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.