Thanks to Works Progress!!!
Rejection Practices & Pressing On
My friend Molly recently made a post on Facebook detailing her rejection practice, that sequence of things she does to pick herself up after she’s been turned down for a job or grant or other creative opportunity. For Molly, dealing with rejection is a life skill she’s been honing since she was a kid:
“As the years pass and the rejections pile up I continue to refine it, but today it looks something like this: Open the email, bummer. Feel the pain full on for about 10 minutes while saying out loud some regrets and big sighs and general noises of dismay. Then pick out some big emotional music and put it on full blast. Today it’s Bowie. Then leave it alone for a while, accomplish some other task that has to be done. After a few hours, return to dealing.”
After reading Molly’s post, I realized I’ve never stopped to think about my own approach to rejection. Rejection is a frequent enough occurrence for me to have developed some regular habits, but when it happens, I’m never consciously aware of what I’m feeling or what I need to do about it. In spite of my extensive experience, rejection still hits me like a ton of bricks, and for a while I’m paralyzed.
Can we get better at rejection? I don’t just mean better at coping with it, at moving on, or even at making the most of the situation — though I think these can be helpful steps in a longer process. Can we develop better rejection practices that actually help us to live fuller lives?
Molly’s post was prescient. It got me thinking deeply about the cycles of passionate visioning and hard work and disappointment that are part of any healthy creative practice, whether you’re making art or farming or conducting scientific research. It’s not just that we’re bound to face disappointment at times, and that this failure helps us learn, but that these processes of learning and change are, in so many ways, the thing itself.
Put another way, I think it can be helpful AND cathartic to remember that we’re not just doing or making projects to get grants, we are actually living and sustaining lives — being human, in relationship to others. The inevitable ups and downs we experience say as much about the value of our creative practice as the tangible things or situations we create. And in the long arc of a life’s work, even the most defining opportunities are just one way to get from here to there.
After reading through the comments that Molly’s post sparked, I decided to start my own rejection practices list. It wasn’t clear at first, but what I was listing wasn’t only how to deal with rejection, but how I want my creative practice to fit into my life. On that list was a renewed commitment to sharing my experiences more honestly, and publicly, especially with other artists and creative practitioners — to live my life by opening up, and then asking, How do we relate?
We talk a lot about what we do, but we don’t talk enough about why and how we do it, or what it might mean to us or to other people in our communities. We tend to gloss over definitive disappointments and failures, even though we can learn more from the common ways we all find to press on than we can from any individual instance of success.
Last week we learned that Works Progress was not chosen for a large public art grant. We were 1 of 5 finalists, but the panel decided to award the grant to someone else. This 50k award would have supported a “career-defining” project we’ve been developing for almost two years. Over those two years we’ve tried to change our own assumptions and approaches to art-making, leaving behind the idea that a career is even the goal, and instead focusing on how our work can be a way to root ourselves in place and build life-sustaining relationships. As a consequence, there are a lot of people who know intimately what our proposed project entails, and what it might mean to receive significant funding support to pursue it. Bummer.
Many of us have been on the receiving end of this kind of rejection, so I won’t dwell on the details or inundate you with how much it sucks to hear we weren’t chosen. I will say that even though we were deeply disappointed, we’re still grateful to Forecast (the granting organization) and the McKnight Foundation (the funder behind the grant) for supporting a grantmaking process that allowed us to further develop our creative practice, even though it didn’t result in direct project support.
I tend to get on my soapbox about this, but support for research and development is critical, and rare. Real research and development doesn’t just advance singular ideas or careers, it helps us to hone our practices over time and in context, and moves our entire field in new directions. It can’t happen in a vacuum. It actually requires we engage.
Most of the time this part of our creative process isn’t really recognized by funders or organizations, and so we fall in line, approaching proposals and funding as their own individual hurdles to be overcome, rather than as one part of figuring out how a project might work in the world. I think that’s a missed opportunity.
When we were chosen as finalists for the McKnight project grant, we received a stipend to help us complete our proposal. This stipend, plus the visibility they conferred upon finalists, was actually just what we needed at that moment to approach partners and to ask them to dream with us about what might be possible.
By the time we made our finalist presentation we’d gathered over a dozen letters of support from non-profits, schools, community groups, and government agencies that were excited to join an artistic project. We’d taken the time to consider the best approach to meet their goals and our own, to push ourselves and others to try something new, and we put together the most comprehensive proposal we’ve ever created. We also learned about things that were happening in our community that we had no idea about, things that aligned with what we were hoping to do, and can continue to follow.
In other words, the proposal actually did a lot to open up our practice, and to root the project in place. Though we didn’t get the grant, we did advance some of our own longer-term goals. And when we received the call telling us we were not chosen, we’d already done so much work, envisioned the project with such clarity, and made so many real connections that the rejection seemed more like a bump in the road than a full stop.
That doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard. That afternoon, I followed Molly’s advice and put on emotional music. I let myself feel really low for a while, imagining all the things that would be easier with 50k in hand. I talked to friends who I knew wouldn’t just cheer me up or cheer me on, but would actually listen, helping me see where the process of making this proposal had actually helped advance our work. And they encouraged me to seek other ways forward. Through that kind of conversation, I was able to realize that the most difficult part was already complete. We know what we want to do, why it is important to us and to others, and how we can do it, with or without a particular grant.
Knowing these things is a significant accomplishment. It means we’ve already committed to pursuing the project, it just might take a little longer. And when we do, we’re not starting over. The precise path forward is uncertain, but we’re already on it.
What practices for rejection was I able to distill this time around? Here’s a short list that I plan to keep adding to over time, since I see them as good life practices too:
- Notice how this feels. Get beyond simple disappointment. What is the hardest part of this particular rejection? What do your feelings say about where you are in the process of realizing your goals?
- Talk with someone you trust. Try not to only complain about your disappointments, but also explain what is so difficult about the experience. Maybe you’ll realize it’s not as difficult as you think. Maybe you’ll see that you’ve already accomplished quite a lot, and just need to recognize what that is.
- Get some perspective. This could mean sharing the news with others, or it could mean moving on to something else for awhile.
- Gather feedback. If you can, ask for detailed notes about why you were not chosen. If it’s too soon, you can always ask for them in writing and go back to them when you’re ready.
That’s a good place to begin. After that, you can evaluate whether or not to continue pursuing the project, when, and how. Molly put it more eloquently:
From the imaginary wreckage of the opportunity pick out the ideas of the project that are most dear to me. If I can still get excited about them with their new patina of rejection, then they must be pretty great! And If not, the rejection can be a kind of controlled burn on my to-do list. Do some self care that day — a sauna, a nice meal, a walk in the woods. Go to bed and sleep. Get up early the next day. Take out one of the ideas and work on it, just a little. No push, just explore. Let myself see a new direction or a new angle. Connect with the love. Reorganize the feeling of future. Press on.