Artist Coach

The gold to be found in rejection

Another rejection letter landed in my mailbox recently and I didn’t toss it in the recycling bin as quickly as I used to. Instead, I read it carefully. Because I’ve learned that you never know what gold you may find. It used to be that to rid myself of the sting of “no” I would scan the letter and throw it away almost in one motion. I wanted to rid myself of that rejected feeling asap.

Then, once, as I was skimming, I read this sentence: “We encourage you to apply again next year.”

Hmmm. I thought. “I bet they say that to everyone.”

I decided to find out if they did in fact write that to everyone so I called the organization. After thanking them for reviewing my application, Isaid, “I’m just wondering but did everyone receive the same rejection letter? Because mine encouraged me to apply again next year.”

“We had two rejection letters we sent,” the woman said. “So you received the better one.”

This wasn’t the acceptance I wanted but this meant a lot: it was encouragement to keep going. It was an invitation to look at my work again. It was what all artists want: an audience.

Here’s a few sentences from that last rejection I received:

We received more than 1,500 applications and can offer 40 residencies. Though your application did not advance into the final round this year, we want you to know that your work resonated with our reviewers. Sending work into the world is an act of bravery, and we appreciate the opportunity to experience your voice.

I didn’t need to call them this time.

Of course I was sorry to lose but this letter provided some gold. First, it showed me just how stiff the competition was this year. Second, it complemented my work and acknowledged my bravery. That took the sting out, and even better, propelled me back to the writing desk.

Also, I made a mental note for the next time I need to write a rejection letter: What I write can either open up a relationship or shut it down. Because of this organization’s nice letter, even though they rejected me, I still feel warmly toward them. Perhaps I’ll take a workshop with them or, when I’m feeling generous, give them a donation. In other words, they haven’t lost me.

Persistence Pays Off

When I saw the call to apply to the Jack Straw Writers Program last fall, I almost didn’t apply. Why?

Because I’d applied every year for the last six years and I was tired of getting rejected. The closest I’d come was being wait-listed a few years back.

Then, I reminded myself what I tell my coaching clients: If you don't apply, it's a 100% guarantee you won't be accepted. If you do apply, your chances are better.

I opted for slightly better chances. Then, I rewrote my artist statement, edited the strongest writing sample from the memoir I’m currently writing and like every year, I mailed it by the deadline.

The twelve Jack Straw Writers receive voice/microphone training, recorded studio interviews, do a series of public readings in Seattle all year long, publish an anthology and are featured in SoundPages, the Jack Straw Literary Podcast series.

When the skinny letter from Jack Straw Productions arrived in my mailbox, I sighed. Everyone knows that if you win, it’s usually an email and that if it’s a letter, it’s usually a fat letter.

I opened it.

The first word after “Dear Gigi” was “Congratulations!” I’m now one of 12 writers chosen out of a pool of 93 applicants who will be in the Jack Straw Writers Program this year. This win was especially sweet because I’d included an excerpt from the memoir I’m now writing.

What did I learn? I learned what I teach my students: If you know an opportunity is the right match for you and the curator changes every year, it’s a numbers game. Chances are that one year, it’s all going to line up: The right curator for the right work sample out of the right pool of applicants.

This win also reminded me how important it is to receive recognition. I’ve had mostly rejections this year and this one acceptance has already fueled my writing. It’s also softened the rejections I’ve received since.

The next day, I received a rejection from the Hedgebrook Residency, one I’d love to attend. Their odds are even worse. They received 1500 applications for 40 slots. The silver lining: My rejection letter stated that my work “resonated with our reviewers.” They didn’t have to say that and I so appreciate they did.

You can bet I’ll apply to Hedgebrook every year from now on and one of these years, you never know. I might be one of those 40 writers.

So, I ask you: What’s an opportunity you know is the right match for you that you could “show up for”? It’s hard to keep showing up if they’ve already said “no.” But if you really want it, can you humble yourself and throw your name in the hat again and again? This year, it might be you.

