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How to leverage rejection to fuel your arts career

07 Nov 2018
Rejection stings, but is inevitable in the arts – Madeleine Dore finds out how creatives can move through painful moments to learn and improve their art.

Getting rejected doesn't usually feature as one of our envisioned career goals, yet such painful moments of failure or rejection could be what propels us forward.

In an article for Literary Hub, writer Kim Liao recounts advice from a writer friend who seemed to effortlessly land residences and publish work in well-known literary journals.

Her friend said to her: 'Collect rejections. Set rejection goals. I know someone who shoots for one hundred rejections in a year, because if you work that hard to get so many rejections, you’re sure to get a few acceptances, too.'

In this exercise of collecting rejections, our ego and fragility is forced to take a side step, opening us up to new perspectives about our own careers.

In this exercise of collecting rejections, [we are] opening ourselves up to new perspectives about our own careers. 

Mari Andrew, a New York based writer, illustrator and author of Am I There Yet?: The Loop-de-loop, Zigzagging Journey to Adulthood, experienced this seemingly endless pursuit of rejection when she was trying to get an agent to represent her.

'That phase was about four years long and I sent maybe 50 emails to agents just to represent me, not even to publish my book,' explains Andrew, ahead of her upcoming School of Life events on how resilience and a sense of humour can help us survive the tumultuous journey to adulthood. While pursuing rejection may be a numbers game, for Andrew it also has distinct phases of intensity – something that should be acknowledged if you are about to dive into the exhausting process collecting rejections.

'I went through about three phases over four years, where I would write to a bunch of agents and get rejected by all of them, and then would have to take a break as it was so exhausting to get no after no,' admits Andrew. Between each period of intensity, Andrew would focus on going back into herself and return to the love of doing the work.

'It can be very disorientating to be rejected because it made me feel like I don't even have permission anymore to create because no one wants to hear, but I also tried to get back to the love of it. It’s similar to romantic rejection – when you like yourself, it hurts less to be rejected, so as long as you like what you are doing, it can’t hurt that much.'

It was in this break period that Andrew was in a sense able to free herself from rejection by doing the work anyway. 'I started my illustration passion project online instead because Instagram can’t reject you! I was just putting out stories I wanted to tell and no one [else] could tell, and once I got a little traction on Instagram, that's when I was finally picked up by an agent.'

Often it’s only that moment of seemingly spontaneous success – getting the agent – that we are privy to when viewing someone else’s career in the arts. As rejection is rarely spoken about, it can feel like a private failure – as if we are the only ones to experience rejection, while others take leaps and bounds.

As rejection is rarely spoken about, it can feel like a private failure.

To shine the spotlight on rejection and equally attempt to reframe it, several writers, illustrators, actors and creatives alongside Mari Andrew share their insights and advice. So here's their step-by-step advice on how to sit with, reframe and leverage rejection:

Allow rejection to be a cathartic experience

‘I started submitting writing, art and films to competitions and publications when I was a teenager – so I’ve got about 15 years of experience at the rejection rodeo. My initial reaction is always dramatic with that searing feeling of shock and sinking disappointment, followed by my mind racing with insecurities – that maybe I’m deluded, that I’m no good, that my work is no good, that something is terribly wrong, the work is missing something and I can’t see it, that I will always be excluded and locked out forever. It’s all amusingly catastrophic really.

‘I think letting yourself feel these sorts of things is healthy and cathartic. They pass. Pretending you’re not devastated when you are is really counter productive.’ – Sarah Firth, graphic artist

But try not to wallow for too long…

‘Don’t soak in the despair for too long! After a bit of grieving I remind myself that even though it feels personal, 99% of the time it’s really not. To pull myself out of feeling terrible I usually go into rational-reality-check-pull-your-socks-up-mode. I ask for feedback and try to understand more about the agenda, processes and limitations that the publisher or grant.’ – Sarah Firth

Rejection shapes, moulds and guides you – sometimes literally!

