I'm an interesting, talented artist but I can't take the rejection!

I know it's part of the game, but it's beginning to defeat me.

Published August 13, 2007 10:31AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm an artist -- it's the thing I've had since childhood, the thing I took for granted.

So I took it for granted and followed other paths -- writing fiction and filmmaking.

I went to grad school, I published some books and many articles (nonfiction). I wrote (and sold) some screenplays. I directed some films and produced some TV shows.

So I'm sorta successful, but I still feel that "artist" is my life's calling. It's what I'm best at and what I love. And yes, I go through all the crap too -- the stress, the inaction, the procrastination and so on, but I really feel it's what I was born to do. People like it -- smart people, the people I'd hoped would like it, and they like it for the right reasons. I sell enough out of my studio to counter my expenses (not huge but significant nonetheless). I've been selected for juried shows by curators of major museums and been waitlisted on grants and residencies that are awarded to emerging contemporary artists -- exactly where I'd hope my artwork would fall within the giant spectrum of the art world.

But it has yet to pay off with true success: representation by a gallery, which is the equivalent of getting an agent and all that that would hopefully bring.

In the meantime I have to work as a producer (lucrative, challenging, creative but I sublimate my own interests to be "mainstream" enough to be functional in this world) and then, while I'm working on freelance producing jobs, I have to get the rejection letters from things I've applied to. I realize I can't get accepted to everything I apply to, but each time I get rejected, it takes me down a notch, if only for that day. And then I recover (or forget) and go back to making art, and I've realized that this whole creation/rejection dichotomy actually creates the sort of manic-depressive (or bipolar) worldview that artists are known for: You get all excited about some idea and work in a creative frenzy and then you get a rejection notice and feel like "What the fuck am I doing anyways?"

My problem right now is that I don't get the "manic" highs of creation because I'm doing a freelance producing job which is very, very time-consuming (and creativity-consuming), so I can't make my own art at the moment and yet I am getting the "depressive" rejection letters that send me into a downward spiral for which there is no "manic" corrective. And I start to think, maybe "producer" is all I get to be; after all, I worked hard to get to be that too!

I don't think that I should give up on the artwork (I don't think I can, literally. I think I'd be miserable. It's pretty much my higher purpose in life). But how do I deal with the rejection during these periods where I can't make up for it with creative zeal? Because it's so fucking easy to get a rejection notice in the middle of the day at work on the cheesy TV show and think, "Who the fuck am I to think I am an artist?"

- S.

Dear S,

I'm glad you wrote this letter. The problem you describe is important. The best way I can respond to it is by talking about my own experience.

I am a very critical person. This is a problem in my life. I have high expectations. If you are doing something and I am watching, I will have a different idea how you should do it, and I will take you apart and not even realize I am doing it until I have ruined your experience. Then I will apologize. I will say I was just trying to help. Then I will go deeper and admit I am a destructively critical person. So I have this. I am critical of you and I am also critical of me.

Now, I also have high expectations. I have experienced literature that opened the skies for me, that made the earth tremble, that proved the existence of a world right alongside ours, so far superior to ours that one might as well commit suicide. I have had these experiences with literature. So I expect a lot when I read. I have high expectations.

But that means I have high expectations for myself as well when I write. Every time I write I think I am required to make the skies open. I think I have to make the earth tremble. I think I have to reveal the existence of a dazzling universe quietly superseding our own, right next to us in another dimension.

That is of course impossible -- as well as being destructive. Realistically speaking, maybe once in my life I'll write something pretty good. Maybe twice.

So I have unrealistic expectations of myself and of other people.

So naturally I fail every day. And so does everyone else in my eyes. That is not a very comfortable world to live in, where I am failing every day, and everyone around me is failing every day too.

It became clear to me a while ago that if I went on writing in this kind of hell I would not last. If you have a voice in your head that is telling you every day that you suck and you can't write, because the heavens are not splitting open and the earth is not trembling, you're not going to last long. You're going to find yourself depressed. You're going to be paralyzed, unable to send out manuscripts.

You need constant encouragement and reinforcement in order to keep going. It's not even about feeling good so much. It's just about keeping going.

I began to think about athletes. I thought, what do athletes do? Are they rejected every time they perform? A batter gets a hit maybe every four or five at bats. So that's pretty tough.

