The 25% — Addressing the Doubters

I have spent a good many years…being ashamed about what I write.  I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction or poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent.  If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all. ~~ Stephen King, best-selling author

My miracle is not that you can’t knock me down; my miracle is that I know how to get up. ~~ Stephen Gaskin, nonviolent social revolutionary


I just finished a novel.  (I’ll wait for the applause to die down.)

I can tell you that I’ve never worked so hard – or long – on anything in my life.  What began as an idea in 1999 became an opening chapter in 2000, which became six months of research, which resulted in a year of writing and a 300-page draft – which sat in a drawer for eight years while I worked up the nerve to dive in and wrestle with revisions.  That process took another five years, which included an additional year of research, multiple drafts, a developmental edit, a year of queries to nearly fifty literary agents (three of whom read the manuscript and had positive feedback but ultimately declined the project), nights of lost sleep, and many, many trips to Staples for printer ink and paper.

But – if I’d listened to the woman who ran the writer’s workshop I attended in 2002, I’d never have completed the first draft.  At the beginning of the first class, we went around the room and talked about our current projects and long-term goals, so I mentioned that I’d written a full-length play and was currently working on a novel.  At the end of the session, the workshop leader pulled me aside and said, “I think you should consider working on something easier.”

I was too stunned to respond.

And I never went back.

Fortunately, my husband had a comeback of his own: “She doesn’t know who she’s dealing with.”

His words kept me going during all those years of slogging through the initial draft and later revisions.  Sometimes all you need is one person to believe in you.  You can even let them be in charge of believing in you during those times when you no longer do.  Their belief can pick you up until you regain your confidence.

But the workshop leader’s words kept me going, too – if only because I was determined to prove her wrong.  The gauntlet had been thrown down.  I was only too happy to pick it up and tuck it into my vizard.

So by now you’re wondering, what about the 25%?  Let’s just say the workshop leader is a prime example.

The 25% is an idea I picked up years ago at a piano workshop.  The clinician was working with a student who was struggling with debilitating stage fright – which is nothing if not a manifestation of other people’s negativity internalized as self-doubt.

The clinician explained it something like this:

The moment you walk onstage, before you even play a note, before you even sit down at the piano:

25% of the audience will love you instantly – you remind them of their favorite relative or their best friend from high school (or they love what you’re wearing);

25% of the audience will hate you instantly – you remind them of their ex or a despised teacher (or they hate what you’re wearing);

The remaining 50% will neither love nor hate you, but will take you as you are (and probably won’t even notice what you’re wearing).

Which means that a whopping 75% of the audience is with you before you even play a note.  This is good news for creatives of all stripes.

The 25% applies not only at concerts but when someone picks up your book, or sits down to watch your play, or looks at your painting.  Some people, for whatever reason, will dislike you or your work on sight.  They may dislike you for even making the attempt, or they feel threatened by your willingness to take risks.  Some will be failed artists themselves, bitter and jealous of your achievements.  Some will be well-meaning people who have no idea how destructive their comments are.  Some will simply be negative types who love nothing more than undermining the confidence of others.  It’s vital to rein in these doubters before their opinions take up residence in your psyche and cripple you with self-doubt.

What I’ve come to understand is that there will always be people I’m never going to reach, never going to please, and who are never going applaud me or my work.  Remember that doubters come in all shapes and sizes.  There will always be the friend who innocently offers to read your manuscript (so he can tear it apart), or the teacher who relentlessly criticizes you “to make you stronger” (and dismantles your confidence in the process), or the peer who wants to “help” (and boost their own ego), by pointing out your flaws to you.

I’ve also learned that it’s the doubters who like to take me aside when I’m at my most vulnerable (how do they do that?), and insist on giving me their immediate, unsolicited opinion.  It took me a while to recognize that the advice they so freely give is not offered in the spirit of helping me, but constitutes what they would do in a similar circumstance (if they had the guts).  They’re entitled to their opinions, as long as I remember that I neither have to agree with them, nor take their advice.

Which leads me to my second revelation: it’s up to me to decide whose feedback I’m going to listen to.

Here’s my list:

1) My coach/teacher.

2) My husband (who tells me the truth in a clear, supportive way).

3) A trusted friend (one who has my best interests at heart).

Someone who has your best interests at heart will, immediately after your performance (or reading, or gallery opening), hug you and congratulate you on your efforts.  They will not feel threatened as you bask in the adulation of your admirers.  If there is anything to discuss about your work, they will have the good sense to mention it after the adrenalin rush has worn off and you’re ready to hear it.  When that time comes, they will share their thoughts and observations constructively.  They will critique, not criticize – it’s amazing how few understand the difference.

