Why you should aim for 100 humiliations a year
Plus, Poe’s #1 most sarcastic tip for making great art.
Back in 2016, the literary site Lithub published an essay, “Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year,” which ricocheted across the internet on its way to viral heaven.
The basic idea was this: Writers should try to collect 100 rejection letters each year. You might be a beginner or an old hand. No matter. Seek to pile up the rejections—because in the process, you’ll probably get a few acceptances.
This is, essentially, direct-response marketing for writers, and I don’t say that as an insult. People who work in email marketing or write Google ads for a living know that success—and often, large amounts of money—can come from conversion rates as low as 1% or 2%. In other words, if 100 people receive your email or glimpse your ad, then one or two buy your product? That’s winning, not failing. And the same goes for those of us wanting to become more successful writers, producers, ballerinas, Subway “sandwich artists,” you name it.
A 1% to 2% conversion rate on freelance pitches isn’t awful. It’s a start. Ditto a 1% to 2% conversion rate on your auditions or job applications. Don’t get me wrong, though. I don’t think creatives seeking opportunity can really write the equivalent of one sales letter and use it in every scenario, for every opportunity. Our work, unfortunately, tends to require more refined tactics.
As a friend who’s written for Vogue and the New York Times told me, “When I started freelancing, I found the magazines I wanted to be published in and then came up with ideas that would fit their interests. The 100 rejections idea seems to advocate sending blast emails to great numbers of websites or journals. That doesn't sound like an efficient use of time or energy—more like a drain on the recipients.”
All true, but there’s an even bigger problem with this advice to seek rejection.
What if you’re not yet in a position to seek rejection? What if you’re not ready to submit your work because you haven’t completed that work? What if you’re still banging away at your very first script, very first comedy routine, or very first essay?
Maybe you’re still in the research stage with your project—whatever your project is—and you’re not sure what the final version will look like. Maybe you’re still fumbling around in the dark with a vague idea, patting the walls in a vain effort to flip the metaphorical light switch, all while smashing your shins against the metaphorical coffee table.
I’d argue that this is where humiliation comes in, changing your life in an excruciating yet necessary way.
When I think of the most humiliating moments of my life—the ones I can admit to publicly, anyway—they are as follows:
The time I mispronounced the word “cosplay” as “co-splay” in front of the first and only celebrity I ever interviewed, revealing that I am not connected enough in real life/am so very online that I’d never heard the word said out loud
A time I was called on to speak in a work meeting about whether to recommend buying stock in a cosmetics-store chain, a meeting in which I was the only woman, and yet instead of saying anything smart, I driveled about what a massive breakthrough gel nail polish is (this was 2012, ok?) until I realized how stupid everything I was saying was and just cut myself off, mid-sentence, like “suddenly you only have to get a manicure every two weeks—” [silence]
Doesn’t sound so bad, you say? Who doesn’t want to gab about nail polish innovations, right?! No. It was so bad my boss’s boss came and gave me a talk about public speaking.
The time I went to see a world-renowned Poe scholar, and during our lunch, after I took out a pen and pad to take notes, I got ink all over me but didn’t know this until the waitress came over and whispered that “there’s something smeared all over your face” and “you might want to go to the bathroom.” Then, to cap it all off, as soon as I left the table I figured out that the scholar’s face had been telegraphing me the truth in a wincing-with-vicarious-embarrassment sort of way for at least five minutes before the waitress said a g.d. thing
It was so awful. All of it, all of the moments, especially that last one. Yet, as it turns out, the ink spill wasn’t even the most embarrassing part of the lunch. Oh no. Hahahahaha. If only.
What was far more embarrassing was how bad my questions were, and how little I really knew about Poe. The scholar was polite, was gracious, but in the course of our conversation it could not help but emerge that:
Though I was working on a book about Poe by this time, I wasn’t aware that the French had beaten me to “my” big idea—that Poe wasn’t a loser but an existential hero—by something like 150 years. Also, I didn’t really understand the arguments of this scholar’s book on Poe… which was what I had come to talk to him about.