How would an athlete deal with all that rejection?

In sports there is rejection and pain. But there is also joy and encouragement. There are coaches. There are teammates.

Those of us who work alone trying to make the heavens open up and the earth tremble, we need regular encouragement. We need coaches to say, Hey, good game. We need hand slaps and high-fives. Without support we will stop sending out our work. (Most of us, anyway. There are some who are like diamonds inside, brilliant and hard and unreachable. But most of us, we're sensitive.)

So, having never been, by temperament or upbringing or cultural leaning, a workshop person, and having had only the worst experiences in graduate school workshops, I nevertheless began looking for some organic forms of support. The only thing I knew in terms of groups was support groups for addiction and alcohol. I thought something along that line might work, but I had no idea what. I just knew that the unconscious needs to be cradled and encouraged.

So browsing in Borders last fall before a long plane ride, I saw that book "Writing Alone and With Others." I liked the title. It was sufficiently descriptive and exact. It did not promise me that I could write a novel in 30 days. It did not address problems of self-esteem that I did not have. It spoke to me.

So I read it and became convinced that the workshop method it outlines could help me and others improve our relationships with our own creative selves and with each other as creative people. So last week I completed a weeklong workshop with the author of that book, Pat Schneider, and was reinforced in my belief that this is the way to go.

We critical types are hard on ourselves. I have been very hard on others but I have believed it was OK because I was also very hard on myself. Others have been hard on me as well, and I have sort of invited that. I have said, That's OK, give it to me straight, I can take it. Actually, I couldn't take it. But I would say I could. I believed in the interest of telling it like it is that everybody had to be hard on everybody else and on themselves. That would ensure that we were all aesthetically honest and pure.

Well, so now I am thinking, what good does that do if we become so embittered and afraid of rejection that we can't continue our work? I think what we need is more acceptance and more love. But how do I become more accepting of myself? Well, if being hard on others and being hard on myself are so closely linked, perhaps being accepting of others and accepting of myself are also linked. So what if I were start being easier on others, and then eventually perhaps easier on myself? That is what happened in this workshop. We sat around and talked only about what we liked and what we remembered. We didn't tear each other up. Dangerous things were allowed to be said, and were said. They were said well. It was an atmosphere in which the dangerous and difficult things could be said. I was pretty amazed. It produced good work, to my mind, because the good work is the difficult work. It is the work that says things on the edge of acceptable.

So to you, fellow sufferer, I would say that you must build into your life some support systems. You may say that you know you are good. That is fine. I know I am good too. Still, I need to hear it every day. You may know that you are loved as well. You still need to hear it every day. You need to be told. And you need to tell others.

Another thought that prevented me from participating in workshops was this: Well, I'm a professional. I'm different. I'm better.

What I found was that as a professional I had certain things I could contribute. But it did not make me any better than anyone else. Rather, I stood in surprised awe. I said, What, you are not publishing? My God! It was astonishing.

So now in spite of my long-cultivated anti-workshop bias and my pride and my ego and my defensiveness and my well-suppressed desire to crush all other artists, in spite of my debilitating expectation that every word ought to split the sky or make the earth tremble or hint at the existence of a fantastic other world, in spite of my fear and my anger and my feeling of hopelessness and despair, I believe in the workshop.

It's what you have to do. Something inside you needs it.

There is much more to be said about this, but I think that is enough for now. There are cultural and political implications. There are spiritual implications. But that is enough for now. It's about the workshop. It's about finding structured support. It's what you have to do.

By the way, one practical way to avoid the crushing futility of never-ending rejection is to have a friend send out your work for you. This little tip came to me from Pat Schneider. The trick is to work with a friend. You send out your friend's work, and your friend sends out yours. Your friend gets the rejections but doesn't tell you. You don't need to know. When something encouraging happens, then your friend gives you the news.

What? You want more?

  • Read more Cary Tennis in the Since You Asked directory.
  • See what others are saying and/or join the conversation in the Table Talk forum.
  • Ask for advice or make a comment to Cary Tennis.
  • Send a letter to Salon's editors not for publication.

  • By Cary Tennis

    MORE FROM Cary Tennis

    Related Topics ------------------------------------------

    Directors Since You Asked