Notes on Rejection for Working Creatives
Don’t check your phone first thing in the morning.
There’s lots of reasons for this - chief among them is breaking the cycle of addiction that extremely smart people in San Francisco have spent the last ten years fine-tuning in order to sell you monthly box delivery services.
But my favorite reason is this - everyone deserves a cup of coffee, or at least a chance to use the restroom, before receiving bad news.
Always a champion of ignoring my own advice, I rolled over this morning and promptly received a form rejection email from a publisher to whom I’d submitted my poetry chapbook Strange Mattresses. This happened before hot bean water OR a shuffling stumble into the bathroom, so I only have myself to blame for the wave of sadness/anger/disappointment that swept briefly over me. Strange Mattresses represents my poetic output from the last three years. I believe it is good. Perhaps half the poems it contains have seen publication elsewhere, so I know other people believe it’s good. But still, but still, but still.
As a quasi-successful artist in four or five semi-related fields, I get rejected a lot. It’s part of the work. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. It certainly never stops making me feel like an acne speckled teenager who’s worked up the nerve to ask his crush to a movie, and they go to see Darkness Falls, which is a movie about a demonic tooth fairy, and after the movie he asks his crush to go get ice cream and she practically sprints towards her car with a half-mumbled excuse and at school the next day she won’t even make eye contact with him. (Is this an overly specific example? Hmmm.)
Now, listen. You can’t even walk down the street without stumbling over “how to deal with rejection” advice. Practically everyone has said it better than me, and - bonus points - most of those people are successful artists. But since it’s on my mind and I want to start blogging again, here follows a few strategies I’ve developed over the last few years.
This is probably the most common thing you’ll hear. Persevere! Steven King kept a stack of form-letter rejections on desk spike in his writing space. Michael Jordan got cut from his junior high basketball team. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, we’ve all heard the anecdotes. I call it “collecting rejections.” Cause here’s the thing - you only get rejected by putting your stuff out there. It ain’t easy.
My Submittable page is a sea of grey “declined” tabs speckled by the occasional oh-so-welcome “accepted” notification. But someone who doesn’t know me personally, who only reads my newsletter or follows me on social media, doesn’t see any of that. He or she only sees my “good news” announcements. Insidious! Artists are some of the worst life curators around. So make game of it. Set a goal. 10 rejections this month. 20. 100 even. Keep searching for your people. They are out there, I promise. It’s a big world, and the internet has made it easier than ever to find them.
*Note for Love-Sick Teenagers - Please do not take this to mean it’s okay for you to ask the same person to go out with you over and over again. Movies would have you believe that stubborn persistence is romantic. It is not. It is creepy and invasive. Skip straight to the second tactic - in other words, if someone isn’t interested in you, leave her** the hell alone.
**Yes, I’m talking to you, terrible straight men of the world.
When I first started selling art at pop-up markets in El Paso, I had zero success. I was paying a booth fee every week and selling literally nothing. So I just started throwing all my spaghetti at the wall to see what would stick. Small photos not selling? Let’s re-arrange the booth. Still not working? Let’s try larger prints. Photographs not selling? Let’s try paintings. Landscape paintings not selling? Let’s try cacti and desert animals, and oh yeah, re-arrange the booth a few more times.
Within two months I had it dialed in and I was making a few hundred bucks per weekend. Now that I’m in a new location with a new audience I’m going to have to start all over. Look - there’s no shame in trying new stuff, reaching new audiences, or experimentation. It doesn’t mean your current work isn’t good. It probably is. But you have find your medium, find your voice, find your style, and find your subject. You have to dial it in. It probably isn’t going to happen early on the path unless you are a genius, which, as a friend is fond of saying, you are not. So keep throwing that spaghetti.
Think Outside the Box By Lighting the Box on Fire and Pissing on the Flames and then Scattering the Ashes Into the Wind and Then Finding Another Box, Or Possibly Inventing One.
In 2015 I decided to transition out of education and back into my original field - video production and filmmaking. The problem was, I’d left that field in 2012 after a major depressive episode wherein I burned bridges and lost contacts. I found myself applying to jobs without an updated reel and with a five year gap in my artistic resume, plus not all that many people willing to vouch for my stability as a filmmaker. Ouch.
So what to do? First I applied the Collecting Rejections tactic. Last time I looked at my Indeed profile I had over two hundred and fifty rejections from perspective employers, collected over a year and a half. (That’s fifteen rejections a month, nearly four per week, for those of you playing along at home).
At some point in the slog I started Throwing Spaghetti. I sent illustrated resumes. I wrote absolutely insane cover letters. I applied for jobs I was utterly unqualified for. I applied for jobs well below my skill level. I applied for jobs only tangentially related to my field. On one memorable occasion I actually secured an interview for a position as the Head of Marketing at a Natural History Museum in Flagstaff, Arizona despite the fact that I have to use spell check to correctly spell “museum” every time I use the word in a sentence.
And none of it worked. After nearly two years of searching, I gave up.
One day while reading this book it occurred to me that if no one was going to give me a job I would have to make my own job***. I started making short films and using them as calling cards. I taught myself to paint. Someone said “hey can you paint my pet?” and I said sure even though I’d never done it before. I taught myself to write and pitch articles. Someone said “hey we need a podcast” and I said “I can do that” even though, again, I’d never done it and wasn’t all that confident that I could. I sought out mentors. I learned anything I could about anything from anyone who would teach me. This, by the way, is an ongoing process.
So here I am, two years later, actually making a living at…whatever it is I’m doing. I have a hard time explaining it at parties, I usually just tell people it involves pajamas, computers, paintbrushes, backpacking gear, cats, and yes, rejection. This seems to work. Or at least, it seems to make people go away, which is all I really want at parties.
It’s a bigger, better box, glued together with form-rejection letters, abandoned ideas, failures, disapproving in-laws, and luck. So get out there folks. You can do it. I believe in you, even if, at times, you don’t.
***This also takes a support system and a network of contacts - both things more important, in my opinion, than actual skill or talent. A subject for another post, perhaps.