I recently encountered an artist on Twitter named Diedra Krieger who created an art piece about rejection letters called "Building Backbones." In this performance work, artists were invited to submit rejection letters from grant or residency applications, or exhibition submissions. The letters were then projected and attendees read them aloud in unison. I watched a video of the event on Krieger's site and found that the unison reading gave the letters both gravity and a tinge of absurdity. For me it also mingled with a liturgical feeling that probably comes from my many years as a youth attending mainstream Protestant churches. Chanting rejection letters with others seems as good a way as any of transforming the pain of rejection into a source of power for building backbone.
Another way I've found to keep my spirits up is to hear from other artists how they keep on task. I've just started reading a book called The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle by Steven Pressfield. Pressfield offers a strong, no nonsense, just-do-it approach to overcoming resistance in any art practice. A softer and more expansive book about work in general, not just art, is poet David Whyte's book Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity. A friend of mine reminded me of it today, so I plan to re-read it after I finish the Pressfield book.
What I'm feeling today, having digested the latest rejection email, is that acceptances and rejections are not what it's about. Yes, pursuing opportunities for my artwork is part of my job. But that job is to find the opportunities and apply. Once I've sent my application, I've done my job, I've made my effort. Expecting anything in return is a waste of valuable energy, energy that should rightly be spent on making work. Making work is the point, and is my joy. I'm making a plan for a little letting-go ritual to do when I send out the next batch of applications -- something to remind me that once I mail them they aren't mine any more.
This morning I came across a video of Stephen Colbert interviewing Terry Gross of NPR's Fresh Air and I got another lift of inspiration from that. In the beginning of the interview, Terry Gross admits that her first job was teaching English and that she was in fact fired from that job after 6 months. Colbert says what we're all thinking: "Why did they fire Terry Gross??" "Because Terry Gross was a terrible teacher," she replies. I love that. Terry Gross got fired from her first job. She must have felt very bad at the time. But wow, look what happened. Here's the video -- enjoy!
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