With time and experience, I’ve learned to get better at working with editors. I can see their comments and critiques—for the most part—as a way to improve my writing, pushing me toward deeper emotional truths, more refined language, or greater clarity of ideas. Sometimes this has meant learning to let go of my darlings to meet an editor halfway and get the piece out there. It has also meant realizing that another person’s perspective can help me see things that were missing or the different directions I might take a piece of writing.
As I began to move away from academic and journalistic into creative writing, I realized I would benefit from taking classes and joining a writing group. And for the most part, these, too, have been really enriching experiences, pushing me to improve and become more comfortable with constructive criticism.
This summer, however, I ended up taking three classes back-to-back over a two-month period, ending with a weeklong intensive summer school. While two of these classes felt like very safe, queer-centred, and neurodivergent-friendly spaces, focused on reading, craft, and constructive critique, the summer school involved three hours straight of giving and receiving feedback for five consecutive days. I saw the all-too-familiar dynamic of mismatched communication styles across neurotypes develop over the week, and my anxiety flared. By Friday afternoon, my confidence was at rock bottom. I felt oversaturated with critique and struggled to separate the useful from the not-so-useful. There were too many voices in my head, and I no longer trusted my own instincts.
It was a lesson in moderating my exposure to those environments: respecting the limits of my own capacities for potentially straining social interaction, learning to filter out the unhelpful voices, and trusting my instincts. I realized that, while it can be great to participate in prestigious literary spaces and have yourself and your work challenged, perhaps my current emotional needs mean it’s more important for me to cultivate spaces where the emphasis is as much on supporting each other through the ups and downs of writing as it is on critique.
Writing, pitching, submitting, and publication are a hell of an emotional rollercoaster. Despite the sometimes-paralyzing self-doubt, I’m hooked. My dopamine-starved brain receives multiple hits throughout the process: the anticipation of a response can, in itself, give me a buzz; the email that drops saying my pitch or essay or story has been accepted; the green button on Submittable; publication day; the likes, the shares, the comments. At thirty-seven and with a moderate amount of decent publications under my belt, there is still no greater thrill for me than seeing my words in print, whether online or on paper. The satisfaction of knowing my words have connected with someone, somewhere—on a page or across cyberspace—is incomparable.
Writing is my most enduring “special interest”; it’s a medium that allows me to explore my many other more transient interests. It is a vital tool for me in processing my often-hard-to-decipher emotions, as well as my trauma. I’m smart and reasonably well-read, but, in conversation, unless I feel very comfortable with the person, I’m not actually very articulate. I lose words and ideas, I get tongue-tied, I’m easily distracted, easily worked up, and too often my words don’t fully reflect what I mean—or are sometimes wilfully misinterpreted. Writing allows me to order my thoughts and say what I want in the way I want to say it with minimal space for misinterpretation. And, as time goes on, my pitches have improved and I have a better sense of where my writing might land well. And there is always the hope that maybe this one pitch, this one essay, this one story will land at the right publication, at the right time, and change my life!
So while waiting for that (unlikely) scenario to manifest, I know I need to find ways to manage my submission journey without completely burning out. I can stop checking my email as soon as my alarm goes off. I can cultivate the writing/editorial relationships that feel enriching and constructive. I can work on building confidence in my voice and recognizing that in cases where editorial oversight is so severe that the finished product doesn’t even feel like mine, I can pull it if I no longer feel comfortable with the direction a piece has taken. I can take real time off. I can do the occasional social media detox. Most importantly, I need to continue cultivating my own sense of self-worth, independent of my work and my writing. I need to remind myself periodically that writing is not just about publishing but the joy of creating, of putting a shape to my life, my thoughts, or the lives of people who live in my imagination.
Whether you also experience RSD or if you just find yourself getting weighed down by writing rejections and feeling like you can never quite catch that break, I encourage you to figure out the spaces and routines that help you support your writing life rather than hinder it. This could look like building relationships with other writers so you can share celebrations and commiserations, targeting publications that care just as much about their writers as they do about their reputations, putting self-care first even if it means taking a break from the submissions mill, filling your TBR pile with writers who inspire and delight you, or simply finding how to recover the joy in creating that pushed you to start writing in the first place.
Aisling Walsh (she/her) is a queer and neurodivergent writer based between Ireland and Guatemala. Her work has been featured in Electric Literature, Literary Hub, Refinery29, Litro, and Barren, among others. She writes about film and neurodivergence at https://autcasts.substack.com.