(Conversely, it’s not a good idea to trust someone who only gives you glowing reviews, especially when you know you’re not at your best.  These people can be nice to have around, and a comfort when things aren’t going well, but they won’t help you grow as an artist, either.)

There will still be moments when someone sneaks through your defenses; it’s part of the dues we creative types pay for putting it out there.  For this reason, be wary of anyone who doesn’t want you to enjoy your well-sung recital, your sensitive performance in a play, or your beautiful sculpture.  It might be the significant other who whisks you away immediately after a performance to do “what they want to do,” thereby robbing you of the joy of meeting your supporters at the reception afterwards.  It might be the “friend” who chases you offstage to tell you which notes were flat.  It might be the colleague who tears you down “for your own good.”

These people do not have your best interests at heart.  Worse, they can be toxic to your well-being as an artist.

Refuse to listen to the opinion of anyone you haven’t given permission to critique you.  Give everyone one free pass, but it if happens a second time, find a way to gently but firmly let them know that they don’t have your okay to review your work.  I’ve found this clears up a surprising amount of misunderstanding.

In the end, while it’s a challenge to ignore the doubters, setting firm boundaries goes a long way towards silencing their destructive chatter.  When they figure out they can no longer get to you, they’ll step back and leave you alone.  You’ll then have freed up the energy to cultivate supporters – friends, peers, and instructors whose feedback and encouragement help you grow.  Your supporters will be easy to recognize: they’re the people who are gratified by your progress, the ones who cheer you on, even – and especially – when the going gets rough.  Many will be fellow artists who understand all too well how rough the road can be.

But the surest way to find supporters is to be one yourself.  In the face of optimism, the doubters – that disparaging 25% – lose their power.  They have no choice but to slink away in search of new victims.  And as a bonus, you’ll have opened up space in your life so that helpful and supportive people, those who have an interest and a stake in your growth, can take their place.

Getting the Second Marshmallow: Self-discipline for Creatives

Some battles are never won except in continually fighting them. ~~ Mark Helprin, Freddy and Fredericka

There’s a classic study in which a researcher takes a 4-year-old into a room, sits her down at a table, places a marshmallow in front of her, and tells her she can have that marshmallow right now, or – if she can wait fifteen whole minutes – she can have two.  Then the researcher leaves the room and watches what happens through a one-way mirror.  As expected, most four-year-olds devour the marshmallow immediately (after all, they’re four, and it’s a marshmallow, for pity’s sake).  But a few young souls find ways to make it through that agonizing, eternal fifteen minutes.  They sing, walk around the room, count, put their hands over their eyes, anything to distract themselves – and claim the larger prize.

My guess is that a few of those kids grew up to be artists.

This is the unfortunate crux of art-making: once you’re out of school, no one (except maybe your mother), is champing at the bit anticipating your next project.  No one cares if you’re drawing, or writing, or singing every day.  Your life fills up with obligations – your day job is sucking you dry, the kids have to be driven soccer games and piano lessons, your sick dog needs to be rushed to the vet – and before you know it, art-making begins to seem like an unforgivable indulgence.  That’s if you had the time to do it in the first place, which you clearly don’t.  There are just so many other things that need your attention.

But the fact remains: you’re still an artist, even if you’re not engaged in your art.  So what happens then?  You tell yourself it doesn’t matter.  You drink more, eat more, or sleep more to push down your mounting feelings of resentment.  Failure.  Regret.  Discontent.  Life starts to weigh you down.  You begin to doubt you were ever artistic, let alone any good.  You’ve been devouring that first marshmallow the moment it shows up, whether in the form of obligation or entertainment, and now a big piece of your life is missing.  Tina Packer, founder of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, expresses it well: If you don’t do whatever your art form is, you’re unhappy and your life doesn’t make sense to you.  You want to get that part of your life back, but how?

In a culture that glorifies instant gratification, we don’t get much practice waiting for the second marshmallow.  But that’s what creatives must do, whether they make art for a living, or after-hours.  (Let me go on record here: I disagree that hobbyists don’t qualify as artists. Art-making is art-making, whether you do it eight hours a day or one hour a week. As long as you’re committed to doing the best work you can do, you’re in the club as far as I’m concerned.  One unfortunate aspect of our culture is that as a we’ve given art-making over to the “professionals.”  We’ve stopped claiming our individual creative powers for ourselves.)

