Rejection and Self-doubt

Apparently I’m pretty terrible at sticking to this one-post-per-week thing! This time it’s more down to personal issues than general lack of discipline, but I guess discipline is something that should apply even when you’re feeling crap, so I clearly need to work on that.

Part of the reason for my recent lapse in productivity is that the last few weeks have been marked by several rejections, so I suppose I should write about that, since it’s pretty much been the only thing on my mind.

It was my birthday last week – I’m now decidedly in my mid- rather than early-thirties – and for the first time in my life the day brought with it a sense of falling behind rather than moving forward. I’m an optimist by nature, even when things aren’t going well, and I started this year feeling really positive, like ‘this is the year I’m going to make things happen and everything is going to fall into place’. Of course positive mental attitude is important if you want to achieve significant goals, but that becomes hard to sustain when you keep encountering road blocks, and it’s felt very much like the universe just keeps piling on the challenges over the last month or so, with no sign of any pay-off.

I know that every author has to deal with rejection at some point in their career (if one more person tells me about J K Rowling’s long list of rejections, I might just scream!), but knowing it and experiencing it are very different things.

Writing is usually my primary form of therapy, but the latest run of rejections has left me feeling pretty exhausted, emotionally and physically, and that’s definitely impacted my productivity. When the motivation’s not there, it’s very difficult to force yourself to sit down at a screen and be creative, and unfortunately when your self-esteem is linked so closely to your ability to generate material, it tends to lead to a downward spiral that’s constantly reinforcing itself.

I definitely have a tendency to focus too much on the negatives. I could achieve something really brilliant one day, but the next day I’ll be back to worrying about all the things I haven’t achieved and examining every ‘failure’ under a microscope to figure out where I went wrong.

In the last month I’ve had a story short-listed in an online competition and I’ve been accepted onto a master’s programme, both of which I’m really pleased about, but I also had another story rejected and quite harshly (although not unfairly) critiqued, was rejected as a candidate for a mentoring programme I’d applied for, and thought my novel (baby/ life’s work/ precious outpouring of my soul) had been rejected by a publisher, although it turned out that was down to a fault with the email system and it’s still under consideration – eeeek! (Never underestimate the importance of a follow-up query!)

Anyway, as of yesterday, when I began writing this post, I thought it had been rejected and was accordingly depressed. It wasn’t just a case of figuring out where I’d gone wrong, it was a full-blown existential crisis: maybe I’m just not good enough to be a published author. Maybe I’m kidding myself. Maybe I’ll never be exceptional at anything. Maybe all my hard work over the years has been a complete waste of time and I should start thinking about a different career plan. Maybe I should just crawl into a hole and stay there.

However, despite being crushed by the weight of my hopes and dreams collapsing around my ears, I still held firm to the belief that the main difference between success and failure is tenacity, and that giving up is the only real way to fail. So after flopping around pathetically for maybe an hour or so, I gave myself a stern talking-to, picked up my copy of the ‘Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook’ and started red-inking agents to submit my work to. There’s always another way forward, and if you can’t see it then you need to look harder.

I’ve come to the conclusion that a certain level of masochism is essential if you want to be successful in any creative industry. You have to be willing and able to take the hits if you’re going to push through to a win, and if you can’t, I suggest you give up now. Getting published is not for the faint-hearted.

Having your work dismissed by people whose opinion really counts is soul-destroying, especially since any long-term creative endeavour requires you to pour your heart into it and expose your deepest vulnerabilities. It feels like your essential self has been rejected, not just ‘something you did’, and that’s a hell of a blow, but it’s vital to keep in mind that there are many, many factors involved in why one particular publisher or agent or competition judge didn’t consider your work up to scratch, and not all of them are that it wasn’t ‘good’. There are market pressures and conflicts of interest to consider, as well as personal tastes, current social trends, blah blah blah.

I do think it’s important to try and be objective about your own work and realistic in your expectations. The fact is, you might not be as good as you wish to be, and you have to take that into consideration if your work is constantly being rejected. In the words of Kipling: ‘If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you/ But make allowance for their doubting too’. But that doesn’t mean you should give up. Natural talent is often seen as the be-all and end-all of creativity, but in reality hard work counts for a lot; there are a huge number of super-talented people who will never get anywhere because they’re not prepared to put the work in, and conversely there are less-talented people with flourishing careers, who persisted and worked and developed the skills they needed to get where they wanted to go. That capacity shouldn’t be underestimated.

