Rebecca Klempner has been a regular reader of the Rejection Survival Guide for a long time, and when I put out a call for more interviewees, I was delighted that she answered it.
Rebecca is a Jewish writer currently living in California with her “very patient” husband and “several wacky, bibiophilic” children. She is the author of several children’s books: Glixman in a Fix, A Dozen Daisies for Raizy, Mazal’s Luck Runs Out, and most recently, Adina at Her Best. She has also published a collection of short stories for teens and young adults, Sliding Doors and other stories. Her short fiction and articles have appeared in numerous Jewish magazines and media outlets, including Tablet Magazine, The Forward, The Wisdom Daily, The Jewish Press, and many more.
In our interview, she talks about the frustrations of breaking into the general market as well as her experiences with OCD as a writer–both as a challenge and as a gift.
When did you first decide to become a writer? Can you tell us about an early piece you wrote that no one’s ever heard of because it stayed in the drawer?
I always loved to write, and I have a family full of writers. My paternal grandfather wrote a couple well-known textbooks on public speaking, and my maternal grandmother, mother, and a first cousin all wrote a lot, even if not for pay. But it didn’t occur to me that I could be a writer, because I thought that was for loftier people than me.
I wrote a lot for the school literary magazine in high school and for the college newspaper. A piece people didn’t see because it stayed in the drawer… lots of terrible poetry about teen angst.
Haha, my drawers are full of those, too. Tell us about your first-ever submission. What did you submit, and to whom?
I submitted a picture book to Hachai publishers based on something that happened when I moved to Los Angeles.
How did you feel when you received your first rejection, and what motivated you to keep trying?
I was only a bit discouraged, in part because the rejection letter Devorah Leah Rosenfeld at Hachai sent was very encouraging and upbeat. But also I was really oblivious to the challenges of the picture market, and I had done little research.
How did you get from there to where you are now?
The second picture book submission I sent Hachai was accepted, just a few months after I sent the first, but that was the last thing I got accepted for several years, despite many picture book, children’s poem, and short story submissions.
It took three years for my first book, A Dozen Daisies for Raizy, to make it to market. My manuscript–because of my lack of awareness of what the standards of picture books should be–needed A LOT of work. Also, we had issues settling on an illustrator. I think Devorah Leah has said it is the longest any Hachai book has taken to reach readers from the time the contract was signed.
I got very, very discouraged, but started really educating myself about children’s writing. I started writing poems to my grandmother, an article about a cause dear to my heart, things that were meaningful channels for my skills. Eventually, after she turned down one of my submissions, Devorah Leah said, “Why don’t you pitch a story to one of the Jewish magazines that has a kids department?”
Finally, I got two stories into Mishpacha Jr. Then, a local author, Beth Firestone, invited me to a writing group. Eventually, her friend Sarah Shapiro got Beth and me invited to write for Aim! when Ami Magazine kicked off.
I wrote them for a while, then got invited to write regularly for Hamodia and Binah. Eventually, I started writing more and more for adults and more and more for a less Haredi [ultra-Orthodox–DL] audience–even secular readers. But while I continue to have a lot of success in Jewish publishing, getting published in secular magazines or with secular publishers has become a huge challenge for me, one I still struggle with. I’ve racked up a lot of rejections in trying to get my writing to a general audience.
We’ve chatted in the past about your difficulty with the strategy I suggest of letting yourself dream and hope for the outcome you’re wishing for. Can you tell us a little about your experience with that?
I find hard not to obsess about submissions if I get too hopeful. I’m queen of the “Let’s refresh my email thirty times a day to see if I have an acceptance letter in my inbox.” Some people joke about OCD, but I actually have OCD, and if I hope on the runaway thought train, it’s not really good for me.
Additionally, a lot of my friends who write fiction or creative non-fiction do so mostly out of a love of writing or a sense of mission, and they don’t really need to make a living from it. However, I really, really need all the income I can squeeze out of my writing, and so crushed expectations aren’t just emotional hurdles… there’s a practical issue in that I have yet to get paid for efforts that I spent a lot of time and energy on. If I expect success for a submission, getting a rejection has in the past felt like, “There’s a bill I can’t pay. There’s something I want to purchase that I won’t be able to afford.” That’s more worry than I like dealing with.
In the past, I have found the cycle of HOPE-HIGH HOPE-SMASH! very emotionally draining, to the point it interfered with my ability to move on to the next project.
Recently, however, I read a couple early Brené Brown books–The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly–and she really breaks down the mindset you try to teach about maintaining optimism about each submission that we send into the world. I’m really trying to improve my attitude and “opt into joy,” even if it makes me vulnerable.
I fancy myself a “disciple” of Brené Brown. If anyone reading this hasn’t read her stuff yet, seriously, do it!
