What I Learned From Failure

My artwork didn’t get accepted into a juried competition. It’s an experience every writer and artist knows as rejection. It’s not a question of  if, it’s a question of  when.

Over the years, I’ve let rejections destroy my confidence and make me wonder if a skilled PhotoShop user has a better chance of success than I do.  I’ve let the inner critic out of the cage to gnaw on my soul, leaving it half-eaten in the rain of self-doubt.

This is the accordion book I made with alcohol inks. It represents the five seasons in Arizona–spring, early summer, monsoon, autumn, and winter. The length of time the sun is above the horizon is reflected in the length of each piece of art. © Quinn McDonald, 2018.

This time, having worked on a skill that separates creative self-expression from outside judgment, I was disappointed, but only for 10 minutes. And it was disappointment, not crushing self-defeat. I can talk about it without shame. I’m writing about it to see if what I learned (over time) helps other artists who put their work on display to be judged by strangers.

Every artist (I’m including writers, musicians, dancers, performers and every other art form) takes their creative work, tosses it in the air and risks judgment, ridicule, and being ignored.  We are hoping for delight, engagement and maybe a sale.

The skill that I learned, the one that helped me survive rejection, is called non-attachment. I developed it through practice.  Like every other skill, it takes practice to get comfortable with, and then good at, non-attachment. First, non-attachment does not mean not caring, not investing yourself, or ignoring your emotions.

The accordion book laid flat. The white numbers under each panel is the length of time the sun is above the horizon on the 21st of the month in the middle of the season. © Quinn McDonald, 2018. All rights reserved.

Non-attachment is rooted in a simple idea: creators create for self-expression. In my creativity coaching practice, I’ll ask “Why are you writing this book?” (Or painting, composing, singing–engaging in expressing creativity.) Most often, the answer is, “I want to get it published and make money.” That’s where the problem festers.

Yes, artists have to sell their work to pay the grocery, plumber, and mortgage. If that is the primary reason they create, all creative decisions  will be made through the marketing plan and all success will me measured in sales. I’ve been there, and it is a dry, lifeless place of relentless competition and incremental failure.

The reason to create, to practice, to struggle with your creative urge is to express creativity. That’s it. That’s the prime directive of the creative soul–express your creativity. It is the process of creating that lifts the soul, not the price tag.

When you create work that requires your concentration, full attention, joy, fear, satisfaction–that is the reward.

What others think of it is their opinion. You might grow from another opinion, but if you let random opinions steer your creative expression,  you will forever be chasing approval. Your creative expression will no longer be tethered to your idea, it will be tied to someone else’s preferences. That’s an impossible space in which to create.

Here are 10 clear steps to get to non-attachment:

1. Work regularly. Creative work builds endurance and creative muscle.

2. Work relentlessly. Self-doubt? Keep working. Not sure the piece is good? Keep working. Tired? Get some rest, then keep working.

(This stage includes re-writing, editing, overpainting, noodling with those six bars in the refrain, anything that is improving the work.)

3. Work until you are satisfied.  Don’t know if you are done? How satisfied are you? Not sure? Not done. Don’t ask Facebook, Instagram, your mom or best friend if you are done. They are related to your inner critic, not your creative expression.

4. When you have worked hard and made meaning for yourself, you will feel satisfied. Happy, if you give yourself permission.

5. Give your piece a name or title. It’s an ancient tradition that naming something gives you power over it and distance from it.

6. Send it out into the world. Enter a juried competition, put it up for sale, go to a gallery. Because your creative work brought you joy in creation, what someone else says is an opinion, not absolute Truth with a capital T.

7. If you are turned down (the term I prefer instead of “rejected,”) you will still have your hard work, your idea, and your satisfaction. The rest is someone else’s opinion.

8. You cannot live in the judge’s head. They might not like your kind of art. (That’s their opinion.) They may know what price-point sells in their gallery and choose that kind of work. (Their marketing decision.) They may choose a piece that fits a certain space, one that reminds them of the curtains in their childhood home, or something that their dog wagged his tail at–all decisions that have nothing to do with you. Your artistic decisions are complete. What happens next is not yours to control.

9. If you are turned down, you still have your joy and satisfaction. You may feel disappointed that all the unknown decisions didn’t line up right for you, but those decisions were not yours to control. The ones you do control were ones that you were satisfied with. That’s the core of creative self-expression. Once you are satisfied with the quality of your effort and your result, no one can take it from you.

10. Go to the show that didn’t accept you. Enjoy the work, congratulate the artists. Feeling happy for others is a skill that stretches your soul to make it fit more easily.

Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach, writer, and artist. She helps artists learn non-attachment.

 

 

 

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