Kathryn Stockett: The Help was turned down sixty times before becoming a best-seller.
Editor’s Note: This essay appears in the anthology The Best Advice I Ever Got: Lessons from Extraordinary Lives, edited by Katie Couric and published by Random House in April. Stockett’s novel went on to be a bestseller and the movie “The Help” premiered on August 10.
Re: Kathryn Stockett, The Help
It took me a year and a half to write my earliest version ofÂ The Help.Â Iâ€™d told most of my friends and family what I was working on. Why not? We are compelled to talk about our passions. When Iâ€™d polished my story, I announced it was done and mailed it to a literary agent.
Six weeks later, I received a rejection letter from the agent, stating, â€œStory did not sustain my interest.â€ I was thrilled! I called my friends and told them Iâ€™d gotten my first rejection! Right away, I went back to editing. I was sure I could make the story tenser, more riveting, better.
A few months later, I sent it to a few more agents. And received a few more rejections. Well, more like 15. I was a little less giddy this time, but I kept my chin up. â€œMaybe the next book will be the one,â€ a friend said. Next book? I wasnâ€™t about to move on to the next one just because of a few stupid letters. I wanted to write this book.
A year and a half later, I opened my 40th rejection: â€œThere is no market for this kind of tiring writing.â€ That one finally made me cry. â€œYou have so much resolve, Kathryn,â€ a friend said to me. â€œHow do you keep yourself from feeling like this has been just a huge waste of your time?â€
That was a hard weekend. I spent it in pajamas, slothing around that racetrack of self-pityâ€”you know the one, from sofa to chair to bed to refrigerator, starting over again on the sofa. But I couldnâ€™t let go ofÂ The Help. Call it tenacity, call it resolve or call it what my husband calls it: stubbornness.
After rejection number 40, I started lying to my friends about what I did on the weekends. They were amazed by how many times a person could repaint her apartment. The truth was, I was embarrassed for my friends and family to know I was still working on the same story, the one nobody apparently wanted to read.
Sometimes Iâ€™d go to literary conferences, just to be around other writers trying to get published. Iâ€™d inevitably meet some successful writer whoâ€™d tell me, â€œJust keep at it. I received 14 rejections before I finally got an agent. Fourteen. How many have you gotten?â€
By rejection number 45, I was truly neurotic. It was all I could think aboutâ€”revising the book, making it better, getting an agent, getting it published. I insisted on rewriting the last chapter an hour before I was due at the hospital to give birth to my daughter. I would not go to the hospital until Iâ€™d typed The End. I was still poring over my research in my hospital room when the nurse looked at me like I wasnâ€™t human and said in a New Jersey accent, â€œPut the book down, you nut jobâ€”youâ€™re crowning.â€
It got worse. I started lying to my husband. It was as if I were having an affairâ€”with 10 black maids and a skinny white girl. After my daughter was born, I began sneaking off to hotels on the weekends to get in a few hours of writing. Iâ€™m off to the Poconos! Off on a girlsâ€™ weekend! Iâ€™d say. Meanwhile, Iâ€™d be at the Comfort Inn around the corner. It was an awful way to act, butâ€”for Godâ€™s sakeâ€”I could not make myself give up.
In the end, I received 60 rejections forThe Help. But letter number 61 was the one that accepted me. After my five years of writing and three and a half years of rejection, an agent named Susan Ramer took pity on me. What if I had given up at 15? Or 40? Or even 60? Three weeks later, Susan sold The Help to Amy Einhorn Books.
The point is, I canâ€™t tell you how to succeed. But I can tell you how not to: Give in to the shame of being rejected and put your manuscriptâ€”or painting, song, voice, dance moves, [insert passion here]â€”in the coffin that is your bedside drawer and close it for good. I guarantee you that it wonâ€™t take you anywhere. Or you could do what this writer did: Give in to your obsession instead.
And if your friends make fun of you for chasing your dream, rememberâ€”just lie.
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P.S. I am an ex-shrink who writes award-winning novels. Check out my books here.