But back to you, Rebecca, I want to ask you more about living with OCD as a creative person. I imagine that this condition presents a particular challenge to certain aspects of creative life, such as what you mentioned–the ability to let go, distract yourself, and move on to other things. How else has this condition hindered you, and how do you cope with those challenges?
I think some creative people experience direct effects, but with me, it’s more that when my OCD is bad (it has been most acute at times of serious life changes: graduating college, marriage, pregnancy) it sucks up so much of my time, effort, and soul just making it through each day that I have less and less left for creative endeavors. It starts with intrusive thoughts, and then there are compulsions, and I also had phobias. If you double back to the apartment when you leave because you are afraid it’s unlocked even when you have a visual memory of locking it, and you lie in bed at night certain that the gas burner on the stove is still on even though you checked it multiple times and now believe everyone in your apartment is going to die by morning, and when you shop you always have to put an odd number of items in each bag, and you take twice as long to get anywhere because you are too scared to drive… when are you calm and clear-headed and energetic enough to accomplish big things? I think one reason that for years all my work was short-form is that I could squeeze those things into not just the normal busy schedule of a mom, but also the little spaces between my OCD behaviors.
The only truly direct and negative impact OCD has had on my writing was a checking behavior that was kinda out of control when I would send a submission in. Each time I check my email/Submittable/Moksha account to see if there’s a response takes just a moment; but add it times 50 a day, that can derail my writing time, etc.
When I get a compulsion these days, I accept the thought, label it as “my OCD talking to me,” and then just let it go. If I think, “I need to find out if X was accepted,” I approach it rationally. Has it been long enough to get a response, realistically? When was the last time I checked? And I remind myself: “All these people know how to get a hold of me, and if I find out a piece was rejected or accepted tomorrow, rather than today, there’s no harm done.”
Do you think this tendency also has advantages for you as a writer?
There are some plus sides to OCD. First of all I think that having to work so hard in CBT exercises on reframing thoughts, being mindful, and cultivating self-awareness helps me my writing enormously. Having suffered from mental illness, I think I’m more empathetic towards others, and empathy puts me in a better position to write fiction.
The biggest influence, though, came when I overcame my driving phobia and started driving regularly. When I accomplished something so very, very hard, mastering skills I never thought I would have, I felt like doing hard things is possible. Doing hard things became less scary. New things became less scary. My entire life–professional, private–changed from that point on.
In addition to writing, I do a lot of editing, and I have a friend who thinks that some of the way my brain operates due to the OCD makes me better at editing. When I read text and see something that lacks harmony with the rest of a piece–one paragraph is tangential to the rest, it has a different voice than the rest of the manuscript, there’s a punctuation error–the dissonance screeches in my mind like someone playing the wrong note in an orchestra.
Maybe it’s OCD, maybe it’s something else.
What advice would you have for other creative people struggling with OCD?
I want to say that I’m not an expert in OCD. I know me, and I have had only moderate struggles with the disorder. Some things that have worked for me might not work for other people. For example, some people will not respond to CBT strategies at all if they aren’t medicated, and some people need more intense, more frequent visits with their therapists than I have had. If anyone has symptoms they believe could indicate OCD, get a professional evaluation.
I think that if you have any mental illness, in order to make sure you can function (creatively or not), you need to invest more time than other people do on self-care as a preventative measure. It can’t wait until things get bad. In my case, I’ve pretty much been on a steady stream of therapy or support groups for a decade. CBT saved me. Very slow exposure therapy addressed my phobia. If I get to a point when I need a prescription, I will have to take it. I exercise 4 or 5 mornings a week and make sure I get sun every day. I get adequate sleep.
These things have to come before the writing or painting or whatever creative tasks I want to complete. Otherwise, the intrusive thoughts get more frequent and feel more urgent, thus harder to ignore. And if I give in, then the spiral starts all over again.
Since you’re a long-time reader of the RSG, I’ll indulge myself in asking if there’s anything on the blog you’ve found particularly helpful, and how you managed to apply it to your own life as a writer.
“Interview Your Self-Doubt Demons” is a really creative response to a pretty ubiquitous issue for artists. I think that eventually, I realized how much I was numbing myself with “prophylactic pessimism” in part because of that post.
“When Do I Walk Away?” is useful, too, because as much as I’m usually, “Ra ra ra! Just send those subs out! Push on!” there’s a point when sometimes, for whatever reason, a project is not going anywhere. Judging the moment to walk away, temporarily or permanently, is rough because it can be a toughie distinguishing the inner voice of wisdom from the inner voice of quitting. You gave some nice direction on sorting those inclinations apart in your post.
