The R Word

Filmmaker Allison Davies explains how rejection turned out to be her best ally during a difficult time

21 February 2019
By Allison Davies
Allison Davies is a screenwriter based in Northumbria

It was a grey Monday in January 2018. My confidence was at an all-time low, and an imposter was glued to my shoulder, dangling her legs and telling me what a rubbish writer I was. The previous few months had been tricky; I was feeling anxious and stuck, both as a writer and in my life generally. I’ve always enjoyed writing, but pretty much everything that I had ever written sat gathering cobwebs on my hard drive until I completed an MA in Creative Writing at Northumbria University, and fell in love with screenwriting in particular.

Making any sort of career in the film industry, however, seemed impossible – particularly as a woman with more than a few miles on the clock – so I looked to the theatre instead. In 2012 I won a playwriting festival and got my first commission. Other jobs followed and I enjoyed them all, but I still had a strong desire to write for the screen. Then the theatre work slowed to a trickle. Don’t get me wrong, it had never been a flood; however, now I was scrabbling around and getting nowhere, and I’d more or less given up applying for anything as I wasn’t sure I that could handle yet another knock-back.

Now at my home in south east Northumberland, I sat in my study and cried. Perhaps it was time to listen to the inner voice telling me I should do the world a favour and quit. Instead, I took a deep breath and did what I often do when my brain switches to overdrive: went for a walk by the river near my house. Something had to shift; either I gave up and skulked off into the bushes to lick my wounds, or I changed the only thing I could - my attitude. Specifically, my attitude around the R word, the one nobody likes but which you have to learn to live with if you’re going to make headway as a writer.

I am of course talking about rejection, those three syllables that loom large on the smart board of life.

It was time to develop a strategy to cut them down to size, so when I got home I sat down with a notepad and pen and wrote a list of everything I loved about writing. I noted what I’d achieved so far and, for good measure, threw in some goals for the future, and realised that things weren’t as bad as they seemed. I wanted to keep going, and if that meant submitting work for scrutiny, then so what if I made acquiring rejections a specific goal? How many rejections could I get in a year? Ten? Twenty? Fifty? That seemed about right. OK then: 50 rejections by the end of December. Based on recent history that shouldn’t be too hard.

My responsibility was to write and submit; what happened afterwards wasn’t up to me. It didn’t matter how big, small or unlikely the opportunities were; in fact, the crazier the better. All that mattered was picking up enough rejections and shazzam! Target achieved. To help stay on track I set up a spreadsheet and decided to go big with my first piece of work: a script for a feature. I tidied it up and sent it off to BBC Drama Room with about 10 minutes to spare.

Then I gave myself permission to ‘hit and giggle’, submitting to anything and everything, and sure enough the first wave of rejections rolled in. I winced, ticked them off on my spreadsheet and kept going, and with each one the pain got a little less. Some of them were two liners, but some gave helpful, encouraging feedback and as a result my work got better and I became braver.

In April things went up a gear: I got my first acceptance for a theatre piece and a cross in the column marked ‘R’. A couple of weeks later I heard that my feature script had made it all the way through, and I had to go to London for an interview with the Head of Drama at the BBC, where I was thrilled to be offered a place on the Northern Voices Development Scheme.

At the end of 2018 there were still plenty of rejections flying around, but far less than I expected. In fact I failed to hit my target, and had my best ever year in terms of writing and personal development, meeting some brilliant people along the way.

I collaborated on a theatre show that will preview in March 2019, was accepted by the Northern Exposure Short Film Script Lab, and I’m now working with some talented independent producers and directors on several short films. I’ve had work accepted by BBC Radio 3, and my confidence is growing.

Of course there are no guarantees and in a few months I might be looking at an empty diary again, though I’m a good deal more resilient these days, so I hope that I’d handle it in a healthier way. Meanwhile, there are scripts to write and submissions to be made, and though I still feel the fear, it has been turned way down. None of it’s personal. In fact, every rejection is an opportunity to learn. On that note, perhaps it’s time to dust off that spreadsheet.