How to Turn Disappointing Nonevents Into Opportunities

Filed in When Writing Is Hard by on July 5, 2017 • views: 2074

Disappointments to Opportunities 2Jennifer was over the moon.

Her book had been picked up by a publisher that she admired. She never thought she’d see one of her books with this publisher’s logo on the title page, but now it was going to happen.

Finally, all her hard work had paid off!

Two years later, Jennifer was on the floor crying.

Everything she had expected would happen once she was published with that admired publisher failed to occur. After a year of waiting and another year in book production, the book was finally released, to the overwhelming sound of crickets.

After a bit of online research, Jennifer realized the truth: Her publisher had relegated her book to the dreaded bottom of their list, which meant she would receive no marketing support whatsoever. It was like they threw her book up on their website and then forgot about it completely.

In the end, being published with this publisher she had admired for years—an accomplishment she had worked so hard for—had been a big disappointment. Few of the rewards she had expected showed up. She was back to square one.

Yes, authors go through difficult events like rejections and bad reviews and devastating critiques—we get that—but they also experience a lot of what Nancy K. Schlossberg, Professor Emerita at the University of Maryland, College Park, calls “nonevents”—when things don’t happen as we expected they would.

Schlossberg has studied how people go through transitions in life for her entire career. In a recent article for Bottom Line, she spoke about “nonevents,” and how they can have a significant emotional impact on us even if we don’t realize it.

In fact, these “nonevents” may be even more difficult to deal with than the “events” that challenge us. This is big news for writers and other creative artists, because we definitely face a lot of these types of difficulties in our careers. Turns out they can affect us in profound ways, shaking our confidence and potentially even causing us to question whether we have what it takes to be writers.

noneventWhat is a “Nonevent?”

A non-event is when something doesn’t happen that we expected would happen. Jennifer thought that being published by a publisher she’d admired for years would bring her the readers that she longed for, and help propel her writing career to the next level. None of that happened, making the experience of getting published with this publisher a very disappointing non-event.

Another example may be if you publish a book that you worked long and hard on and sell no more than a few hundred copies. Your life doesn’t change as a result of publishing. In fact, nothing seems different at all except that you now have a book with your name on the spine on your bookshelf.

Yet another example would be winning an award for your book, but getting essentially no recognition for it—no bump in sales, no dinner celebration, no kudos from your peers, nothing but an announcement on a website.

It’s sad just how frequently this happens to writers. We work so hard to get our projects out there to readers, and so much of what we do fails to have the effect we hoped for. We try to tough it out. It’s the way it is, we tell ourselves. It’s a tough gig.

And it is, but research shows that the effect of these experiences can be very damaging if we don’t learn to handle them correctly.

isolatedNonevents Are Often Isolating Experiences

In a 1999 study on nonevents, researcher Paul J. Hershberger stated, “Both the nonoccurrence of positive expected life events (nonevents) and their role in adulthood have received little research attention, even though nonevents have potential to impact lives profoundly.”

Hershberger and colleagues created a Life Experiences Assessment Form (LEAF) to find out what impact nonevents had on participants’ lives. In three different studies, 62 to 95 percent reported that they had experienced nonevents in their lives. The researchers analyzed the data using different measures of well-being, and found that those who had reported more nonevents were also more likely to score low on measures of well-being.

There are many reasons why these events can affect us negatively:

  • They usually involve some type of loss, which is always difficult
  • They result in an outcome that we did not expect, and that we are unhappy with
  • They may make us feel like we have no control over our own careers
  • They are often unpredictable and ambiguous—we don’t understand why the event didn’t happen, and so we don’t really know how to go after what we want or how to change the undesirable outcome

Dr. Jennifer Baker, clinical psychologist, notes in her article about nonevents:

“Nearly every day I meet with someone who is disappointed that some realistic life expectation failed to be fulfilled as imagined….They planned on owning their own business, but the Great Recession put an end to that dream. They expected to be promoted, but they weren’t….Somehow the very things they hoped, planned and worked toward for years never materialized.”

She notes that though friends and loved ones express their condolences when we go through other losses, such as the loss of a job, the death of a loved one, a divorce, an illness, or a financial catastrophe, “There are no rituals or traditions of comfort, however, for things we thought would happen, but don’t. Even so, the feelings of loss can be deep and devastating.”

Think back to how you felt when you were sure that publisher was going to say “yes,” and they returned your full manuscript instead. No doubt you’ve experienced the devastating disappointment that comes with receiving your fiftieth rejection on that one story you thought for sure was going to “make it.” You may have even devoted decades to a writing career only to end up feeling like you’ve been spinning your wheels.

What may be worse than going through these types of events is the fact that writers often feel isolated when experiencing them. They not only shake our confidence but they may make us feel more alone in what we’re trying to do as artists. Even our writer friends may not know what to do to help us through it. We may be hesitant to share, anyway, not wanting to be a pain.