This is where self-discipline comes in — now stay with me, because it’s not as dreary as it sounds.  Self-discipline is simply finding ways to distract yourself from the immediate reward (or demand) so you can get to that second marshmallow.  You have to distract yourself from the distractions, because they will always be there.  You have to do the work, even when you’re tired, or stressed, or have a million other concerns nipping at your heels.  It’s about carving out time – even if it’s only ten minutes a day – to do whatever it is that feeds your soul.  Honing your artistic chops requires attention and repetition, lots of it.  There’s no app that can do it for you.  You – and only you – can put in the time.

I can already hear you saying, yes, but I don’t have an entire afternoon to draw!  Fine, tuck a small sketch book and pencil into your pocket or purse and make a quick drawing while you’re on your break.  No time to work on your book?  Keep a journal handy to jot down your thoughts while waiting for your kids to get out of Tae Kwando (and don’t be surprised if you end up writing your entire book that way).  No place to practice your singing?  Grab a handful of Music Minus One CDs to sing along with during your commute.  Use that creative noggin of yours.  People may think you’re crazy, but who cares?  Your kids, your spouse, your coworkers will get used to it.  And I guarantee they’ll appreciate your improved mood.

Like that second group of kids, you have to trick your mind, teach it to wait, especially when it starts yelling about why you need that first marshmallow right now.  Here’s what I do: I make a bargain with my mind: “All right,” I say, “I understand that you don’t know where the hell I’m going with this damn book, or blog post, or whatever.  I get it that you’d rather do anything right now but write.  I know the yard work and the errands and the laundry piling up suddenly seem of national importance.  But I’m on top of that, I am.  Just let me work on this draft for a few minutes, and I promise that afterwards I’ll treat us to a fresh cup of coffee and a killer crossword.”  (For those who know me at all, that’s my second marshmallow.  And when I’ve collected enough second marshmallows there’s an even bigger prize, the Big Kahuna, if you will: a finished book.)

I admit, it’s not easy.  I love writing, but some days it’s excruciating to stay in the chair.  My back hurts.  My clothes itch.  The room is too hot.  The room is too cold.  I had to train myself, starting with a few minutes each day.  And as my sessions slowly got longer, I began to look forward to my time in the chair.  Now I get so absorbed in the work that I forget the physical world exists.  But it didn’t happen overnight.  It took a lot of baby steps to get to the point where I can look up at the clock and see that three hours have gone by.  First I had to commit to getting in my writing time, no matter what.  I call it the BITCH method: Butt In The Chair, Honey.

So carve out time for your art, or whatever it is that you love and that feeds your soul.  Trick your mind.  Distract it.  Bargain with it.

And you’ll soon be enjoying your second marshmallow.

It’s a Dirty Job… (or — Nothing You Do is Ever Wasted, part 2)

Artists who whine because they need a grant and the government doesn’t help them – well, tough shit.  I had the same problem.  I worked in a bookstore for seven years to make money to buy art supplies.  And that was fine.  I don’t think artists should ever expect anything from anybody.  For the artist, sacrifice and hardship are a part of the process.  ~~~  Patti Smith

Everything is usable. ~~~  Twyla Tharp

In my previous post I wrote about the artistic paths that led me to writing — which got me thinking about some of the non-artistic jobs I’ve had.  We’ve all had that job, the one that makes you glad every day that you quit, and I’ve had my share.  The best I can say is that they’ve provided me with a rich vein of stories that I mine again and again in my writing.

To start with, I’ve never done anything the usual way.  I delayed college for two years so I could travel the world with a singing group.  Half of our expenses were paid for by ticket receipts from concerts we performed before the trip; the rest we had to earn.  I did this by working in the dental office where my mother had been an assistant for over 20 years.  My job was to work the reception desk: answering the phone, making appointments, typing and mailing the monthly statements, and being a general dogsbody for anyone who needed one.

Occasionally I’d be called upon to help the assistants. I learned to mix alginate and take impressions (yes, I was that one – the one who made you gag).  I developed x-rays and sterilized instruments.  Even less occasionally someone would call in sick and I’d have to assist one of the doctors.  This was not a good thing.  One day I fainted during a root canal.  Another time I was emptying the suction collector (the stuff has to go somewhere), and I dropped it.  But I didn’t just spill it.  Somehow the damn thing landed in such a way that it turned into a geyser and sprayed the contents – water, saliva, blood, filling material, you name it – all over the operatory.  And me.  And the doctor.  And the patient in the chair.  After that they hired a temp if one of the assistants was out.