Four keys to making creative progress

This past year, I embarked on writing a memoir and I learned how much more challenging it is to work on a big, multi-faceted project than something short. To write an essay, I just need to sprint. I have the whole essay in my head as I’m working on the beginning, middle and end. But a memoir with its many chapters and multiple re-writes is a full-length project that requires the stamina of the long distance runner. I can use my sprinting talent for individual chapters but to keep the whole project going, I must pace myself.

These four lifesaving actions have helped me this past year stay on task and on schedule. They’ve been:

  • Name “it”
  • Put “it” on a calendar
  • Hire a midwife/coach/mentor
  • Schedule weekly check-ins for creative support

Name “It”

In my 20 years as a writer, I’d written stories, essays, vignettes, monologues, poems, plays, solo performances, and then one day, the clouds parted, the shaft of sun descended and I knew I needed to write a memoir in book form. This realization was life changing. I re-arranged my work schedule to fit in 2-3 hours a day of writing and added other support. But naming it first was key.

Put “It” on a Calendar

Once I’d written for a couple of months, and collected all I’d created over the past 20 years I felt overwhelmed. I didn’t know which stories fit where or even how many stories there were. So, I sat down with a production manager, counted the number of stories I had or could write, and gave myself a goal of finishing a certain number each week. I put a reminder in my calendar every day. Then I gave myself a deadline for delivering this rough, unfinished draft to my next key support: my literary midwife.

The calendar turned out to be magical. Committing the project to paper made it happen. Even when I couldn’t quite keep up with my weekly schedule, the rough draft was done by the time the deadline arrived, as if a force greater than me was pushing it forward once I committed it to paper.

Hire a Midwife/Coach/Mentor

My literary coach is not a friend, although I like her and admire her writing. Her not being a friend is important for me because it makes our working relationship feel more professional and therefore less possible for me to wiggle out of my commitment. Also, I’m paying her which makes me take it seriously. I won’t pay for something and then not use it. It forces me to deliver the goods. I know she believes in me but I know she has high standards. So her voice in my ear as I write, keeps me writing and striving to do my best. Which is why after all this sustained effort I need something cuddly. This is where my two colleagues come in.

Schedule weekly check-ins

I scheduled short weekly check-ins with two artist friends. With these cohorts I can complain, stomp my feet, share my successes and burn off a lot of neurotic ramblings that I don’t want to submit my literary midwife to. My friends cheer me on, no matter what. Their cheering gets me back to the writing desk every day.

No Half Measures

The last episode of “Breaking Bad” that I watched before I quit for good was entitled “No Half Measures.” The character Mike warned Walter White about the sometimes fatal results of only going half way. “No half measures” is good advice for artists too, especially those of us who are skilled at the art of self-sabotage. We say we’re working on a creative project but are we really making the tough decisions that enable us to go “full out” in the career we want to have?

Going “full out” doesn't necessarily entail all-nighters and chronic exhaustion. What would you do differently if you supported your ambition all the way and not only halfway?

For example, I realized that if I’m going to get my next book finished I’m going to have to block out at least three hours every day to write and if I can’t squeeze that time in during the day, I’m going to have to get up at five am to write before I go to work.

To do this and be happy and well-rested, I need to say “no” to other commitments and time-wasters like “research” that can suck hours at a clip.

So, my new rules are: three-hour writing blocks, no “research” unless it’s quick and focused, and no social plans during the week that deplete my energy for writing.

I also had to give up binge-watching “Breaking Bad.” The show became so scary and violent and not conducive to the headspace I need to be in to write IF I’m going to go all out.

Most importantly, I’m saying “no” and disappointing some people. But I’d rather live with their disappointment than my own.

What would you do differently if you took your own ambition seriously? What if Mike from “Breaking Bad” scowled at you with his x-cop tough face and said: “No Half Measures. I mean it.”