Entrepreneur Karen Wylie says that nonevents shape and mold us in negative ways if we’re not careful. They can cause us to “question ourselves, to wonder what we did ‘wrong’ to not get what we expected.” They can also “detour us for years from our original path, or even make an irrevocable mark on us that some of us refer to as ‘scarring us for life.’”

overcome-winner 27 Ways Writers Can Cope with Nonevents

Most of us aren’t taught how to deal with those things in our life that don’t happen. Yet considering the impact these events can have on one’s career, health, and overall well-being, it’s time to change that.

Fortunately, you can determine the ultimate affect a non-event will have on your life. Below are seven ways you can address these disappointments and use them to create the writing career you want to have.

1. Acknowledge the seriousness of the nonevent.

Before reading this article, you may not have ever thought about how nonevents affect you. Now that you know more about them, it’s important to acknowledge those that occur or have occurred in your life.

First, think back over your writing career and recall those things you hoped would happen, but didn’t. Take some time to journal or talk to a writer friend about how those events made you feel, and how you coped at the time.

Realize these events may still be affecting you now, when you sit down to write, or when you think of your future as a writer. Allow yourself to grieve if you haven’t before. If you need some help, respond to the following statements:

  • I feel sad this didn’t happen because…
  • I was disappointed when this didn’t occur because…
  • Ever since that event didn’t occur, I have felt…
  • I’m scared to try again because…

Consider, too, that some nonevents occur gradually, over time. Ten years ago, for example, you may have imagined yourself a bestselling author. If that hasn’t happened a decade later, it’s probably affected your confidence and your motivation, even if you haven’t realized it until now.

“We propose that knowledge of adulthood, well-being, and health will be augmented by learning not only what has occurred in people’s lives,” said Hershberger and colleagues, “but also by discovering the impact of expected positive events that have never occurred.”

As you work to unshackle yourself from the negativity of these experiences, keep your eyes peeled as you move forward for other nonevents that may occur in the future. Most likely you’ll be better equipped to manage them immediately, so they won’t have time to burrow into your subconscious to sabotage your future efforts.

clock vintage2. Give it time.

You know how when you look back on your life you realize that if certain things hadn’t happened along the way—both pleasant and unpleasant—you wouldn’t be where you are today?

Most people, in hindsight, appreciate their challenging experiences because of how they inspired change or contributed to their strength and/or knowledge. Researchers discovered in studies on nonevents that older people reported the lowest percentage of nonevents in their lives, probably because subsequent events led to an overall positive outcome.

Try not to jump to conclusions about what your current nonevent means in your writing life. Give it some time to iron itself out, and keep writing.

3. Try again.

Think about the mom who always wanted to have children who gets to the age of 40 and still has been unable to make her dream come true. This is a huge nonevent in her life, and one that affects her deeply. She may give up on the dream and try to adapt in other ways, but she may also decide to adopt, and make her dream come true at the age of 45, later than expected, but no less satisfying.

You, too, may still seem your dreams come to fruition, no matter how old you are or how many times you’ve tried. If that dream is still there, there’s no reason why you can’t go after it again and again. Who’s to say how many tries a dream deserves? Only you.

silver lining4. Find the silver lining.

It’s the last thing you want to hear when you’re disappointed, but once you’ve had some time to process the negative emotions, give yourself a chance to see if you can find something good in the situation.

If you didn’t get that coveted traditional publishing contract, for example, maybe the silver lining is that you have more time to perfect your story, or that you have a new opportunity to self-publish, or that you may get an even better publisher down the road.

If your story didn’t win that contest, or get the sales you wanted, the silver lining may be that you are inspired to further your writing education. Maybe you will sign up for a writing workshop with one of your heroes or take an online marketing class. In the end, you’ll end up a wiser writer because of the experience.

Turning a disappointing nonevent into a positive was one of the ways researchers found that people were able to cope, and helped increase well-being in all walks of life.

5. Take care of yourself.

Perhaps the most important lesson we can take from this research is that non-events are stressful, and they create negative outcomes in our lives. If we’re not careful, they can not only demolish confidence and derail a writing career, but they can also negatively affect our health, leading to additional aches, pains, and even a higher risk of disease.

Hershberger and colleagues reported in their study that the “nonoccurrence of positive expected events may constitute a category of life experience that involves loss and stress which can adversely impact health.”

They added that any relationship between these events and health is based on how we react to the events, so when you experience one, make a point to step up your self-care. Get lots of exercise, get to bed on time, and practice stress-relieving techniques such as yoga, tai chi, meditation, long walks with a friend or pet, and maybe even some time away.

Focus6. Refocus to move forward.

Once you’ve processed your feelings about the nonevent, it’s time to refocus so you can move forward again.

Now is the time to rethink your goals and decide if you want to keep going the same way, or if it’s time to make a change. Maybe you’ve had a bit of tunnel vision when it comes to your writing career, in which case expanding your vision may help. A good example may be to find other ways to share your writing that aren’t traditional publishing, or to use your skills to create courses or go into public speaking.

Maybe writing in another genre will bring you the results you seek, or perhaps starting your own writing group will create the support you’ve been lacking. Use your creative mind to explore other options. If you do decide to make a change, consider conducting a ritual to mark the occasion.

