All artists hope for something from their creativity.
Writers, musicians, painters, sculptors. Ask a hundred artists what it is they want, and you might get a hundred different answers. Some want to entertain, whilst others hope to provoke emotion or new ways of thinking. Some might long to be centre stage, in the limelight, being adored, whilst others actively choose anonymity, fiercely protecting their identity. Some might care nothing about the opinion of their audience, whilst others clearly yearn for acceptance and approval.
Whatever the motivation for creating in the first place, and however it is that we define success, most artists share at least one thing in common: our creations are essentially for others. We want our work to be out there in the world, making a difference, provoking a reaction, giving pleasure, entertaining, inspiring or challenging.
Most of us know that this privilege will not be stumbled upon. It must be worked for. We must earn our right to an audience. We know (don’t we?) to expect years of hard graft before our work is ready to be received. When times are hard we console ourselves with the knowledge that being lost in the wilderness is part of the process. It’s okay to have doubts, because they too are inevitable. All artists doubt. That’s what we do.
But what happens when we lose all hope of making it work?
Living without hope is a terrible thing. In its extreme it is a matter of life and death.
It feels indulgent to suggest the yearning that accompanies our creative dreams can result in this kind of suffering. It’s not really life and death, after all. It’s not the loss of hope experienced by a patient with a terminal illness, or a refugee who has fled their worn-torn homeland, journeying long and hard, losing loved-ones along the way, only to be turned away at every border.
But loss of hope, is loss of hope. It’s powerful and significant. It can change the path we’re on forever. It changes how we think and how we respond to others.
Recently I’ve been wrestling with just this. Novel number three is out there with agents, gradually being rejected. Sure, there have been some positives – some near miss emails which are great to get and an agent who asked for the whole manuscript. I know what these small successes mean, and my writer friends will be quick to remind me (it’s a great sign, you’ve come so far, agents don’t waste their time unless they see potential).
But really and truly, deep down, I am losing hope. This is novel number three. That’s three unpublished novels. Will there be four or five or six unpublished novels? Am I kidding myself? Do I just not have it in me? Have I been wasting my time, deluding myself? It’s a deep, dark, bottomless-pit of a feeling.
Do we bounce back or do we give up?
Essentially, it boils down to one thing: What are we telling ourselves? Our self-talk matters. But just as platitudes are not appreciated by our nearest and dearest when they’re in crisis, they don’t work well for us either. Our self-sustaining mantras play a part in buoying us when we are feeling disgruntled or antsy or frustrated. There’s no pain without gain. My time will come eventually. JK Rowling had one million rejection letters before someone took The Philosopher’s Stone. But when hope is lost we need more than platitudes. We need to be tough. And we need to be kind.
Firstly, always, let us be kind.
Do we need to rest? Feeling exhausted can precipitate a period of feeling seriously unhappy about our work. It’s the same in other areas of our life. Working too hard, over-burdening ourselves, forgetting to pepper our busy lives with nourishing activities will take its toll. Exhaustion follows. Despondency and loss of hope is hot on its heels.
How we take care of ourselves is a uniquely personal thing. It wouldn’t work for me to make a list of activities for you to try. But you can make that list. Think about it carefully. What activities, right now, would be helpful for you? What would feel like a holiday? What would give you the chance to breathe? Make sure that every one of those activities feels like a treat – something you would genuinely love to do (not something you feel ought to be relaxing or pleasurable). You’re not creating one more to-do list here! Beware the automatic answers and be selective about what makes it on to your list. Then take some time away from the pursuit of goals. Do the other stuff. Have fun. Be restful.
Then be tough.
Clarity is everything. Take some time (a day? an hour? a week?) to remind yourself what it is you want to achieve. What does success look like for you? What will it give you to achieve your creative dreams? Don’t just think yeah, yeah, I know the answers. It makes a difference to do the exercise.
Chart your creative journey on the biggest piece of paper you can find. What have you done so far? List all action taken. What successes have you been rewarded with? What do you know now that you didn’t know in the beginning? How have you grown?
Now look at the gaps. What action haven’t you taken? What have you avoided? What still needs to be done? Are you still passionate about this goal?
Being really clear with ourselves is important if we feel we’ve hit a wall. Sometimes we say to ourselves that we’ve ‘tried everything’ or that ‘we’re all out of options.’ We think we’re being honest with ourselves, but our words are a distraction from the truth. Have we really tried everything? When we say this it’s normally the case that we’ve tried one or two things, and repeated them. Over and over.
Let’s take my current writing predicament. What are the things I always do? I work hard on my novels, always finish them, always get them critically read, always redraft, always spend time on a quality synopsis, always research the ‘right’ agents. All of that is great. But what else could I do?
- I could stop telling myself my writing isn’t good enough and approach agents interested in literary fiction.
- I could find a mentor (Writing East Midlands runs a mentoring scheme, which is open to applications twice a year. The Womentoring Project is open to applications at any time and boasts a plethora of women writers all willing to mentor others).
- I could find a professional critical reader and editor.
- I could network more.
- I could enrol on a top-quality (Arvon / Curtis Brown Creative) novel-writing course.
- I could self-publish my novel!
- I could write short stories for competitions.
- I could submit to literary magazines.
All of these are different routes to the same end goal. I don’t have the space here to go into the detail of why I don’t do these things already but, ultimately, I can stick with my current logic or embrace new opportunities.
It’s so easy to get stuck in a rut.
We are creatures of habit. But if we always do what we’ve always done, the risk is that we’ll always get what we’ve always got. Sometimes we have to look at things differently. We have to be willing to try new things, and embrace new perspectives. Of course, it might be that we really do need to just persist with exactly what we’ve been doing all along. Simply continuing might be all that’s required. But unless we look at things clearly, consciously, deliberately, we can’t be sure that’s the case.
So, how do we persist when hope is lost?
We remember to be kind to ourselves. We rest and play. We unpick the things we are saying to ourselves, looking for truth. We get refocused on what we want and why we want it. And we strike out on the landscape less familiar – because who knows what waits beyond the crest of the hill.
How do you pick yourself up after a disappointment? I’d love to know what works for you when you feel like giving up. Feel free to comment below…