For several years after the concert tours ended, I worked day jobs so I could gig at night.  After the dental office job (no, they didn’t fire me, though they probably should have; I quit), I worked as a receptionist at a busy orthodontic practice — so busy that the doctor relieved his stress by coming out to the front desk to yell at me in front of the patients.  I quickly left that job and landed another one as a telephone sales rep for a large dental materials company.  If you had braces or dental work in the 1980’s, I probably sold your doctor the materials for it.  Everyone was safe as long as I stayed out of the treatment room.

All through this time I took classes, trying to get excited about completing a degree in some aspect of medicine, my family’s dream for me.  Over a period of eight years I veered from dental hygiene to physical therapy to chiropractic.  During my physical therapy phase, I did a stint at City of Hope Medical Center, where I donned a hideous pink uniform and helped out in the Occupational Therapy department.  All I did during the several months I worked there was mix and pour plaster into molds for the painting class, scrub out the Jacuzzi, and play bocce ball with little old ladies going on and on about that new mini-series, Roots (which they rhymed with foots).  I moved on.

Eventually I got the courage to tell my family that while I appreciated their desire for me make buckets of money as a medical professional, I was changing my major to music. Thus began a series of low-paying jobs so I could I work my way through college, with the help of Pell grants and scholarships.  For a while I worked seasonal retail at a cookware store called – are you ready? – The Happy Cooker (for those too young to remember The Happy Hooker by Xaviera Hollander, look it up).  I bagged (and snacked on) melting chocolate (yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as eating too much chocolate), and I ground and bagged specialty coffees, thus beginning my life-long French Roast dependence.

I suppose I should be grateful I never worked in fast food, or as a waitress, but I never had the chance.  Instead I earned my gross-out points working in a hotel laundry.  Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve come in to work at 6 am and unfurled a bundled-up tablecloth from the previous night’s banquet, only to be showered with festering chicken bones and spoiled ranch dressing.  But hey, want to know how to fold a sheet?  Press napkins on a mangle?  Find out what the hell is a mangle?  I can do that.  If it was a slow day I’d help housekeeping gather up the sheets and towels.  This was even more educational than the laundry.  I saw rooms that looked like they’d been bombed.  I saw bathtubs clogged with pet hair where guests had oh-so-thoughtfully bathed their dogs.  I saw messes left for the maids that should have been handled by a HazMat squad.

Ah, but this was far from my last low-paying job. For a while I was a toll-free reservations agent for a major hotel chain (I’ll let you guess: it starts with “S”), where I learned that toll-free numbers are irresistible to obscene phone callers.  I also learned that during a five-hour shift of constant talking with no breaks I wasn’t allowed to drink one sip of anything – because the computers were too valuable, apparently more so than the workers’ voices.  I tried lozenges, but after I accidentally inhaled one during a reservation, I gave that up.  And quit the job.

I also worked at a sausage-and-cheese store (you know the one), handing out samples and pushing items that I would have died rather than eat (processed cheese with beets and horseradish, anyone?).  But without the kindness of a fellow worker, who risked her job sending me home with leftovers from the bakery and deli at the end of the shift, I don’t know how I would have gotten by.  I was at the point of having to choose between buying food or paying my rent.  One night as we were sweeping up, I found a crumpled $10.00 bill on the floor.  She quickly whispered, “Put it in your pocket.  I never saw it.  It’s your tip for the night.”  Rachel was her name.  She was all of 18 compassionate years old.

My last day job was at a credit union, where I handled Vendor’s Special Insurance, affectionately known as VSI.  It worked like this: let’s say you took out a loan and used your car or boat (or first born child) as collateral.  As long as you kept your insurance paid up on said car or boat (or child), everything was hunky-dory.  But if your insurance notified the credit union that your payment was overdue – bang! – you got slapped with VSI, and received a love letter sent (but not signed), by me.

My first day at the credit union was the day the Challenger space shuttle exploded. I should have seen that as a sign.  Naturally, no one actually read to the part of the letter saying that if they’d already paid their insurance, they could forget about it and go on their merry way.  No, they stopped reading as soon as they saw the exorbitantly high VSI rate (in all fairness, they probably fell to the floor in a dead faint).  But once they’d picked themselves up, they called me.  Not a day went by that I wasn’t verbally abused by an irate member – some of whom I knew, but I never let on.  It wouldn’t have mattered if I had.  To them, I wasn’t a person: I was the embodiment of evil, the gatekeeper of a vast bureaucratic conspiracy designed specifically to bring about their ruin (and the ruin of their children, and their children’s children, and their children’s children).  I would have been thrilled to have had the kind of power they imagined I possessed.

