How to recover from creative rejection (according to me)

Thanks to Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash for this cool windshield photo.

“Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug,” has got to be one of the best lyrics from a Mary Chapin Carpenter song to which I have ever sung along poorly. It also sums up nicely the experience of being a creative person trying to find a place in the world for your work. Sometimes I’ve been the windshield (good), and I’ve certainly been the bug (splat, blech).

I had a bad bug moment this week when something did not unfold in my real writing life the way it unfolded in my imaginary, parallel writing life, where I had been busy accepting awards and retiring early.

I have a life-long habit of curling up into a ball on the couch for several long moments when all manner of things stink, so I did that, along with shedding  1/8 of a cup of tears. To my friends who cry: stop apologizing. If people didn’t want us to cry they shouldn’t have hugged us like that.

My first step to creative recovery is to allow myself these moments of feeling horrible. The length of time I feel bad about feeling bad lessens with every year and with each Brené Brown book I read. So, that’s my first tip: It’s okay to feel bad, and to feel it out loud. Whine for a little while, hopefully to a caring and tolerant friend. It hurts to make things people don’t want, or to just hear the words “No thank you,” or maybe worse, to hear nothing at all. Our surviving-disappointment muscles are required for art-making and art-sharing. Resiliency is essential, and although it’s tempting to think otherwise, denial is not part of resiliency. Feel bad so you can feel better.

Dig around in the glum and gloom: Don’t waste this icky time. You can learn valuable things from the rejection itself, like how could your art be better for this audience? Did you plan your Pulitzer-acceptance speech too soon? (Those ones are obvious). But what else can you learn from these feelings of desolation? What is the disappointment beneath the disappointment? And it might literally and only be that you wanted to be published somewhere and they said no. But it might also have to do with that moment in grade 3 that made you want to someday be the popular one. It’s okay big heart. Give your   somewhat-awful grade 3 self a tight hug. Say some reassuring things to way-back-then you.

I was texting an artist friend this week and shared my disappointment. He said that it happens to him a lot. This surprised me (which it shouldn’t have) because his work is so beautiful, which reminded me that we could talk about this more out loud. My friend shared he has learned to see these times as an opportunity to learn something from God. “Now when it happens, I tend to pay more attention to things around me,” he wrote. Yes, pay attention.

Take a break if you need one, with rewards. Take care of yourself for a beat or two. Watch what you want for as long as you want. Go out for a burger. Get a new hair cut. This is the moment for whatever little treat you allow yourself for when you’re splattered against the windshield. Licking our wounds and buying a new candle can take a moment or two, and that’s totally cool.

Pop back up again. The only failed writer is the one who gave up too soon. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I know that for sure. So, just as you murmured to yourself softly in that reassuring tone you use when things go bad, now you shift gears and tell yourself a little sternly to stop being a big baby and to start making stuff again. Be like those inflatable clown toys. They get punched in their puffy red vinyl noses and they pop right back up again. We need to be like that. (And if you want to watch a video of a couple who went for a walk and ended up punching inflatable clowns click here, but be sure to come back).

Bless other artists. Do something good for other people in your craft. If you’re envying someone who is enjoying success that you are not currently enjoying (this is normal and also not talked about enough), congratulate them, pray for more good things to come their way, and share something online that they created that you love. This practice will help you not be mean when you’re 90. Also, it will become a joyful habit that you can do anytime at all.

If there is someone who needs encouragement, reach out to them and give them the gift of “I see you,” or an offer to help. Is there a door you can open for them? Please, open it. There is an actual discipline to door-opening. You decide to do it. Be a door-opener. Be an artist’s artist and a writer’s writer and a potter’s potter. It was the One who made everything, after all, who taught that it’s more blessed to give than receive. Giving is simply good, but it’s also a way to pull ourselves back together again (post-windshield). On a very practical level it yanks our heads out of our own bellybuttons and reminds us the world is made more beautiful with love and art and light and pretty tiny things, and that we get to be a part of that work.

Now, go listen to wise Mary and start to feel better. That’s what I’m about to do.

2 thoughts on “How to recover from creative rejection (according to me)”

  1. Brilliant, hilarious, poignant, sapient, delightful, and encouraging. Thanks for this, Karen: balm for the writer’s soul indeed.

    As my oft-published mentor Mark Noll once said, “The road to publication is paved with rejection slips,” and, having gotten yet another one recently, I’m glad to be moving on to whatever’s next.

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