Thinking about challenging times, here on the blog. Last week I wrote about the struggle many artists face as they try to keep doing their work after, maybe, learning when they were young that they were wrong to be “that kind of person.” A lot of us did absorb that message: if we were writers, musicians, painters, actors, sculptors, we ought to abandon those burgeoning dreams in favor of more “practical,” more “valuable” pursuits.
Those messages cost many of us a lot of heartache, and maybe a lot of time that feels wasted after we tried to conform to what other people wanted from us. In college, I majored in engineering along with music, and tried to make a go of that first field because it was practical, because “more women should be engineers,” because “you’re so good at math and science; it would be a waste not to use that.” I spent a long time forgetting who I was and what I hoped for, as I tried to re-shape myself according to someone else’s desires and plans. Finally, I couldn’t keep doing it anymore.
Admitting who I was, and changing my direction, in many ways felt like a failure. I was being stubborn. I was being bad. I was wasting my God-given abilities in those male-dominated fields and letting go of my chance to change the world as a groundbreaking female scientist. I was dooming myself to poverty and a life of driveling my time away doing unnecessary things no one would care about. The world doesn’t need artists. The world needs people who do real work.
One of the things professional artists of every stripe have in common is that we don’t do this work just because we happen to feel like it. It’s a tough road, for sure. It demands absolute commitment. Those of us who end up on it get there because it’s not just what we do: it’s who we are. We don’t have the choice to walk away from it, because that means abandoning ourselves.
Those of us who grew up with those “change yourself” messages have to re-learn a lot. We have to remind ourselves, over and over, that art does matter. That we are not “bad” for doing it, and that we don’t have to be ashamed of finding our souls again and letting ourselves build a life that matters to us.
Last week, I also talked about how rejection affects all artists, and especially those of us with internal “programming” like the kind I have. Rejection is way more common in this life than acceptance and success, simply because you have to try and try and try again until you find the right recipient for your work. (Those right people are out there, but there are a lot of people to sift through.) Rejection can sometimes feel like punishment. “See? You shouldn’t be doing this ridiculous thing. You’re being bad.” The pain of rejection can feel like punishment for trying.
Right now, I’m doing all I can to push back against that reflexive thinking. It’s not easy. I’ve learned to brush off rejections when I submit a short story to journals: sure, it’s disappointing, but I’ve gotten so many of those that it really doesn’t sting much anymore. A book is a bigger deal. It’s much more of my life and effort and soul on the page, and considerably higher stakes in terms of eventual publication. It’s hard not to really, really want a certain outcome. When that outcome doesn’t happen, it’s hard not to crash into despair and the self-talk where I believe the universe is crapping on my head for trying to be this crazy thing called a professional writer.
Waiting to hear back about submitted work can feel like being on perpetual high alert. You can’t help imagining that outcome you really, really want, and thinking how happy you’d be if you got it. Unfortunately, that means that if you get bad news, you’re likely to crash. And if you get no news, you’re still likely to crash, because you keep psyching yourself up to deal with whatever outcome presents itself.
It’s exhausting. For that reason, and because I can’t do anything to change the nature of the process, I’m trying to teach myself to let go of control. If I’m willing to believe – often a very big if – that I am right to go after this particular writing life, then I have to believe that rejection doesn’t mean anyone is crapping on me or deliberately trying to hurt and punish me for trying for the things I care about. And then, in turn, I have to trust that the outcomes will be what they need to be. Maybe, right now, I don’t get the exact thing that I want: the thing I can imagine so clearly I can practically touch it. Maybe I get something else instead. Maybe that second thing is better. In my experience, so far, that second thing has always been better.
The point is that I can’t control every outcome, and it’s not healthy to spend all my time on high alert. Yes, I want proof that I’m right to do what I’m doing. But if I look at everything that’s happened, so far, over the past decade or so as I’ve built a writing life, I have to see that a lot of things did work out. Maybe they didn’t look the way I expected, but they were the right things. I have to believe that the right things will keep happening, whether or not they’re what I think I want.
I also have to remember why I’m doing this work. A friend recently sent me an excerpt of Anne Lamott’s book Almost Everything: Notes on Hope, in which Lamott takes a chapter to talk about her experiences as a writer. She’s pretty candid, reminding readers that if we get into writing because we want admiration or validation, we’d be better off doing something else. I needed to hear that message. I needed to remember that I don’t do this because publication – or any other kind of public recognition – is going to fix my life, suddenly give me the self-esteem I’m missing, make everything right.
I do the work because the work matters, and there’s so much more to it than this submission or that submission. There’s the chance to tell the stories that fascinate me, with the characters I fall in love with and who demand my attention until I bring them to life on the page. There’s also the chance to work with other writers, help other people shape their stories, and work day after day with this challenging and fascinating craft. There’s nothing else like it in the world. For me, writing is an act of joy, and also an act of connection. I want to use the gifts I have to help other people use their own gifts. That’s why I do this. The rest of it matters so much less than I sometimes think.
The universe doesn’t punish us for being who we are. As artists, we need to trust that we have our gifts for a reason. Trust that our work is good. Trust that things will work out the way they need to: because, at core, we are meant to do this work. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t have the drive and hunger and joy in it. People’s lives are better because we are out there doing the work that needs us. We can’t let anything hold us back.
Photos by Kris Faatz