What’s the worst rejection or critique you ever received, and how did you recover from it?
I once brought a second chapter of a book that I’d started to write to my writing group. I’d shared the first chapter the previous month, when one group member hadn’t been present, and the other people had loved it and given helpful feedback. After reading chapter two, this one person basically questioned why I’d even attempt to do what I was doing–there was nothing actionable about the critique, it was, “Well, what you are doing is really hard, and I don’t think you have the skills to complete this project.”
I don’t really find that to be a useful comment to share in a writing group.
Come to think of it, that’s actually happened twice. In both cases, the writers offering this level of un-useful critique didn’t write fiction, and I felt like maybe their critiques were coming from their own issues, not really mine. I don’t need validation for my ideas.
Those were harsh critiques, but not nasty or attacking, so I didn’t find them painful or hard to get over. However, because I felt a lack of support from those individuals, it did somewhat harm our relationships.
A couple times, I submitted work the editor then told me was morally questionable (in the rejection letter). Now, that stung and felt very personal. I was really taken aback, shed some tears, etc. (From a vantage point of many years later, it was actually good that one of those submissions got rejected! I would be embarrassed by it now if it were floating around–although not for the reasons the editor pointed out.)
Who do you turn to for support when you get a particularly disappointing rejection?
I have a writing accountability partner, Devorah Talia, and my husband is always sympathetic even though he’s not a writer. Also, my best friend, Cy, is always going to take my side so if I want to vent, that’s a good person to do it to.
What are some ways you help yourself grow as a writer?
I’m big-time into reading widely and writing lots of different genres. I’m sure you’ve noticed that your poetry skills have improved your fiction writing–yeah?
Every genre develops different skills, so sticking only to the favorite and the familiar is pretty much an obstacle to growth. When a writer’s work doesn’t improve over time, I think that sticking to tried and true is frequently the cause.
Not being afraid to revise and revise is also useful. I love reading a first draft back-to-back with my fourth and noting the improvement.
And also, I think emotional honesty is helpful. When a poem, story, or essay doesn’t ring true, that’s often at the root of it.
Do you think your ability to cope with rejection has evolved over the years? In what way?
Initially, as I mentioned before, I found the emotional rollercoaster of submissions + waiting + hearing very, very draining–almost debilitating. Then I’m afraid I indulged in a lot of prophylactic pessimism. I’m trying now to let myself hope without always assuming the worst.
Is there a particular image or dream you find yourself clinging to in the tougher moments? Can you describe it for us?
One image is religious: if you never try–never send out a submission or query, never pitch a story, never apply for a fellowship or job–you don’t leave room for God to say, “Yes.” Every possibility is “No,” until you put in some kind of effort.
I also have ongoing fantasies (usually while driving or running) about finally selling my first novel for adults, having it become a bestseller, and ending up interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air on WHYY in Philadelphia.
(I feel ridiculous for this, but have recently heard of other authors with similar dreams and so I feel less ridiculous than I used to.)
I regularly fantasize about getting interviewed on, like, Ellen and This American Life. So dream away!
What do you have to say to fellow writers and creatives still drowning in “no”s?
1) If they haven’t been getting regular feedback from a tight circle of fellow creatives, they should do so. Join a critique group, start a salon, something.
2) If one “door” keeps slamming in your face, sometimes it’s a message from Above to knock on a different door. What door have you been ignoring in your life?
3) Is there consistent feedback you’ve been hearing in those nos? Is there some tiny element you feel you could accept? Don’t be too arrogant to listen to genuine, heart-felt advice.
4) Make sure you separate “you” from your work. Don’t feel like because you are receiving rejection letters, you are in any way a bad person or bad artist. Otherwise, you get depressed and emotionally crippled.
Rebecca Klempner’s Rejection Survival Skills
Here are a few things that jumped out at me from Rebecca’s interview:
- She is open to learning and growing as a writer: “I love reading a first draft back-to-back with my fourth and noting the improvement.”
- She faces her fears and obstacles with incredible courage: “I overcame my driving phobia and started driving regularly… Doing hard things became less scary.”
- She takes excellent care of herself: “I’ve pretty much been on a steady stream of therapy or support groups for a decade… I exercise 4 or 5 mornings a week and make sure I get sun every day. I get adequate sleep.”
- She has the humility to accept criticism and use it as an opportunity for growth: “Don’t be too arrogant to listen to genuine, heart-felt advice.”
- But she also trusts herself: “I don’t need validation for my ideas.”
Many, many thanks to Rebecca for sharing her experiences with us and for being a supporter of The Rejection Survival Guide! You can learn more about Rebecca and her work on her website.
Are you also a creative person who has dealt with a lot of rejection? I’d love to interview you, too! Please get in touch with me.