Anyway, that’s the latest update and partial explanation of why I haven’t been keeping up with the posts. I’m still planning to get part two of the structure post up, hopefully over the next few days, but in the meantime I thought I’d share some of this stuff because I know everyone struggles with rejection and sometimes it helps to know you’re not the only one.

Fingers crossed I’ll have some more positive news to share soon, but if not soon then hopefully in the future. I’m certainly not going to give up, no matter how much work it takes to get there.

If you want to share any of your experiences or thoughts on this subject, you’re welcome to post in the comments or follow me on Twitter @RoseJamesAuthor.

 

Battling with Stagnation

I was having a low day when I started writing this post, and since that’s part of what I want to use the blog for I decided to write about it, although I didn’t get round to finishing it until I started feeling better, which is pretty typical for me.

I was thinking about stagnation, which I’m sure is something every writer has struggled with at some point or another – in fact every creative person, regardless of their medium – and no matter how many times I find myself in the middle of it, it never gets any easier.

I’m not necessarily talking about a lack of productivity, although often the two things are interconnected. I’m talking about a protracted period of general restlessness – the feeling of treading water, having to wait on responses from agents, publishers, universities, competitions and being unable to move forward until The Email arrives.

I’ll be honest, I’m not a patient person. Relying on other people to get things done on my behalf makes me anxious and irritable. I think that’s because I spent most of my twenties working a day-job in customer service (which I hated) and going absolutely nowhere creatively. That was partly down to the fact that I couldn’t settle on an outlet for my creativity – I was in a heavy metal band and that was my Big Life Plan for a few years – so I floundered around instead of focusing my energies on one thing.

I was also tired from working at quite a physically demanding job, and at the same time I was involved in a pretty toxic relationship that ground me down to a nub and hollowed me out from the inside, leaving me very little energy for pursuing my goals and even less confidence that I was capable of achieving anything. Eventually I saw it for what it was and managed to end it, but since then I’ve had this feeling like I’m desperately scrambling to make up for lost time, so anything that puts the brakes on leaves me feeling really agitated.

I wouldn’t say I ‘have’ depression (not that there’s anything wrong with that at all), but I’m definitely prone to depressive moods if I’m not in control of what happens next, not just career-wise but with anything that’s important to me. The only reason I’m reluctant to label it is that I know people with serious depression and it’s completely debilitating, so I don’t want to minimise their struggles by saying my problems are the same as theirs. But the feeling I get when I’m down can leave me both lethargic and restless, and usually affects my sleep, my work and my general outlook on life, so even though I don’t suffer from it constantly I can sympathise with people who have to live with that on a daily basis. My heart goes out to them.

I can’t really say that this post offers any constructive advice for dealing with periods of stagnation or comes to any positive conclusion, other than maybe to say it’s fairly common for creative people and it will pass, you just have to grit your teeth and bear it.

On my low days I usually get very little achieved, even though I might really be looking forward to starting a new story or editing one I’ve already written. Quite often I’ll sit down at my laptop with the intention of getting something done and then suddenly lose enthusiasm/ energy – which makes me feel even worse because then it’s like I’ve failed at the thing I love to do more than anything – but I’ve learned to be kind to myself and recognise that it’s OK. It’ll pass. I just have to be patient and not beat myself up.

At other times, like yesterday, even though I wasn’t up to writing prose I did get some notes down for a book idea I’ve been chewing over for a while. I gave up pretty quickly and I don’t think I thought up anything new, it was more just writing down ideas that had been in my head already, but it was something.

Working as a freelance writer is something I enjoy and am very proud of, but it gets difficult sometimes to reconcile ‘business’ writing with ‘fun’ writing. Often I’m too worn out from staring at the screen all day to get started on a creative project in the evening, but again, it’s about making time for the things I care about and finding ways to compromise so that I can pay my bills and still pursue my dreams. I count myself very lucky that I’m able to have dreams at all, so I try to remind myself that life could be – and has been – a lot worse.

