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How to Survive the No’s: Dealing with Rejection

By Sam Zalutsky

Spalding MFA Faculty: Screenwriting and Playwriting

No. We’ve all heard it. No. It really can hurt. No. I mean really hurt. No. No. No. The sting of rejection. And yet it’s a part of our jobs, sometimes daily, to get rejected. How we deal with “No,” plays a big role in the rest of our lives.

Recently I was rejected for a very prestigious writing opportunity for a project I co-wrote. It’s not the first time I’ve been rejected by this organization and probably won’t be the last. Fifteen years ago I was a finalist for another script. I thought getting in would change my life, as it had for many other filmmakers. But I didn’t get it.

My collaborator and I had been working on this project for a couple of years. We applied in February, found out we were finalists in April, and waited until last week to learn we’d been rejected. I was really hopeful. I thought we had a good script and our project fit well with their mandate. I try to have low expectations but hope always creeps in. How could it not? Then last week I got the very polite “No” email. I’m very familiar with this email. It’s like hundreds of other emails I’ve gotten. And I was really disappointed. For a few hours. It still stings but now that wound is slowly scarring over.

All of us must figure out a strategy to not let “no” sink us. A film school professor once said in class: “The ones who are successful are the ones who get knocked down and get back up and dust themselves off.” So while I’ve spent years honing my craft, I have also spent years honing strategies to cope with rejection. Here are a few:

The old adage from dating is helpful: “It’s not me, it’s them.” I can never know what is going on in someone else’s head so I try not to speculate why I’m getting rejected. I try to remind myself that it might just not be what they’re looking for. And that’s OK. Someone else will like it.

While I think of each “Yes” as a stepping-stone, I try to think of each “No” as new ammunition to keep pushing.

I try to limit the amount of time I let a rejection derail me. A day usually is my limit. Then I get back to work.

I have a strong support system: My husband, my family, my friends, my colleagues support me through think or thin. Without them I would have given up long ago.

I try to let go with other activities: tennis or volleyball. Or I enjoy a good meal and a nice cocktail.

I reengage with my creativity in a way that isn’t tied up with my primary work: I make art, I draw, I take photographs. I do something that takes me out of my head and helps me make something concrete that I can touch.

I focus on another project. It’s essential to have multiple projects brewing and this distracts me from my sadness and anger.

I get inspired by other artists, writers, and filmmakers. Recently I’ve loved the documentaries (The Wolfpack, Amy, Do I Sound Gay? – OK, I have a cameo), features (Diary of a Teenage Girl, Trainwreck, Dope) and podcasts (Serial, Criminal, Invisibilia). All of these works remind me that what I really love are stories and no one can take that away from me, no matter how many times I hear “no.”

Many of these sentences have “try” in them because they don’t always work and it’s not always easy. But I keep practicing. What are your strategies?

Sam Zalutsky’s new short, How to Make it to the Promised Land, was recently selected as the Short of the Week at He won a Jerome Foundation Production Grant and completed a successful Kickstarter campaign for the film. For his first feature, You Belong to Me, he was short-listed for the Independent Spirit Award’s Someone to Watch Award. It was released on DVD (Wolfe), Pay Per View (Warner), and Logo and is out on DVD and/or TV in the UK, Canada, Germany, France, Australia, Sweden, and the Benelux countries. The film screened at film festivals on five continents, including Palm Springs International, San Diego FilmOut (Audience Award, Best First Feature), NewFest (Honorable Mention, Feature Film Jury), and Outfest. He also is a director/producer of the webseries, The Go-Getters. Sam’s previous short films have screened at dozens of festivals, won numerous awards, and all received distribution on various platforms.

Sam has taught at Bennington College, NYU Tisch, and Tec de Monterey (Querétaro, Mexico) and has been awarded residencies at the MacDowell Colony and Fundación Valparaiso. He received his BA in studio art from Yale University and his MFA in film from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Follow him at on twitter/instagram @zalutsky. You can see more of his work at


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