a record deal. Everyone in the world passed on U2 before we finally found a home.”
Even though they had just formed their band, were still in school, and had no formal training, the boys believed in their music enough to persist in spite of the stream of rejections. They went on to release a three-song EP titled Three with CBS (now Columbia Records) later in 1979, and their first full album, Boy, came out with Island Records in 1980.
While their sound has evolved drastically over the years, U2 has remained committed to their vision, in spite of criticism from industry reviewers and fans. Their ongoing commercial and critical success is a testament to the band’s resilience and passion.
As for RSO Records, the company folded in 1983, just four years after they rejected U2’s demo. But hindsight is always 20/20; foresight rarely is.
Source: Comic Art Community
Jim Lee—artist, writer, entrepreneur, and publisher—is one of the true legends of the comic world. He’s won numerous awards for his work, including the Harvey Special Award for New Talent in 1990, the Inkpot Award in 1992, and the Wizard Fan Award in 1996, 2002 and 2003. He started his own production company, WildStorm, and independent publishing company Image Comics, which was acquired by D.C. Comics in 1998. He has hundreds of thousands of fans who follow him on social media and wait in line at conventions for his signature.
Lee may be a rockstar today, but his entry into the industry was a bumpy one. Back in the mid-1980s, his art was rejected by every major comic publisher, including D.C. (which he now runs). The harshest rejection letter came from Eliot R. Brown, then editor at Marvel:
Source: Mental Floss
While this feedback could have crushed his aspirations, Lee instead took it to heart.
“I […] put a drawing table next to my bed and drew for eight hours every day, as if I had a real job doing it. That level of intensity is how I got my break. A lot of artists draw once a week; you have to do it every day to get better,” he shared with St Louis Magazine.
He worked tirelessly on his drawing over the next few months and went to visit Marvel’s booth at a New York comic convention in 1985. After showing his work to Archie Goodwin, he landed a job at the very company who had reamed his work for inconsistency and poor quality. Instead of letting ego or disappointment get in the way, he listened to what industry editors had to say and used it to improve his craft.
During his time at Marvel, Lee worked on some major comic franchises including X-Men, which continues to hold the all-time record for single-issue sales at 8 million copies sold in one month. Today, he provides creative direction for beloved series like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.
Madeleine L’Engle: A Wrinkle in Time
Source: Amazon / Hope Larson
A Wrinkle in Time won the Newbery Medal in 1963 and is a classic 20th-century children’s book. But if Madeleine L’Engle had been less persistent in her search for a publisher, there’s a good chance the book never would have made its way into the hands and hearts of readers.
Looking at L’Engle’s career leading up to A Wrinkle in Time, it seems strange that she struggled to find a publisher. L’Engle already had written and sold six books prior. But even with several successful novels under her belt, the manuscript for A Wrinkle in Time was rejected 26 times.
The author described her struggles this way:
You can’t name a major publisher who didn’t reject it. And there were many reasons. One was that it was supposedly too hard for children. Well, my children were 7, 10, and 12 while I was writing it. I’d read to them at night what I’d written during the day, and they’d say, “Ooh, mother, go back to the typewriter!” A Wrinkle in Time had a female protagonist in a science fiction book, and that wasn’t done. And it dealt with evil and things that you don’t find, or didn’t at that time, in children’s books.
Finally, after almost two years of pitching, John C. Farrar of Farrar, Straus and Giroux agreed to publish the book, even though they didn’t have a children’s list at the time. The book’s editor also thought it was “distinctly odd,” but agreed with L’Engle that “the capabilities of young readers are greatly underestimated.” They sent it to an outside reader, who called it “the worst book I have ever read.” In spite of this review, they published it in 1962.
Since publication, A Wrinkle in Time has remained controversial and perplexing to many; the novel as appeared extensively on banned book lists in the U.S over the past 5 decades. It has also sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.
Despire numerous setbacks, L’Engle refused to believe that her story was too strange or too challenging for children to enjoy. She didn’t let market feedback alter her course, even when the pressure to be more “commercial” was high.
Her success with Wrinkle enabled her to publish 3 more books in the series, and inspire millions of children worldwide with her thought-provoking works.
Rejection: Not the End, But the Beginning
The journey to success follows a different path for every creative, but they all share one thing in common: Rejection is not the end, but the beginning. In fact, obstacles can be the driving catalyst for even greater clarity around, and commitment to, your vision.
All five of these artists achieved wild success in spite of rejection—perhaps even because of it. These early failures spurred them to be more tenacious in overcoming defeat, and more inspired to achieve great things throughout their careers.
While rejection always hurts, it doesn’t last forever. Embrace the pain in the moment. Throw things, cry in the bathroom, take a long run—whatever helps you process the hurt. Then pin those rejection letters to the wall as a badge of honor, and carry on.