‘Yesterday my doctor gave me my flu shot. He jabbed the needle into my arm and said, “Wow you have really thick skin” and I replied, “Yes, I teach poetry to teenagers”. When you have to perform poetry to a crowd of Year 7’s LITERALLY rolling their eyes at you at 9am on a Monday morning you learn to just cope. But it did take some time to learn not to just give up in the face of a rejection and drive into the lake of creative nothingness. I have little heroes that I both hate because they are doing so well and adore because they are doing so well. Jealousy, as they say, is a map.’ – Emilie Zoey Baker, poet

Rejection is constant – if you choose it to be

‘I think almost every step of the road as an actor, is a chance to feel rejection – if you so choose to. You’re always presenting yourself and taking risks, and I’m sure there have been many rejections I’m not even aware of. Perhaps rejections based on race, age, location and a whole array of variables. But I tend to take a professional outlook on it all. I just wasn’t the right one for the role. And I’d be the first to admit, it’s usually because there was a better audition that was submitted. If you can handle that, you’re left with many constructive options to choose from.

‘Taking rejection personally is a choice. Even if it is so. If you can find a way to remove your ego from the outcome, and apply it to the tasks at hand, I think you’ll be too busy creating to notice.’ – Mahesh Jadu, actor

Don’t count your chickens…

‘In my professional career, I learned very quickly not to count your chickens before they’ve hatched - I would get emails from amazing clients offering great creative projects and I used to get really excited. Over the years I’ve learned not to do that - often clients will decide to go down a different route or go with another illustrator so I hold off celebrations until the contract is signed. I honestly think my rejection list is as long, if not longer than the list of clients that I’ve actually worked with.’ – Jenni Sparks, illustrator

Turn inward in the face of rejection

‘Sometimes investigating can be a dead end and I just need to ignore everyone and turn inward to anchor myself. I often revisit this wonderful quote by dancer and choreographer Martha Graham:

"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open."'  – Sarah Firth

Remember everyone experiences doubt and rejection

One thing that really helped me, was discovering that basically all creatives I’ve ever met – even the really famous and shiny successful ones with lots of experience – regularly feel crippling self-doubt and despair. If you are growing, expanding, making exciting, boundary pushing new art with all your heart, it often feels unsafe. It’s natural to feel scared and doubtful. It’s the crucible of creation!’ – Sarah Firth

Shedding imposter syndrome takes time

Starting out in my professional career I had impostor syndrome for a long time and was paranoid that someone would expose me as a sham! I don’t take it so personally now as I’ve learned to develop a tough skin over the years and I know that my technical skills are infinitely better than they were when I was starting out.

‘One thing I’ve learned as I’ve got older is that nobody is born out of the womb as an incredible artist - you have to work and hone your skills. Youth is celebrated so much in our culture that people think they should be successful and famous almost immediately instead of developing your sense of identity and technical skills, and the way you see the world. You don’t start getting to know who you really are and your style until after 25 in my opinion, and being an artist is communicating who you are and your reality/the way you see the world in a visual sense, so it wouldn’t make any sense to beat yourself up and stop creating just because you get rejected a few times.’ – Jenni Sparks

Unplug from online and offline comparison

‘Usually when my self-doubt is very loud I need to unplug from social media, going to exhibitions, events, even reading books, so I can avoid comparison, the noise of opinions and beliefs and centre, to hear the quiet voice inside myself again. I often walk and talk with close friends about my worries, or go hiking alone, swim, walk in nature, watch animals, draw and write for pleasure and focus on refreshing and renewing. Sometimes I buy myself flowers or a massage, or neatly fold my socks and arrange my books by colour, just to say I love you. To let myself know I’ve got her back.’ – Sarah Firth

‘Sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck’

‘These words from the Dalai Lama have been true for me, many times. For example, I pitched to speak at a creative summit and was unsuccessful, then a few weeks later I was invited to attend not as a speaker, but as paid graphic recorder. So that’s a pretty favourable turn of events!’ – Sarah Firth