Whatever you decide, celebrate that decision in some way that marks the occasion. Maybe you can start a new blog that follows your new journey, or invite your writing friends over to share in your excitement. You could create a new name for your new writing venture, and even design your own logo or new business cards. By refreshing your whole approach, you are likely to experience new energy and motivation that just plain feels good.

In summary, allow your past experiences of nonevents to open up a path for a new dream, and possibly a new self.

7. Rethink your expectations.

Most of the time, we suffer negative consequences from nonevents because of our expectations. Maybe you expected that you’d be getting big advances by now, or that your books would be selling hundreds of thousands of copies.

When these expectations aren’t meant, it’s natural to feel disappointed. You can avoid feeling quite as badly in the future by adjusting your expectations. Update them according to what you now know about the business, and about your strengths and weaknesses as a writer.

Reassess the route you’re taking, and plot a new one if needed. Set smaller, more achievable goals, and remind yourself of the intrinsic rewards of writing—the ones that likely drew you to the craft in the first place.

As Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. and associated editor of Psych Central:

“When you feel disappointed because something didn’t happen or because it did but you’re surprisingly dissatisfied, it helps to remember that disappointments are really opportunities. They’re opportunities to learn about ourselves, our needs, and our wants, and to create meaningful change in our lives.”

How have nonevents affected your writing life?

Paul J. Hershberger, et al., “Non-events and adult well being,” Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, January-March 1999; 20(1):85-100,

Jennifer Baker, “Honoring non-events in our everyday lives,” Springfield News-Leader, June 20, 2016,

Margarita Tartakovsky, “When Things Don’t Turn Out How You’d Hoped, Expected, or Planned,” Psych Central, December 9, 2014,

Karen Wylie, “Non-Events: When Life Doesn’t Turn Out as You Planned,” Working Your Retirement,

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Comments (15)

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  1. Thank you for this great articles! A “non event” happened to me on my second book and I was heart-broken. I don’t feel that I will ever get over it and have all but stopped writing completely. The article helped me at least understand what I was going through and not I have to try and get over it.

  2. Kathy says:

    Scrap booking is not a bad idea as I have so many photos and opportunities to write a brief description and plan a layout for the photo and writing. I enjoyed writing my book, but the rewrite and editing is a painful process. I hope to finish in about six months and then search for a publisher. Meanwhile, I’ll take care of some photos with some ideas on design, write a few poems and continue editing. Great article to alert me to the danger of “non-events.’

    • Colleen says:

      Sounds like a good approach, Kathy. Keep going on that story though! We’re rooting for you. :O)

  3. David B says:

    Good one, thanks Colleen. Was not aware of the psychology of Nonevents but have certainly experienced them. Like when I launched my first blog. It was essentially invisible on the web. It took awhile to get readership. And then it took on a life of its own…

    I’ve been tempering my expectations of my coming book. It’s taken a lot longer to get out the door (as your newsletter described) but the result has been worth it. Another nonevent has been an invitation from a good publisher to propose. The proposal has dropped into the void of the time it takes them to review and discuss the submission…

    I agree with Carol’s comment too.

    • Colleen says:

      Thanks for your examples, David. Yes, publishers take sooooooo long don’t they? Here’s hoping for a positive response, but meanwhile I’m sure you have other alternatives if it doesn’t come through. And like Carol said, it’s all material regardless!

      • David B says:

        Yes – As I’m almost ready, the publisher said to go ahead and self-publish. We’d simply change over the edition when they publish. They were gathering titles for a fall 2018 publication earliest.

  4. Carol Roan says:

    “Researchers discovered in studies on nonevents that older people reported the lowest percentage of nonevents in their lives, probably because subsequent events led to an overall positive outcome.” At almost 86, I think this conclusion quoted from the article above is only part of the answer. Older people have learned not to be wedded to specific expectations, but to accept the fluidity of life. “Stuff happens” works both ways. I consider myself a writer and a voice teacher, but in the last 14 months I’ve lectured at a university scientific symposium, made my film debut and received a Best Actress nomination in a showing of short films at the Cannes Festival, and made my debut as a professional dancer. None of these events directly affected getting my short story collection published, but how could they not enrich my writing?

  5. Claire Gem says:

    This is an EXCELLENT point on a very critical topic, one faced by almost every author I’ve ever known. The only thing that can bring you down faster than failure to meet a goal is meeting the goal, only to find out nobody knows or cares. The award means nothing to the world. The book isn’t selling.

    It’s important to remember that YOU care. I think this is why every writer should write down their priority list of goals–surely, if the top goal isn’t met, there will be at least one goal on that list that you DID attain.

    • Colleen says:

      “…meeting the goal, only to find out nobody knows or cares.” Is this the writing life in a nutshell? Love your comment, Claire, and these nonevents definitely remind us to be doing the writing for the only reason that matters—because “we” care.

      • Claire Gem says:

        So true, Colleen. If you don’t love to write for the sheer joy of creating your art, you might as well take up scrapbooking. At least then the grandkids will look at your book…;-)