This one is for my fellow artists, especially the writers…
A number of years ago now, I read an article by a writer whose name I’m sorry to say I don’t remember. In the article, this writer was talking about the experience of getting her first book published, and all the challenges and setbacks that finally led up to that accomplishment. Specifically, she talked about how it happened a lot later than she’d initially hoped when she was an up-and-coming twenty-something. She’d had an earlier first book, which had landed her an agent, but after the usual period of effort, her agent hadn’t been able to sell that book. This experience sent the writer into a tailspin of despair. The rejections and the loss of hope were so difficult that she had to walk away from writing for six years.
When I read this, I was somewhere in the middle of my own first-book trajectory, trying to figure out what to do with To Love A Stranger and what might ever happen to it. (I still didn’t know a whole lot about the craft, and my efforts from that time would definitely qualify as “sins of my youth.”) My response to this lucky published writer wasn’t very sympathetic. You quit writing for six years? How could you do that?! I decided that anybody who could turn their back on the craft for that length of time just wasn’t very serious about it. I saw that writer’s exodus as a kind of tantrum, an “I didn’t get what I want, so I quit!” fit of bad behavior.
Now, though, with the perspective of a few more years and a lot more rejections, disappointment, and loss of hope of my own, I have to say: I get it, sister. I really do.
We writers and artists give ourselves an uphill task every day. We’re creating work that doesn’t exist until our imaginations yield it up and we weave it into something that holds together, something that captures some fraction of the beauty or message or thrill we hoped for when we started. We do it knowing that no work will ever seem perfect to us, and we often have to struggle against our own inertia and the constant intimidation of that “ideal product” that we know we’ll never create. And for a lot of us, the investment of so much time and energy into something so uncertain – will I ever get a return on this? will people like it? will it (maybe, possibly, ever) sell? – feels like a risk we maybe can’t afford.
I felt this way, profoundly, about my second novel Fourteen Stones. I’ve written elsewhere on the blog about the anxiety that set in after a particularly difficult rejection connected with that book. What I hadn’t expected after the rejection, though, was the experience of starting to attack my own imagination and, quite literally, my ability to write. It was as if my brain decided that I shouldn’t imagine things, shouldn’t write, shouldn’t take pleasure in or even be able to do something that had given me so much satisfaction…when, after all, the great gamble on that novel hadn’t paid off the way I’d hoped it would.
We artists tell ourselves we have to be tough, resilient. We tell ourselves we have to get up and keep fighting every time rejection and setbacks knock us into the dust. What I experienced over this past summer made me question whether – assuming I still could manage to do the work I loved – I should still try. Because, after all, if I let rejection knock me down and hold me down for so long, if I “let myself” feel so terrible about it and “let it” make me unable to imagine, create, or put my ideas on the page: if all those things were true, then maybe I just wasn’t cut out for it. Maybe I wasn’t meant to do this work after all.
That other writer might have experienced exactly this when she walked away from her work for years. Or maybe her experience was a little different, but in any case, I now understand why someone would make the choice she did. I understand how it feels to question the value of your work, question the reason and worth behind investing so much in the products of the imagination. Why dream? Why create?
I continue to struggle with this, months later. Once anxiety gets its claws in, it doesn’t want to let go. Working around it every day, one step at a time, the single biggest thing I’ve learned so far is that I must not give up on the imagination.
Why do we artists do what we do? Why dream, why create, when there’s so much risk, and when the rewards sometimes seem so few, transient, and so very far between?
Because what we create would not exist without us. Because only we can do the work we do. No one else could write my book. No one else could paint your painting, or compose your music, or tell your part of the story that is an irreplaceable piece of the greater story of the world. And – maybe even more importantly – because no change is possible without imagination. Artists dare to dream about ideals. We dare to see people and the world differently. We dare to believe that the things we think, feel, and create in our work can reach others, and that as we reach out in the way only we can, we can create change in the world.
It’s a crazy dream, right? It can feel huge and scary and impossible, but the fact is, our work has power. When someone takes in something we’ve created, they’ll experience something they’ll never find anywhere else. They can’t find it anywhere else, because it could only have come from us. And it starts with the work of our imaginations.
So if this game has knocked you down: believe me, I understand. If you need a break from it for a while, I know exactly how that is. But in the long run, please don’t let it make you quit. Now more than ever, we need to see how things could be. We need the dreams and creations only you can bring to the overarching story of the world.