Developing rhino skin was something that I first heard in college (in regards to writing), but I didn’t really understand it until the first year of my MFA, and I only developed it within the last six months or so.
Maybe less than that.
The rhino skin of the writer is, to put it plainly, how well you respond to rejections from all of the publications you submit your work to. Why do you need to develop a rhino skin? well, because it hurts like hell when someone tells you your creative work isn’t good enough for them.
Imagine how children would respond if their mom or dad said they didn’t really like the drawing they made in 3rd grade art class. That’s pretty much what lies at the center of every single writer out in the world. There is a little, disappointed, ready-to-cry-at-the-drop-of-a-hat kid who is holding a paper full of creative writing. The rhino skin is what protects that little brat.
So how do you develop that skin? How does a writer get over the fear of rejection and the pain associated with it?
Again, let me speak plainly: it’s basically scar tissue. It’s learning to take the punch. It’s accepting that rejection is part of the game and you’re playing it (just as much as it’s playing you, at times). The truth is, most of your stories are going to go before people who are very excited about writing as a whole, but are really tired of reading. Or they are having a bad day. Or they wanted to get orange jello instead of lime, but all they had at the store was lime so tohellwiththisstory.
Maybe it isn’t quite as bad as that, but I’m trying to illustrate the point: editors, as much as we don’t like admitting it, are people. People have outside factors which play into temperament and decision-making.
An example: when I was an editor of MARATHON lit. review, I often read the submissions that made it through our initial assistant editors in bulk. Surprisingly, volunteering at your MFA’s lit mag doesn’t make you any money, so I only had time in the small hours of the morning. I realized that I was much, much harsher in my criticisms around three in the morning than I was when I started sometime around eleven the night before.
Fortunately I was able to balance my work a bit more intelligently (hooray for lunch breaks), but it gave me some idea of what editors all over are dealing with. Your story is clearly part of the equation, but it’s not the only factor.
So, there’s that to consider – to use as part of the armor you put on: it’s a very subjective judging, and it might not even be your story that pushed the decision one way or another.
Another factor is simply numbers: you aren’t the only writer out there sending work, and there is only so much room. You’re competing with hundreds if not thousands of other submissions, and that makes for some troubling statistics against you. Rejections are going to be your bread and butter if you’re a writer. Much more than acceptances, let me tell you.
Real talk: I have six accepted stories in the past 2 years. I have 25 rejections in that same period of time.
And that’s pretty damned good, really.
But, it leads me to my third point about building up that rhino skin: you build it with the rejections from the past–so send out lots more work than what you’re comfortable with. Get so many rejections that the new ones being thrown at you just bounce off the older ones. Personally I’m not sending out enough work, but I can say that rejections are starting to hurt much less.
If I get one in a day, I’m perfectly fine. Two still kinda hurts, and who knows what three would do to me–but hey, I’ll deal with it when it comes.
My God can you imagine three rejections in a day. Eeesh.
Anyway, building up your rhino skin (or writer’s skin, if you like) takes time, past rejections, and an understanding that your story isn’t always being held under the microscope and found wanting. Just keep submitting, finding publications, and celebrating your acceptances.
After all, you’re in this for the experience, right? Rejection is about as writerly as you can get.