I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.
That’s a quote from Sylvia Plath in her posthumously published The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, and I’m John Fanning and this is the Create with John Fanning podcast.
How’s it goin out there. Hope all is well.
This is Episode 16 of my series of episodes on Imagination and creativity, based around my book Create.
In the last episode I talked about Doors towards the Imagination and creativity and how to start and understand the journey out of the Cave into the Platonic confusion and acclimatization of creating.
Today I’m going to talk about the Walls of rejection and failure, and how to transform them into opportunities, into Doors towards the Imagination and creativity.
I want to start today by talking about a young English poet who came to La Muse many years ago. To those of you who are new to the podcast La Muse is the writers and artists retreat I co-founded and ran for nearly twenty years in southern France with my wife Kerry, welcoming creators from every continent and of every creative bent.
Anyway, this young English poet had just finished university and sent some of his poems to “The New Yorker”, a place notorious for not responding. They responded to him, giving him a page of basically encouraging criticisms of his work. What did he do? He didn’t send out another poem until he got to La Muse. Why? He thought his poems were bad because they’d been “rejected”.
He didn’t realize that the rejection he received was an actual acceptance of his work. The majority of people only get a few lines in a form response from “The New Yorker”. Not an actual human writing back to encourage you. We explained this to him. He started sending out his poems again, everywhere. If he had not come on retreat and talked to other creators he would have given up.
Every time I get a rejection, I meditate. I take time to sit, doing nothing, to think about what I’m working on now. Not the creation that was rejected. By doing this I become aware of my thoughts, then my emotions, and realize my presumed failure is in actual fact my own mind making me feel bad, as opposed to asking the question: What can I learn from this rejection? This is turning a Wall into a Door, instead of feeling shame, or getting down I fail forward, lean into the failure, and see what I can learn from it, from the rejection. Doors open. It’s a path of turning a negative into a positive by changing the way our mind receives information. What can I do better next time? How can I fix this character, this chapter, to make the book better? Am I what people say about me and my work, or am I going to keep creating?
Rejection can come in many forms. No sales, no shows, no publication, no representation, bad reviews, not getting the part, the job. The psychodrama starts, and all the walls appear. The solution: resilience, perseverance, and an open mind. You have to remember why you create, because you love doing it, because it’s a need.
Mentors, peers encourage you when these losses come. The writer Judith Viorst talks about this in her book “Necessary Losses”. Basically, she says when we lose something we also gain something. Yes, she talks about death and divorce and big tragedies, but it also applies to the regular occurrence of rejection.
Rejection is not a bad thing. It can actually be a really healthy and positive part of the process of the Imagination. The more you fail the better you can get. The idea that quality comes from thin air is a myth. The more you create, quantity, the more mistakes you make, the better you get at creating, if you are willing to learn from your mistakes.
Look at any major creator. They always failed at first, but they kept going until they finally had a breakthrough. And a lot of the time they didn’t even realize they were having a breakthrough until after the fact. Thomas Edison failed to invent the light bulb, for a long time, but he never admitted failure. He said he’d just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.
Also, rejection could simply mean you have not found the right setting or person to employ, buy, or produce your kind of creation. If you get criticism, does any of it actually help? If it does, then rejection can be a huge opportunity.
If someone doesn’t like your stuff, then get them to be specific about what it is they don’t like. Be responsible. Respond to what the person says, instead of reacting. Where are they coming from, what’s their basis? Ask them for examples of how your creation could be more workable. They are not criticizing you. They are criticizing the work.
We have to learn to detach ourselves from the work and not take it personally. Even if you’ve put your heart into your creation it still needs to be set apart from you. It’s like raising a child. At some stage you have to let the child go out into the world. As much as you love them, there will be others that don’t, irrespective of how wonderful your child is to you. It will hurt, but we can’t allow that hurt to stop us creating.
Here’s Ursula K. Le Guin in a piece called “Book Reviews” in her book Words are my Matter:
The New York/East Coast literary scene is so inward-looking and provincial that I’ve always been glad not to be a part of it; but when I lived in London I was positively terrified by the intensity of British literary cliques, the viciousness of competition, the degree of savagery permitted.
There are closed doors in every industry, but it doesn’t mean you have to have a closed mind, or worse, a closed heart. Yes, it helps to know people. Yes, it helps to be a prodigy. But does it really matter as long as what you are creating is making you joyful? If it makes you joyful, it will eventually make others joyful too. It’s infectious.
Yes, it’s frustrating to work in a vacuum and get no capital “success”. Sad casualties, such as John Kennedy Toole’s “Confederacy of Dunces” come to mind, his novel being published eleven years after his suicide.
Closed industries don’t have to stop our creations. If anything we should see rejection as an impetus to continue being creative. Getting published, produced, exhibited, being awarded a trophy, a degree, a prize, a decoration does not equal success.
Yet, we go out into the world, reaching for these carrots dangled in front of us. But why? Do we have to pursue happiness? Can’t we just be happy? Can’t we just write the novel and enjoy the process? Can’t we just paint the painting, run the race, hold the office? Why allow others to create our success? The answer: we don’t have to.
We do what we love and keep creating because success is a choice. I chose to write a novel every couple of years. Some of them might be failures. Some of them are okay and some of them I’m proud of. But that is not how I judge my books’ successes. I judge their success by how much they changed me. By how much they made me accept the process, the imagining of them, the writing, the editing, and the knowledge of what I’ve learned from doing each one being beneficial to the next one I will eventually write when I feel inspired to do so again. That’s how I experience success.
Success is what makes you happy right now. The process of writing, running, designing, inventing, is success, not pursuing, the publication, award ceremony or decoration.