What’s better: to have ink on your face or egg on your face? I don’t know, but I can say it feels pretty terrible to have both at the same time. And while I would never assume you’re as big an idiot as I am, I do expect you also know what it feels like to be humiliated and that, like me, you have a folder on your mental desktop labeled something like:
TIMES I HAVE SCREWED UP HORRIBLY (DO NOT OPEN)
Getting a form rejection may teach you nothing. But humiliation and its awful, whacking, flaming pain? It’s very clearly an evolutionary mechanism that functions to make you slightly wiser. I’m not “grateful” for humiliation, though I recognize its usefulness—the learning process just crashing down on your head like a dutch oven. For instance, though the memory of that lunch still has the power to make me stop in my tracks and cringe, everything the scholar told me ended up going into the book. And now I can tell you that “cosplay” is pronounced “cauzplay” and you shouldn’t jaw about nail polish in work meetings no matter how fascinating it objectively is. Important life lessons.
Your humiliation folder is also, I bet, packed with crucial learning experiences. And so, just maybe, instead of seeking to pile up rejections, you should try to fill the folder up even more. If humiliation can be a step on the way to growth, then it follows we should seek it out, or at least do our best to stop avoiding it. What if you looked to get humiliated 100 times this year? Maybe it’d lead to the breakthrough you need.
I hate that it’s true, and I expect you do too, but doing anything that’s hard is also humiliating, just fundamentally so. Personal growth is embarrassing in general. It involves realizing the extent of your ignorance and, as often, revealing the extent of your ignorance, which is, let’s face it, far worse.
But the humiliation is the way. If you’re trying to figure out a project or change your life in any way, you have to smear the ink—or the green beans—all over yourself. Right now, my 5-month-old son is learning to eat solid food, which means that most mornings, he’s got Gerber puree oozing up from his little baby fists with some more crunched up in his eyebrows.
Poe told us to expect this, too. When, near the end of his career, he laid out a formula for making great art, he said:
If any ambitious man have a fancy to revolutionize, at one effort, the universal world of human thought, human opinion, and human sentiment, the opportunity is his own—the road to immortal renown lies straight, open, and unencumbered before him. All that he has to do is to write and publish a very little book. Its title should be simple— a few plain words—“My Heart Laid Bare.”
There’s just one catch, Poe said: “this little book must be true to its title.” And that is why “no man ever will dare write it.”
“No man could write it, even if he dared,” Poe concluded. “The paper would shrivel and blaze at every touch of the fiery pen.”
It’s like a recipe where you mix flour, butter, sugar, and eggs, and then at the end, your cake goes off like a grenade.
God, I love this. Advice on creative pursuit has never mattered more to me, or made as much sense.
I love the way Poe puts his arm around you before he delivers the punchline, and even more than that, I love how honest he is. Making great art is simple, he says. And your attempt to make it will be basically just a semi-cryptic, open-ended catastrophe, and not least because of the self-revelation that’s necessarily involved.
So many scholars, biographers and ordinary Poe fans have speculated about why Poe implied that laying your heart bare is a doomed venture. As an example, the scholar Jerome McGann once floated the idea that, “Thinking of Poe the man, we might surmise that he couldn’t face the full truth of his lies, his follies, his plagiarisms, his hypocrisies, all in all, the sum of his failures, which were legion.”
Except I think that’s precisely what qualified Poe to make the statement to begin with. (Who else is in a position to give it to us straight but people who’ve screwed up? I don’t know about you, but I kind of don’t trust anyone who isn’t regularly almost completely overwhelmed by their self-defeating impulses.)
According to me, what Poe meant was: Even knowing our own limitations and the universe’s, we yearn to accomplish more than we ever have before. And that means saying hello, please come in not just to rejection but to disaster.
His thought could seem like a downer—and god knows it was not intended as an inspirational quote. It’s something worth much more, a bracing ethos. You think to yourself: the paper will shrivel and burn, so how can I work faster? How can I kick through the door, even knowing what I know, even being who I am, where I am, right now? It’ll be a disaster, sure, and you’ll keep trying anyway.
A good link
If you’ve never heard Sky Ferreira’s song, “Everything is Embarrassing,” it’s an apt listen. A few years ago she gave an interview in which she admitted that she blew all her record-deal money on a bunch of fancy wah pedals, trying and failing to mimic Peter Frampton’s sound. Then, not long after that, she got busted for drugs, with her mugshot splashed in The Daily Mail. All of which makes her, like Poe, qualified to talk about embarrassment.
Here’s that 100 rejections piece, too.
Wishing you a lot of humiliation (unless that sounds wrong?),