One memorable call — after which I nearly had to dial 911 to be treated for third-degree burns — pushed me over the edge and made me decide it was time to take my chances on starting my own voice studio.  It was a big risk: Oregon’s economy was in a shambles.  People had little extra money for anything, let alone singing lessons.  It was slow and painful going at first.  But for a change I was my own boss, and the pain was mine, which made it bearable.  Over time the word got around, and my schedule filled up with good students and – even more important – terrific people, many of whom became dear friends.

I still remember the name of the man who screamed at me the day I decided to take that job – or any job – and shove it.  I’m grateful to him to this day.

The Hybrid Writer – or – Nothing You Do Is Ever Wasted

It’s important to be more than a writer. More people need to cultivate other skills – and also write. ~~ Merritt Tierce

“So what do you do?”

It’s the question I dread being asked at a party. I mean, where do I begin?

I started out as a classical singer…” (they immediately envision me in a helmet and breastplate, holding a spear);

“…then I worked for a while as an actor,” (now they’re wondering if they’ve seen me on Law and Order SVU, perhaps as a corpse);

“…and I was a private voice teacher,” (now they picture me as a little old lady with my glasses on a chain);

“…but now I’m a writer.

You see the problem.

By this time, their eyes are crossed or they’ve made a bee-line for the punchbowl.

I suppose I could dodge the question by calling myself an artist, but then they’ll want to see my paintings.

Confusing as it is for everyone else, my convoluted path has been great for me. My ability to think like a musician and actor has given me tools and paid unexpected dividends in my writing.  No one in their right mind would design a writing program like the one I’ve had, but the benefits speak for themselves:

Self-discipline: As a performer, I got into the habit of daily practice, even when I didn’t feel like it or didn’t know where the hell my practice was leading.  It was purely a matter of self-preservation.  Because no one notices – or even cares – when you work at your skills, but they sure can tell when you don’t.

A musical ear: You wouldn’t think this would be important for writing, but not long ago I was sitting in a workshop listening to someone read from a draft of his novel, and it suddenly hit me that he couldn’t hear the monotony in his writing.  Every sentence was the same length, with the same emphasis.  The story was interesting, and I wanted to hear more.  But the writing itself was leaden, which is likely to put off any reader, no matter how well-crafted the plot.

Those who sing or play an instrument become attuned to rhythm and phrasing. They develop a feel for when to press forward to create tension and when to pull back to release it.  I came to realize that because of my musical training, I hear shape and structure in writing.  I’m aware of the flow of language and thoughts, even more so when those elements are missing.  It’s something any writer can learn, but I feel fortunate to have come to writing with that skill already in the bag.  It more than makes up for all those lonely years in the practice room.

An ear for dialog: When you learn lines for a play, especially a good one, the speech style gets into your head.  During rehearsals you start to see where a pause can create tension, or where you can point up words and phrases that are important to the plot.  You develop a feel for the ways in which people talk to each other, and how they express or conceal their feelings and thoughts.

It wasn’t until I started talking to other writers and learned the trouble they were having crafting dialog, that I realized how fortunate I am to have been in so many well-written, well-directed plays. I rarely have to edit dialog in my writing.  (Descriptive passages are another story altogether…) 

A feel for scene structure: In a play, every scene has a beginning (something that sets the action in motion); a middle (where the action develops); and an end, which (gently or abruptly) brings the scene to a close and often leads to the following scene.

Sounds obvious in theatre, but in writing?  Well, what is a story but a succession of scenes also known as chapters?  When I treat my writing as a sequence of scenes, the story becomes much more present and visceral.  It’s as if I’m taking dictation as I watch the action unfolding before me.  Plus, it’s a cool way to work.

Character development: Yes, writing builds character (learning to handle all those rejections, for instance), but that’s not the kind of character I mean.  My years of singing and acting taught me to create living, breathing characters from another’s words or music.  I learned to look beneath the text of a play for the character’s intentions, and to hear what the music was telling me about the character’s emotional state.  I also wrote lengthy biographies for the characters I portrayed — first as an assignment, later for the fun of it — having no idea I was developing a skill that would later transfer directly to creating characters for the page.

A well-developed imagination: The engine that makes all art go is imagination.  One of the main objects of arts training is to help students recover the inventiveness they so easily accessed as children, and so easily lost when they got older and more invested in fitting in.  When I finally figured out that most of what happens in art is made up – fashioned from the whole cloth of imagination – not only did my creativity blossom, I stopped caring what everyone else thought I should be doing and began to walk my own artistic path.  It also helps that I love making stuff up.

