When You Give In, The Terrorists Win

Don’t give up.  Really don’t give up.  Continue under all circumstances.    

            ~~  Natalie Goldberg, writing guru and best-selling author


You may recall hearing in the days after the September 11 attacks that if you did – or didn’t do – thus and such, “the terrorists would win.”

I can’t even recall now what any of those things were, but at our house the phrase has morphed into:

Don’t let the terrorists win.

A terrorist in this case is any obstacle(s) that is/are keeping you from whatever it is you need to do for your art and your life.

You can be terrorized by the voiceover in your head that tells you you’re not good enough, educated enough, or good-looking enough.  Or by the well-meaning friend or relative who tears you down “for your own good,” wielding honesty as a weapon.  A busy day can terrorize you, or a negative review, or a few extra pounds, or a head cold.  Anything that diminishes you or throws you off track is a bona fide terrorist.

My number one terrorist is depression.  I’ve battled the black dog most of my life: it started during my teens but the past twenty years have been a really wild ride.  Even with targeted medication, cognitive therapy, and an amazing husband who refuses to give up on me, I still have days when I don’t give a damn whether I live or die, or whether I get out of bed or not, forget getting up to write.

Now, I’ve never been one of those people who eagerly jumps out of bed to greet each new day – I’m a night person by training and by temperament, in addition to the fact that for most depressives mornings are not our best hours.  But on the days when the black dog really has me in its teeth and won’t let go, my first win is to get my sorry ass out of bed.  It doesn’t matter whether I want to or not – wanting doesn’t even figure into it – if I stay in bed the terrorists will win.

Then at each step after that: making coffee, checking my email, working out, getting showered and dressed – I remind myself that I’m doing these things because doing them will get me past these rough hours to the part where it isn’t so hard.  Then when I’m finally awake enough to sit down at the computer to work, I give myself a (brief) pat on the back.  I haven’t let the terrorists win.  At least not yet; not at this moment.  And this moment is all that matters.

Whenever I’m unhappy with some aspect of my life, it’s usually because I’m letting the terrorists win: I’ve given in to inertia, or distraction, or sadness, or self-doubt.  I give myself bad reviews, compare myself unfavorably to others, beat myself up over something or other (there’s never any dearth of things over which to beat myself up).  Then the wallowing begins: how unfair, how hard, how trivial it all is.

Yadda yadda yadda

Wallowing can be a sort of strangely rewarding fun if I don’t indulge it for too long.  But when I catch myself at it I know it’s time to move on (nothing more to see here folks).  Because if I don’t the terrorists will win.  I wrote an entire novel this way: I just kept going, kept putting one foot in front of the other, even when I had no idea what to do or where I was going.  I’ve used the same battle plan to perform leading roles when I had no faith whatsoever in my ability to perform them.  Another blow to the terrorists.

Because, ultimately, the biggest daily battle we fight is with ourselves.  It’s a battle to keep going when we don’t feel like it, or don’t completely trust ourselves, or when the rewards are few and far between.  It can be hard to carve out the time for our art, hard to say no to more tempting – or just plain easier – offers (ice cream, anyone?).

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes you need a time out.  There was so much turmoil and family drama after my father died, not to mention incapacitating grief, that work was the farthest thing from my mind, if it had even been possible.  I turned down jobs and let myself heal.  Time off is sometimes the best medicine.  That’s self care, and everyone needs it, artists included.

But I’m talking about the daily obstacles – the insidious distractions that trip you up and keep you from your art, from your passion.  The terrorists you have to fight, romance, ignore, or plea bargain with just to get to the work, let alone get it done.

My terrorist is fond of coffee and crosswords.  Every afternoon when I sit down to write (no big surprise that I’m a late-in-the-day creative), I promise her that if she’ll give me an hour – just one measly hour – she can have a fresh cup and a Sunday grid at the end of the session.  Not only does it work, I get so lost in whatever I’m working on that when I look up again many hours have passed (because I love writing, it’s my terrorist who has other ideas).  I’ve been keeping her in line this way for years.

You’d think she’d catch on.


This post is dedicated to the memory of comedian, actor, and artist, Robin Williams (1951-2014).  His terrorists won, but not before he put up a valiant, life-long fight.

“Goodnight, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

5 Things Your Mother Never Told You About Rejection

You get whatever accomplishment you are willing to declare.  ~~  Georgia O’Keeffe, artist

Everyone experiences rejection from time to time.  You don’t get the job, the person you ask to the dance says no, you don’t get picked for the team.  It happens.

But for artists it happens a lot more often.  Weekly.  Daily.  Even several times a day.

How do you keep going in the face of so much rejection?

For one thing, you can turn to your art.  Making art is exhilarating.  You are at one with the universe.  Your soul contains worlds.  You’re in flow, focused, and relaxed.  Your essence pours onto the page, the canvas, or to the audience.

But the flip side of art-making is the audition, the query letter, the juried presentation.  And with that comes the letter, the phone call, or the email that begins “Sorry, but…” and goes downhill from there.

No matter how unique our work, we artists all have one thing in common: REJECTION.

And here’s what mother never told you:

1) Rejection is part of life.

This is especially true for artists.  It’s the price we pay for putting our work out there.  Your life isn’t like everyone else’s: as an artist, you don’t have the option of arranging your life to avoid rejection.  Accept that you will be told “no” more than “yes.”  Decide that your mission in life is to collect “no’s.”  It’s as if you have a chronic, but not life-threatening condition that you must live with every day.  Rejection won’t kill you, but learning to handle it will show you how strong you are.