Periods of stagnation can be paralysing but they can also be opportunities to recharge your batteries and assess where you’re going next. Don’t get me wrong, I hate being in them, but sometimes you just have to shut down for a while and wait for things to get moving again on their own. If you’ve done all you can do then that work will pay off. I’m really not cut out for waiting patiently, but I suppose waiting impatiently has the same effect in the end, so I’ll have to make do with that.

If you want to follow me @RoseJamesAuthor I’m always happy to see what other people are up to and be reminded that the world keeps on turning. That’s usually enough to make me shrug out of my sulks and run to catch up again 🙂

 

Post-creativity Comedown

I’m writing this sooner than my next scheduled post, mainly because it’s relevant to how I’ve been feeling lately and I use writing as a therapeutic tool, but also because I think the subject will resonate with a lot of other people, which makes it worth talking about.

I’m calling it ‘post-creativity comedown’ because that’s how I’ve come to think of it, but I’ve seen it referred to as ‘post-creation depression’, ‘post-project depression’ or ‘post-adrenaline blues’ in various different articles I’ve come across online.

If you’ve ever spent a significant amount of time working on a single project, you’ll know the feeling I mean: you’ve been totally immersed in doing the thing you love most, and suddenly it’s over and you have to come back to Earth with a bump. It sucks. It really does. Life seems completely dull, dreary and meaningless; all you want is to go back to working on that project, but there’s nothing more you can do. It’s done. You’ve finished. It’s like ending a relationship that you’re not ready to let go of, or coming back home after an amazing holiday and wishing you could still be there.

This is something I’ve struggled with on many occasions throughout my creative life – I’ve performed in plays, toured with a band, recorded an EP and worked on several long-term writing projects – and to be honest, no matter how many times I experience it, it never gets any easier. I’m always left with that ache in my belly that won’t go away – that pining feeling that leaves you restless and irritable, and makes you a total pain in the arse to anyone unlucky enough to be around you.

See below for a visual representation of that feeling 😀 (Tip: Joining a heavy-metal band means you can scream in people’s faces and they just cheer louder!)

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Personally, I think this is what makes creativity so addictive: after riding the high of self-expression, excitement and imaginative indulgence, you’re left with a big gaping hole in your life that nothing else is able to fill.

Various studies have established links between depression and creativity, and there’s a good reason we’re all familiar with the cliché of the tortured artist. It’s almost a cultural norm to expect creative people to be slightly unhinged, as though depression is just the price that has to be paid for greatness.

That feeling of restlessness is – I believe – the reason so many writers, artists, actors and musicians end up with drink and drug problems, sex addictions and other forms of self-destructive behaviour. They’re chasing that euphoric feeling they get when they’re creating something, but really there is no substitute. Creation is the purest form of self-expression, in my opinion, and you can’t replace that with artificial stimulants, even if they make you feel sated for a while.

As a writer, expressing myself through fiction is the highest high I’ve ever felt. Nothing gets my blood singing like losing myself in a story; I can go without food, without sleep, without seeing or talking to anyone, without washing even, as long as I can keep writing. In fact, all those things become unwelcome distractions – obligations that ‘interrupt my flow’ (pretentious, moi?). But what goes up must come down, and in an effort to avoid becoming a cliché, I’ve learned to manage my post-creativity comedowns a little more… creatively.

Firstly, it’s really important to accept that you will have highs and lows – that’s natural – and there’s evidence to suggest that creative-types experience these things more intensely because we’re often more prone to dwelling on our thoughts and examining our deepest, darkest feelings. Having said that, there are coping mechanisms you can use to take the edge off and deal with your negative thoughts/ feelings in a healthy, productive way, and I’ve developed a few over the course of my writing life, which I want to share with you.

The biggest difference between my strategy now and my strategy of a few years ago is that now I actually have one! I have learned to anticipate, recognise and manage those feelings so that I don’t end up camping out on the sofa for days on end, binge-watching Netflix, surviving on biscuits and letting my house fester around me. (It’s fine if I’m doing that just to have a rest, but there’s a difference between resting and being crippled by negative thoughts.)

I know full well that when I come to the end of a project – or even the end of a section that’s been an emotional rollercoaster – I will need some recovery time and something to keep me occupied. The below suggestions are in no particular order, and for me each one can be more or less useful depending on my mood, but all of them have helped in the past, and sometimes I have to cycle through them until I land on the one that feels the most comforting at the time.

