Elisabeth Kubler-Ross didn’t have the writing life in mind when she formulated her now-famous five stages of grief. Her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, was inspired by her work with terminally ill patients.
Still, anyone who has written for any length of time—and especially those who have submitted their work to a critique partner, editor, or agent—can easily see the applicability of those stages:
The first reaction is denial. In the writer’s life, this may sound something like, “But that’s the way it really happened” or “You just don’t understand the Christian dystopian alternative reality Zombie genre” or, as one writer promised in an introductory email, “My anticipated bestseller is expected to sell 12 million copies within 3 months.” Okay, that last one isn’t denial but delusion.
As a writer progresses beyond denial, frustration and anger can set in, and may surface in such sentiments as, “Editors are mean” or “Agents are stupid” or “The whole publishing industry is a racket.”
Having survived the first two stages of grief, many of us settle down and take a conciliatory, compromising approach. Perhaps toward God. (“If you help me find a publisher, I’ll give all the proceeds to the church.”) Maybe with ourselves. (“If I sell something—anything—this year, I’ll go to that writers conference.”) Sometimes with an agent or editor. (“If I revise according to your critique, may I resubmit?”) That last one, by the way, sometimes turns rejection into acceptance, as it can indicate a willingness to work and revise and learn and improve.
“I’m no writer; why did I ever think I could do this?” “It’s no use trying anymore.” “I’ll just take up javelin catching; it has to be easier than this.” Some might argue that this is a more-or-less permanent stage in the writing life—but it doesn’t have to be. But loss—whether it’s the loss of a friend or job or the loss that comes with rejection, which is a frequent part of a writer’s life—will make a person sad. That’s why it’s called “loss.” Most often it’s a fairly small loss, of an idea or a pet project, perhaps. But any loss can prompt sadness, discouragement, even depression.
I am often amazed at how resilient the human heart can be, and especially among those who undertake to write. Whatever prompts our sense of loss—a critique, a rejection, poor sales, etc.—the first four stages of grief can eventually be followed by a sense of acceptance, even resolve: “That didn’t work; I’ll try this.” “I never lose as long as I learn.” Or, as the Tom Hanks character in A League of Their Own said, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. It’s the ‘hard’ that makes it great.”
For the writer, “hard” is a part of the package. A sense of loss comes often, perhaps not more often than in other pursuits, but often enough, nonetheless. But recognizing and accounting for the process, for the effects of critique, rejection, revision, and all the rest, can turn a sorrow or a smackdown into a chance to start again—and start better. And that can turn mourning into dancing, ashes into something beautiful.
Been there, done that. More than one. Not necessarily in order.
For some of us it’s been more about, “Did I miss something in thinking I was a writer at all?” And since the first book was so painful in the process perhaps it was God’s way of letting me know, that’s not the way I wanted you to go. Just wondering. Or could it be, He just wanted to show some of us we could write but He had other things He wanted us to do. Don’t really don’t know the exact answers to my musing, but we’ll see.
Oh, yes. I recognize all those parts. I realized I wrote my book in the wrong language. I had to come to terms with putting my next book on hold and focus the coming year on rewriting a book that I had already worked on for years. Not an easy pill to swallow. But if you don’t spend the years needed perfecting your book, it will just be a haste-work.
I was hoping to become the inspirational story of the writer who hits jackpot at first submission. But I guess I will settle on becoming the inspirational story of the writer who persisted and never gave up instead.
Tuvia, welcome to the club of writers who can’t lay off, so we just keep going. For as long as it takes. God’s grace on your work.
I think I’ve been through these stages all in one week ?
Damon J. Gray
The key, it seems, is no matter what “stage of grief,” keep putting my left foot in front of my right, and right in front of my left. Or as Dory says, “Keep swimming, swimming, swimming.”
Trust the process. Trust the advice of mentors and those who are farther down the same road we travel.
So my grief stage, while imposing and uncomfortable, is not in control. Keep walking the pathway, and keep trusting.
I could give a long comment on how I have and am experiencing those stages. Instead, I’ll simply say your post is beautiful to me this day, this moment. Thank you, Bob.
Thanks. I really needed this today. Javelin catching was starting to sound so good.
First, Bob, congratulations on being an Agent-Of-The-Year finalist!
Don’t think I get this dying gig,
don’t think I do it well.
If I go, I’m going big
and giving cancer Hell.
No use in denial, or in crying;
each morning brings the blade
and overhead, the arrows flying,
but I’ll fight on the shade.
I’m grateful that you’re sympathetic;
I don’t wish to be unkind.
But to think me accepting is pathetic
or you’ve simply lost your mind.
I’m in good company here on Groundhog Day
with Leonidas at Thermopylae.
A footnote; Leonidas was told by the Persian general facing him that the Persian archers were so numerous, their arrows would darken the sky.
“Good”, replied Leonidas. “We shall fight in the shade.”
That is a very cool reference you incorporated, Andrew. You poetry is very, very special.
Lisa, thank you so much! You just made my day!
I remember reading about Leonidas and the Greeks’ brave battle against the Persians. Believe it or not, it was in a set of books that came with the set of Colliers Encyclopedia my parents bought, way back when. Your reference to it brought back memories of reading the story.
Peggy, I’m so glad I could bring back that memory.
It’s a story that has a lot of meaning for me, circling in, as I am, on a “go tell the Spartans” ending.
Andrew, you always amaze me with your tenacity. God bless this day, pray for No Pain here on earth while we await our blessed hope in Jesus.
Beautiful. Thank you. As a writer who is new to the industry, I think I have rehearsed all of these stages in my mind. Now it’s time to take the leap, as my first book is finally “ready” to be sent out into the big scary world. I’ll keep these stages in mind, and I believe they will keep me looking for the light as I move through the process.
Yep, a lot of anger. Still working through the frustration (lack of advise concerning needed corrections). Also, still working through depression.
(Am I cut out for this?) But working on both.
Katie J Trent
Thanks for posting. I think it helps normalize the emotional turmoil experienced by writers as we endeavor to share our hearts with the world. ? Congratulations on your nomination for writer of the year. ? I look forward to your coaching class at Oregon Christian Writers Conference in August.
Ann L Coker
Quite the comparison. I could place a different manuscript in each category.
You’re reading my heart. This was spot-on. I’ve been in every stage this week. Thanks for writing this.
Thank God for the chance to start again. And again. And again. There is nothing quite like just about giving up, then turning a corner to find your dream looking you in the face, alive and well. Resurrection!
Wonderful, true and funny. Thank you!
Jennifer Lynn Cary
According to Confident Kids, there is another stage–Hope. That is the one that gets us to sit back in front of the keyboard, or if old school, pick up that legal pad and pencil, and try once more. To accept is to find resolution, to hope is to take another step.
I like every reply!
Great post, Bob.
Denial – short-lived.
Anger? Meh, rejections are a lesson, but some at my goofiness.
Bargaining? Absolutely! My worst enemy as well.
Depression, me, for such slow work on a project.
Acceptance? Absolutely. Perfect for a really great lesson. I move through stages fast enough that I can let my work stew for a week or two so I can address my writing poo. I mean, get with the craft!
Great concept I hadn’t thought through.
It was as if you were writing what I passed through when I got that rejection mail about a month ago. I have resolved to move on. I have written two short stories not yet to be published.
Oh yeah….it all sounds familiar – sometimes at least 3 stages on a daily basis!