2) Some rejections sting more than others.

Sometimes you’re more hopeful, or you think you have a better-than-average chance, or you simply want this one more.  Sometimes the longer you wait for an answer, the more devastating the rejection (as long as you haven’t heard “no,” you still have a chance, right?).  These are the rejections that sting.  It’s all right to lick your wounds for a while – notice I said for a while.  Let yourself be disappointed for a day or two.  But while you’re cursing the winners and scorning the judges for not recognizing your genius, make sure you stay engaged.  Get back on your artistic horse, even if you have to do it while shouting, “I’ll show you!” (or worse).  You will get past your disappointment and you will keep putting your work, and yourself, out there.  Even when it hurts.

3) It’s possible to learn from rejection.

All rejections are not created equal.  Some are clearly form letters (or emails): those you can file and forget about.  But some will offer feedback, perhaps only a sentence or two, and those are golden.  Take these comments to heart – the person making them has no obligation to do so.  She is saying you are worth her time, even if your work isn’t what she’s seeking at the moment.  Pay attention to negative comments as well, especially if you’re getting the same ones over and over.  You don’t have to agree, but you can learn from it.

This past year I sent out queries to fifty literary agents: three read my novel manuscript and gave me useful and encouraging feedback, even though they chose not to go the distance with me.  Their comments – which were consistent among all three – helped me improve my book to the point that I now feel confident publishing independently.  It’s no small thing for an agent to wade through a 350-page manuscript.  Their comments were a gift.

I’m not saying it will be easy, but there are nuggets of gold in the manure pile if you’re willing to put aside your ego and look for them.

4) Rejection has no bearing on the worth of your work, your worth as an artist, or your worth as a person.

This is a tough one.  There are more ways to get discouraged than there are ways to make art.  Artists are sensitive, and some are more sensitive than others.  The only way I know to combat discouragement is to be tenacious and persistent.  I’ve never had the thick skin that everyone told me I needed to survive in the arts, but I have learned to keep going.  I can be discouraged and still do the work, still make queries, still send out submissions.

About ten years ago, I had a stack of plays I’d written and wanted to get out there, so I set a goal of submitting to two companies every week for an entire year.  With the help of The Writer’s Market and Insight for Playwrights, I researched the daylights out of the field, targeting which of my dozen plays would suit each individual company.  I crossed all the right “i’s” and dotted all the right “t’s” until my own eyes crossed – it was about as much fun as filling out two grant applications every week.  But come Monday I was in line at the post office with my two packets – and by the end of that year I’d lined up staged readings in Chicago and Palm Springs, CA; won contests for full productions in Columbus, OH and Richmond, VA; and won an award from a women’s artists cooperative in New York City.  I didn’t do anything special, I just kept plugging away.  I realize I could look at my 5% success rate (or 95% failure rate!), and be disappointed.  But I was lucky enough to attend the Chicago, Columbus, and Richmond productions and meet the directors who believed in my work, and I also talked to audience members who were entertained and moved by it.  That felt like success to me, whatever percentage you want to put on it.

But before I got to enjoy that part, the rejections poured in – at least from those companies that bothered to respond at all.  At times I was so discouraged I wanted to quit.  There were times when I couldn’t see the point, when I doubted myself and my work – when I wasn’t even sure I wanted to keep writing, let alone submitting (not to mention that the mere word “submit” bothers me, along with the implications of “submission”).  Then a phone call or a letter would arrive with some good news and I’d get back on track.  What I learned during that year was that I don’t necessarily have to believe in my brilliance on any given day to keep going.  I just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other.  Because in the face of tenacity, rejection is just a bump in the road; tomorrow I’m just as likely to believe in the work again, and in myself.

Greg Louganis, Olympic swimmer, has said that when he was standing on the diving platform preparing to make his gold medal dive, he told himself: “No matter what the outcome, my mother will still love me.”  True enough.  No matter what the outcome: you will still be an artist; you will still make art; and your mother will still love you (even if she doesn’t understand what you’re doing).

5) If you’re not experiencing rejection, you may be playing it too safe.

If there are no rejections in your inbox, or if all you hear is “yes,” it’s possible you’re either not putting yourself out there, or you’re not stretching yourself.

If it’s the former, you’re going to have to break through your fear of sharing your work.  There may be all sorts of reasons why you hold back: perfectionism, fear of failure, fear of judgment.  The list goes on.  But the only way to find out what you have is to share it.  Even reclusive Emily Dickinson showed her poems to someone.  Dare to share your work.  It may be easier to start with a trusted friend, or you may be more comfortable with the anonymity of an agent or editor.  I occasionally have to pretend I’m sending out someone else’s work when I balk at hitting the “send” button.  Do whatever it takes, but do it.  You have to start somewhere, and the time is now.

If your problem is that all you hear is “yes” (I know, we should all have such problems), you may be in need of a challenge.  If you’re getting the lead in every show, perhaps it’s time to look for companies working at a higher level.  If your stories are always the hit of your writing group, you may be ready for a more discerning group.  “Yes” is nice, but a constant diet of approval will stunt your growth.  If you don’t kick your own butt, or find someone to do it for you, your artistic potential can wither and die.

So – starting now:

Take a risk.

Challenge yourself.

Embrace rejection.