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.