So even though I feel I’m lying by omission, the next time someone asks me what I do, I’ll guess I’ll just cut to the chase and fess up to being a writer. If I see them again, I can always dole out tidbits from my sordid past and spread out the confusion over time.  It seems the humane thing to do.

Then when they ask me where I get my ideas, it’ll be my turn to flee for the punchbowl.



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.



What Do You Make of it ? – The Creation Myth

Welcome to BETWEEN A BOOK AND A HARD PLACE, a blog for the compulsively creative.  I’ve spent my entire life in the arts – starting with singing and acting in my teens, and now writing, hence the title of this blog.  Feel free to comment, share your experiences, pose questions, or suggest topics.  I look forward to sharing the joys and pitfalls of my artistic journey with you. 


He who has made a thousand things and he who has made none, both feel the same desire: to make something.

                                                ~~  Antonio Porchia

At a party, whenever someone learns that I work in the arts, they nearly always sigh, then say: I wish I could be creative.

I tell them they are, they just don’t realize it.

The urge to create is with us all our lives.  Think of the mud pies you made as a kid – you took raw material and made something that had never existed before.  No one told you to had to do it, or how to do it, you just did it.  You may have made up a mud pie story or a mud pie song as you squished your fingers through the lovely goo, shaping and patting your creation into being.  You may have drawn designs on it, or pressed leaves and sticks into it.  However you did it, this mud pie was yours and yours alone: it had your stamp of creation on it.  Every child makes mud pies, but no one before or since has made them exactly like you did.

That’s a lot of creativity from one humble mud pie.

Yet we discount mud pie-making as child’s play.  It was something we did for fun.  It wasn’t serious; it doesn’t count.  It was hardly creation.  Not really.


Everyone is driven to create.  Put simply: the urge to create is the drive we all have to make something that wasn’t there before.  Even a mud pie.

Any time you make something new, whether it’s a meal or a mural, you are engaged in creation, the most powerful act a human can undertake.  Even if you make the same thing again and again – say, your fabulous spaghetti sauce, or umpteen pencil drawings of the tree in your front yard – you are making something new.  Any artist will tell you that making the same thing over and over, each time with care and attention, adding tiny improvements along the way, is how we grow creatively.  So bake that lemon cake over and over – if you’re paying attention, each cake will be better than the one before.  If not, you will learn something from it.  This is creation.

What we forget when we get older is that there are as many ways to create as there are people.  For some, it’s singing, or dancing, or writing, or sculpting.  For others, it might be cooking or gardening.  Or it might be dentistry, or nursing, or acupuncture, or other healing arts.  It could be hair styling, or make-up artistry, or clothing design, or putting together a style that defines who you are.  It might be a combination of many pursuits or just one or two.  Anything from needlepoint to interior decorating to computer software design is, or can be, creative.

And here’s the good news: your creation doesn’t have to be “ART.”  No one who ever made a mud pie spent a lot of time worrying if it was good enough for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Creation is enjoyable; it feeds your passion.  That’s enough.  That’s a lot, in fact.

But what if you’re singing someone else’s song, or acting in someone else’s play, or reading a book someone else wrote?  You didn’t create those things, someone else did.

Here’s more good news: the act of re-creation is also creation.  Your interpretation of a song or role or book has never existed before.  You are the only person alive who can bring your particular perspective and ability to that material.  (If you’ve ever been in a book group, you know what I mean – there can be so many different and opposing points of view, I sometimes wonder if we’ve read the same book).  Each time you read you are conjuring the world of the story in your mind.  Each time you sing a song or act a part, even if you’ve done it before, you are creating that music or that character anew.

David Gordon, tenor soloist for the Oregon Bach Festival, used to tell himself before performing the demanding role of the Evangelist in the St. Matthew Passion – mind you, this is music that’s been around for centuries and has a following with very strong opinions as to how it should be done – I am the best Evangelist this audience is going to hear tonight.  And he was right.  Because he created the role afresh every night, lived it intensely.  In real time.  Not only that, each person in the audience, depending on their familiarity with the music, their mood, or where they were sitting, heard something different.  Which means even listening can be a form of creation (by this I’m referring to active listening, not music as sonic wallpaper).

So now that we have that out of the way – what fires up your creative passion?  What’s your raw material?  How many ways do you create?

Now go to it – and enjoy!