What do you need in your life to support your ambition so your current project doesn’t die? What will you drop? What will you do to make the time to do the creative work that only you can do? What would today look like if you went all out? This week? This month? This year?

“No Half Measures” might mean you take a complete rest day today so that you’re freshened for tomorrow’s work.

What If You Weren't "Too Old"?

When I was eighteen, I admonished myself for being “too old” to become a ballet dancer. When I was twenty-eight, I did an informational interview with a producer at the public television station in Boston who told me I was “too old” to be a documentary filmmaker. (Because presumably I should have already won an Emmy!) In my worst moments now when I’m really “too old” for many more things, I revert back to my “too old” refrain. Too old to be skinny. Too old to be a concert pianist. To old to make it big.

This summer, when I asked myself what I would do if I wasn’t too old the answer was: take a dance class.

So, I signed up for a “Rock Your Body” class that I was positively too old for at the Northwest Dance Project which is taught by Franco Nieto, one of the company’s dancers. It’s a class that’s advertised as being “for absolute beginners” which is a lie unless these “beginners” are very young and very fit.

My neighbor friend Rene joined me on Sundays and for an hour we “rocked our bodies” including jazz, yoga, hip-hop, kickboxing, and the cha-cha. It seemed that Franco included every form of movement ever invented. Each week the class almost killed me. But I loved it because every Sunday night, my body felt so alive.

Sometimes with my clients and students, we play a game: “What if you weren’t too old?” Wanna try?

Quick. You’ve got three minutes to write down what you would do in your art or your marketing or your life if you weren’t too old? This is what some of them said:

“I’d write every day like a fiend.”

“I wouldn’t worry about offending anyone.”

“I’d write those emails and make those phone calls to get my work into the world.”

The idea that they weren’t too old put them in touch with urgency, in a productive way.

This weekend ask yourself: What would you do if you weren’t too old? You may find like my students and I did that you have more motivation to do the things you said you always wanted to do.

Put on your New York Face

I’ve been traveling since you last heard from me which I now realize involves three phases: pre-traveling, traveling, post-traveling. So, if I’m gone a week, the trip really takes three weeks if you add in preparing and de-briefing. This insight doesn’t mean I won’t travel again, it just means I need to be honest about how much time a trip really takes. One thing I love about traveling is that it brings out the anthropologist in me. I’m able to see my new surroundings in a way that the natives can’t and, when I return, I have a clearer vision of that place I call “home.”

In New York, I noticed the “New York Face.” Just about everyone I saw on those crowded streets wore one. It’s part scowl, part determined glare, part acceptance that life is hard so just suck it up.

At first I found the “New York Face” repellent. I wanted to look away from it. It isn’t a pretty face. But then, I thought, a New York Face is sometimes just what you need to accept the hard work, the waiting, the rejection and show up at the page or at the easel and work. The New York Face is not a complaining face. It accepts that the lines are long, the people pushy. The Face doesn’t let the noise, the garbage, the dog doo somebody stepped in and trailed up the sidewalk deter it.

If the line is long, you wait. If the shit is on the sidewalk, you do your best to avoid it and if you step in it, so be it. You keep going, you don’t turn back.

So how can you cultivate your ownNew York Face even if you don’t live there?

This morning I put on my New York Face and got to my writing while I was still in my nightgown. I didn’t empty the dishwasher like I know my husband likes me to do. Because if I took care of the dishes, my writing wouldn’t have gotten done. My New York Face said: screw the dishes, you write, right now.

This weekend, put on Your New York Face: remember it’s more determined than angry. It sets its gaze on the goal and it doesn’t care if it doesn’t look pretty. It does what needs to be done whether it’s unpleasant, boring, ugly or shitty.

Put on your New York Face and get to work on the art, on the proposal, on cleaning your desk, on taking care of the business you’ve been avoiding. Let your New York Face lead the way..