Most creators do not get recognition or rewards in their own lifetimes or afterwards. Most are little known. Oscars, National Book Awards, seed money. This is not why we create. We create because we love what we do. If we are awarded recognition, financial gain, it’s a “bonus” not the goal in creating. We don’t create for external reward.
At one stage in her career Katharine Hepburn stopped getting acting roles. She was considered box office poison, but she loved acting in movies. Did she take the rejection and give up, or did she become mindful, aware?
She was acting in a play, “The Philadelphia Story”. What did she do? She got creative. She used it for her screen comeback. She bought the film rights to it, and went on to produce and star in the movie version. It was Hepburn’s first big hit after several flops. She empowered herself by being mindful of the rejections and changed her position to create a new opportunity for her Imagination. One door closed to her, she opened another one.
Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak became two of the most well-known names in computers but it wasn’t before products such as Twiggy, LISA and Apple II eventually failed. Hewlett Packard rejected Wozniak five times before he created the personal computer and founded Apple with Jobs.
Each failure can be an opportunity to learn what is failing, but can also be an opportunity to embrace new ideas. Wozniak advises not to expect your first projects to be successful, but to do it for yourself, for the challenge, for the fun.
Even Samuel Beckett had something positive, well, encouraging to say on the topic of failure: “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Beckett was dogged in re-working his writing.
The more you “fail”, the better you get at creating something different. We learn from our mistakes. Take rejection mindfully, and carry on regardless, with focus and awareness. Opinions are like mouths, everyone’s got one. It doesn’t necessarily mean what comes out of them is the truth.
So, the best way to handle rejection? Move onto the next project, creation. You’re now a free agent. Your agent should be trying to sell your book now, your building, your idea. You don’t have time to worry about it not selling because you’re already moving forward with the next creation. It’s what you do. Write. Build. Create again.
The Wall of rejection, and all the other walls, remind me of the children’s book “We’re Going on A Bear Hunt”. I used to read it every night to our kids. You can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, you can’t go around it, you have to go through it. Literally and figuratively.
And the only way through it? Again, keep creating. Keep creating new work and let the wall fall of its own accord, by beginning again. The work gets you through the frustration, the thoughts, emotions, into new inspiration. Any time I ever have a problem with a chapter, when I’m stuck, I begin another chapter. I begin again, somewhere else. I bring my awareness to another part of the story, the novel, the play.
The Cohen bothers do the same. They’ll start a script, get bored half way through, go direct something, start a new screenplay, get bored with it, then return to a previous one. They’re always starting again. Rejection, they don’t have time for it. They’re too busy doing the work.
Starbucks does the same thing. They come out with new ideas before they perfect them. They make them better as time goes on. They adapt. They start again. They know new ideas will not be perfect, but they can get better with time and innovation.
Every time I do another episode of this podcast I feel like I’m failing a little less than the last time. I’m not afraid to fail anymore. Why? Because I know failing is just part of the process. Does it stop me from putting out episodes? No. Because I know I’ll get better the next time. Every time I learn something new. Yes, not everyone is not going to love what I’m saying, but who cares? As I said in episode 8, we’re all different, and so are out listeners and readers. To many this podcast is a failure for many different reasons. But will I stop? No. Why? Because, like a novel, it’s a marathon, you have to pace yourself and just keep going until the finish line. Some may think you’re time was bad, others good, and then others again amazing. But you. What do you think, feel? To me, I finished. I set out a goal and followed through and learned through the process. I learned by doing, by embracing failure.
No work is ever going to be perfect, but no work will be created if you create a wall of perfection, rejection, procrastination. By starting again, creating again, you will get inspired again. So embrace failure. Don’t be afraid of it. Failure’s how we learn. See it as a Door toward imagining new creations. Every creator fails. Critics criticize, and yes creators fail, but creators also create something new. Be a critic, after the creative process. It’s called the editing stage. Authenticity lies there. You create an authentic work out of failure by conquering failure, by conquering the fear of failure, by simply accepting it is something that is part of the creative process. Create. Don’t compare yourself to others when you’re in it, creating. Comparison destroys the imagination, destroys creativity. So have heart. Be fearless. Risk. Invite failure, because failure is absolutely essential. Don’t let gatekeepers and your inner critic think you are a failure. If you’re not failing, well then you’re not getting better. And some day, when you least expect it, something you create will be beautiful to others, even if you think it fails in so many way.
Look to other creators to inspire you when you’re down. Read the writer you’re into most. Not Shakespeare, but someone on the same level you feel you could attain. Confidence comes back when you engage with those aspirational people. Comparing yourself to Picasso or Shakespeare will make you think you’re a failure. Look to creators you think you’d have a great conversation with.
So thanks for listening. I started with a quote from the wonderful Sylvia Plath but here’s another Irish proverb. This one means:
However long the day, the evening will come.
Dá fhada an lá tagann an tráthnóna.
This podcast is supported by you the listener via my Patreon page. If ya want to support the podcast and help me get paid for doing it then please head over to patreon.com/johnfanning where you can get early and ad free access as well as extra episodes when ya sign up. Ifya can afford it then give me the cost of a price of a cup of tea or pint once a month. Ifya can’t afford it that’s grand too, ya can listen for free, but please subscribe to it on iTunes or wherever you listen to it and leave a review on itunes too or wherever ya listen to it and let your friends know about it so the listenership grows. Thank you! And thanks for listening. If you’re looking for more episodes you can find them on all the usual places like iTunes – or on my website at johnfanning.me under “podcast” where I’ve put up overview transcripts with links to all the people and ideas I mention. If you’re into social stuff and you’re looking to engage with me one-on-one, check me out on twitter @fanning_j and instagram @ johnfanning_. It’s been great sharing stuff with you today so until next time take care out there and be benevolent when you can!
Slán libh agus go n-éirí an bóthar libh.