Fighting the Urge to Give Up on Your Art

How many times do you throw yourself against the same wall before you realize it’s not coming down?

perseverence in art

Your inbox alerts you to new mail; it’s an e-mail from that agent you queried last month, and you tell yourself not to get too excited. Sure enough, the words, ‘thank you, but’ jump out immediately, and you cross another name off your list.

That’s a lot of crossed-off names.

And maybe you start to think to yourself, what if there’s a reason I keep getting these rejections? What if it’s not just that ‘they didn’t get it.’ Or, ‘they probably didn’t even read it.’ Or, ‘it’s probably just not what they’re looking for right now.’

What if it’s you?

If you’re like me, then this issue probably comes up. A lot. I’m pretty practical about the future. Ruthlessly so, even. I have dreams, but I don’t really expect them to come true. And I’ve spent many years learning how to accept rejection without letting it cripple me. It’s not the rejection that really gets me anymore (though sometimes, it does hurt), it’s trying to figure out when enough is enough.

I don’t like the idea of giving up, but the question lingers, and so I wrote up a list of ways to send it packing whenever it appears:

1. Make something new.

Sounds both deceptively simple and absurdly difficult, I know. ‘If I could make something new,’ you think, ‘I probably wouldn’t feel like giving up.‘ But this new thing doesn’t have to be in the same arena as your usual work. Maybe you write a poem instead of painting a portrait. Sculpt something out of clay instead of cooking a meal. Bake a cake instead of practicing your monologue. When I get stuck on one writing project, I move to another. If the words aren’t flowing, I paint and make jewelry. The point is to keep the space around you full of creative energy, even if you’re not necessarily working on what you ‘should’ be working on.

2. Take a break.

The thing about life is that it goes on – which often inspires a panic in those who worry that time is passing too quickly and they don’t have enough to show for it. I know 27 isn’t old, but when I come face-to-face with success stories belonging to those younger than me, well, the melodrama takes control and I feel like my life is already over. Even assuming I live to a ripe old age, I’ll only have a certain amount of time to accomplish everything I want to accomplish, and so far, I’ve got nothing.

Whether it’s true or not, it feels true, and the best way to make that feeling disappear is completely counterintuitive: take time off. Yes, it feels like a crime to waste a week in a life that has no guarantees. And sometimes you have deadlines that have to be met despite how listless you feel, but no matter how much we creative types wish it were so, we can’t always force ourselves to create. For some people, myself included, working through burnout only exacerbates the problem.

3. Spend time with friends.

My friends and I try to get together as frequently as our busy lives will allow, and I know that nothing soothes the balm of rejection like hanging out with my geek gal pals and watching Babylon 5. The trick, of course, is spending time with people who make you feel good – if spending time with friends is bringing you down, you might want to reconsider some of your relationships. If your usual cast of friends isn’t available, try to make new ones. Find out about events happening in your city that center around your interests, and say hi to someone with an interesting t-shirt.

4. Soak up the art of others.

Whenever I really, really, really want to say, ‘fuck it,’ and just become a cloistered nun, I go to Barnes & Noble. There’s really no other sensation like it. It’s not the B&N specifically, but the shelves of books with their book-y smell, the aisles and aisles of potential adventure, and the belief that the people around me are on the same story quest. Even when I pass books that make me roll my eyes, I walk out of the bookstore with a fresh charge and greater determination to see my name among the spines. If you’re an artist, visit a gallery. If you’re an actor, go to the theatre. It’s not so much about seeing that other people have made it (so you reassure yourself that it’s only a matter of time) as it is reminding yourself why you do what you do in the first place.

5. Ignore every person who tells you about someone famous who was rejected a million times.

They mean well. I’m sure that the anecdote about J.K. Rowling, or Vincent Van Gogh, is supposed to be encouraging – though as regards to the latter, no one really wants to be told he’ll celebrated posthumously. The problem is, the rejections keep coming. And at a certain point, most creative types have to face the issue: maybe this particular project just isn’t ready. Having the people around you tell you that you can’t give up and just need to persevere is great – right up to the point where that hundredth ‘no’ lands in your inbox.

We can and will pursue success for the rest of our lives, but pursuing it along one single track isn’t necessarily the answer. No one wants to give up on something, particularly when you’ve poured so much time and soul into it, but there’s really only so long you can cling to, ‘It’s not me, it’s them,’ before you have to start crunching the numbers.

It always comes back to the work. Keep sending out your manuscript, or staging readings of your play, or submitting your short films to festivals. It does only take one.

But if it’s not clicking, don’t feel you have to keep down that same path just because there’s the potential for possibility, maybe, at the very end of it. Start a new path. Revisit the old one, if you want, but forge ahead. As Neil Gaiman says, ‘Make good art.’

And cut yourself some slack.

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