It’s also okay to quit, slow down or stop

‘It’s also good to remember that quitting is not a bad thing either. All pursuits in life meet some resistance, and sometimes you need to retreat in order to preserve your energy and focus on the main goal. Sometimes it is better to slow down and put the idea you were working on to the side to work on something else that is flowing a lot easier - you might revisit that piece of work or concept later on in life when you have learned more about yourself. It can be difficult to know the difference between getting disheartened because of external criticism, or the idea really isn't fully formed yet.’ –  Jenni Sparks

Don’t compare your insides with someone else’s outside

‘It’s important to always remember that our online profiles are unreal and distorted. Smoke and mirrors. We curate and project our best selves. We share what we have accomplished, not what didn’t take place, not the ways we were rejected, criticised or messed up. Media life is not real life.

‘If you are feeling bad about rejection as if some people have the Midas touch and you are some sort of lukewarm sausage that fell into the bushes – I highly suggest reading Liz Gilbert’s book Big Magic that is all bout creativity, rejection, resilience and persistence.’ – Sarah Firth

See rejection as a learning opportunity

‘You begin to realise each audition is a learning opportunity. So rather than focussing on getting the job, which is relatively out of your hands, you begin to commit to learning something from the experience, which is possible one hundred percent of the time. Or even be happy just meeting a new casting director. Or hell, have some fun. You start celebrating the successes of friends and colleagues that do well around you. It reminds you that it actually is possible and encourages you to learn from their tenacity and commitment.’ – Mahesh Jadu

Swings and roundabouts

‘I think you’ve got to look at it like this: life is about having really amazing moments and really really shit, soul destroying moments. It’s going to happen whether you take the chance on putting yourself out there or not. People always say put yourself out there or you’ll always regret it, but I don’t think that helps either  – that idea puts so much pressure on yourself and the situation.’ – Jenni Sparks
'I think the best thing I do when I’m feeling bad about myself and my work after being rejected is just to allow myself to feel that way. There’s nothing wrong with feeling sad or embarrassed, and it won’t change whether you’re a good artist or not. Trust the path that you are walking and have the mentality that you will continue to work harder after you’ve had your bad couple of days. You have to have a fighting mentality to achieve things.'

Check in on your own feelings towards your craft

‘At the end of the day, it's about being honest with yourself whether you enjoy the feeling you get when you are working at whatever it is that you are doing. And if so, are you creating at your best possible level? If you are, are you willing to sustain this intensity for long enough to feel a sense of freedom and ease when you work? I’ve heard it takes 10,000 hours.

‘You have to fall in love with the process. There are rituals I have that harness the emotionality that otherwise complicate getting the job done. I think rituals can be powerful aids in not letting your thoughts get in the way. Instead they become fuel.’ – Mahesh Jadu

Rename ‘rejection’ into ‘not a yes’

‘I started to see a difference between a ‘rejection’ and ‘not a yes’ – especially in casting, where there are many factors that can determine whether I get the part or not. Many of these factors are out of my control. And most of them have very little to do with ‘me’. So after a while, I chose to re-interpret rejection with a broader perspective and stay focused on the process. Art can be about searching for truth, being in the moment, surrender, or being silly; at best, in my opinion, it can be for no reason at all. But I’m convinced it cannot be to feel acceptance or validation. That can only come from within and not from others.' – Mahesh Jadu

Just keep making

'David Bowie told me to do something strange and out of my comfort zone.' 

‘My mantra is ‘just keep making, just keep making’ and it has worked up to now. It’s so easy to read the first line of a rejection letter and to feel numb and boring and full of self-doubt. Or to tell yourself you are just not good enough. I try to flip it. To do something strange and out of my comfort zone. David Bowie told me to. He said, “If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.” Who here doesn’t want to be like David Bowie? No-one. Exactly.’ – Emilie Zoey Baker  

So, in short: be your own David Bowie, take a deep breath, and keep going.


This article was first published by our dear Ozzy friends at Artshub, on 14 June 2018. You can find it here.
Madeleine Dore is a freelance writer and founder of Extraordinary Routines, an interview project exploring the intersection between creativity and imperfection.
Illustration by the wonderful Mari Andrew.https://www.bymariandrew.com/