Like any writer worth their salt, I have a slew of rejections languishing in my inbox. If you’re planning to make a career in the arts, unless you tumble out of the womb and bump into New York’s most powerful agent, you’ll likely spend many years showing your work to people who aren’t going to champion it.
There are all sorts of methods for withstanding and recovering from rejection. Some people print their rejection letters and pin them to a wall, like trophies. Some people dive straight into the next project. Some have a particular cry-chocolate-alcohol-sleep-recover routine. I’ve even known people to deep dive into research about the person who has rejected them, in order to find some flaw that proves categorically that person’s opinion is invalid. (Don’t recommend that one…)
No matter how much we arm ourselves against the turn-downs, no matter how meticulous we are in nursing our self-esteem back to full health, rejection hurts. It can set you back. It can convince you to toss out things you shouldn’t, agree to compromises that aren’t helpful, make you averse to creative risks, or steer you away from a potentially fruitful fresh idea. And I don’t think the answer is always in the management of your disappointment. Sometimes, the intervention needs to come earlier.
Creativity is such a private process, even when it’s a collaboration. In order to get anything flowing, you have to really shelter and nurture that first little shoot of an idea. If the only place anyone was allowed to create was on a stage with thousands of eyes watching, the quality of the arts in our society would plummet. But the final aim of most artists or creatives is to share their work with the widest audience possible. So how do you make that transition? When is the right time to let the world in?
Say you’ve finished a draft of a novel, reworked it, and got it as far as you think you can. Or maybe you know you’ve just added the final stroke of paint to your masterpiece. The tendency is to tie the timing of sharing your work to the conclusion of your natural self-editing process. But I think this is a major mistake. Just because you’ve “finished” your work (for now), doesn’t mean you are ready to send it out there, unprotected, to receive its reckoning.
Artists, writers, musicians and creators have to fight a constant battle over the division between their sense of self and the identity of their work. To stay sane, you have to be able to let that piece of writing you’ve printed exist as an entity outside of you, and not as an extension of yourself. That’s not just for protection reasons, to stop you doubling over when someone throws a punch at your work, but because the creative process is stalled by over-attachment to any particular piece or phase of work. You have to let it go, in order to keep going.
Again, there are all sorts of strategies to help you do this, but you can read about those elsewhere. I want to talk about what to do when you just can’t. When a piece of your work is stuck to you like a limpet, and even though you feel like it has been completed, you have no distance from it, no objectivity. In short, when you still care too much.
This is precisely the wrong moment to go showing it to anyone. It’s a huge psychological risk to let outside opinions wedge their way in between you and a piece of work from which you have not properly detached. Not only does criticism hurt infinitely more, and leave deeper scars, it can also damage your capacity to maintain a healthy and productive identity as an artist. When those strangers with their fickle opinions take a bite at your work, and you’re not standing sufficiently far back from it, you are letting them take a bite out of you.
It can be hard not to rush to draw the limelight towards whatever project you’re excited about. But there is a right moment to invite it towards you, and that is when you can watch that spotlight pass over your project without feeling like it is discounting you. You need a robust confidence and your own frank opinion of your work, to survive the ordeals that come with submitting or sharing, and those things only truly develop when you’ve stepped back from your project, and seen it for what it is – just one of the interesting things you’ll produce on a long journey of creativity.