 

1) Have another project in the pipeline. I’m not talking about an in-depth proposal here, but an idea to daydream over, something to space out on so you’re not left feeling completely adrift. Maybe you’ve already had some ideas for initial research, or for a character you can develop or a plot you want to explore. Whatever it is, have something ready so you can ease yourself down off the creative high without plummeting face-first into the ground.

Having just finished a book I’ve been working on on-and-off for over seven years, I’m slap-bang in the middle of this feeling at the moment. But unlike on other occasions, this time I’ve been more proactive in preparing myself for the slump, and I’ve got a lot coming up this year including a masters degree to start in October (assuming I get accepted). As part of the application process I had to draw up a project proposal for my next book, which is great because now I already know what that’s going to be about, so I have an enormous amount of research to get stuck into whether I end up on the course or not.

2) Write a short story or a piece of flash fiction, or do some free-writing . Short fiction is great for using up that last bit of creative energy, with the added benefit that you now have another title to add to your body of work 🙂 Look at it as novel after-birth. You have this residual writing energy that needs to go somewhere, so why not use it to explore an idea or a feeling, or play with a character or a situation that takes your fancy?

Short-story form didn’t come naturally to me, but two years of creative writing study with the OU helped me develop my skills in that medium, and now I can even crack out a bit of flash fiction when the mood takes me. The more tools you have at your disposal the more options you have when you want to be creative, so if you’re like me and you prefer writing long, involved pieces, it’s still worth practising other forms for situations such as these.

3) Music, either playing or listening. I love to sing and I’m OK at guitar, so being able to get away from my laptop screen and fiddle around with songs is a great form of stress-relief for me. Having said that, sometimes I’m too exhausted to do anything more than listen – or sometimes I’d just rather be passive than active – and I find that cranking out my favourite heart-soaring, spine-tingling music, full blast through headphones, lying on the floor/ sofa with my eyes closed can be amazingly therapeutic.

Thirty Seconds To Mars is my main go-to band, but sometimes I’ll stick on Wildwood Kin, Florence and the Machine, Pink, James Bay, or something really heavy or grungy like Disturbed, Seether or Tool. As long as I can howl/ cry/ scream along to it, it does the trick: it gets those angsty visceral feelings out!

4) Next, kind of obvious but still really effective – read! Read something by one of your favourite authors, something with characters you know and love or at least characters you can invest in. Let a fellow-writer transport you somewhere outside your own head for a while, and remember why you fell in love with writing in the first place. A bit of escapism can do you the world of good, and if you find your thoughts drifting back to your own work, just remember that the book in your hand started out that way as well – let the positive thoughts have a turn.

5) There’s always the good ol’ TV option, but in my experience it has to be a film/ show you really, really love, something with a brilliant story that you find really absorbing. If it doesn’t grab you, you’ll just end up spacing out and brooding on your work, which puts you right back at square one.

Comedy works best for me because it jolts me out of feeling sorry for myself, and natural endorphins are the best way to beat the blues. I tend to go for comedy when I’m the least in the mood for it, because that’s when I know I need it the most. Black Books is great for that, or Cats Does Countdown, The IT Crowd or some Russell Howard, although I tend to avoid political satire when I’m a bit ‘on the edge’ because it can have the opposite effect to the one I’m going for. Save the doom and gloom (even if it’s conveyed in a funny way) for when you’re feeling more stable, and stick with the light-hearted nonsensical stuff when you’re low.

6) Go and see people. This one can be a bit hit-and-miss for me because if I’m feeling down I don’t always want to be around people, and other hoomans can be notoriously unpredictable! I have a few friends who are also creative, so they understand when I explain why I’m feeling poo, but if I’m really having a strop then seeing people doesn’t always help, and sometimes the feeling comes back as soon as I get home and I’m right back where I started.

This solution usually works best for me after I’ve done one or more of the others, when I’m already feeling a bit better and I want to engage with the world again. We’re all different though, so maybe for you it’s better to begin with this one. See how you feel about it and pay attention to the effect it has – at least you’ll know for next time.

 

I think that’s all of my top ones. Of course there are lots of other things you can do – go for a walk or a drive, call someone, do some gaming, cook something yum, binge-clean the house, go to the gym or the cinema, go out dancing with your friends, whatever gets you out of your own head and makes you engage with something other than the project you were working on.

In my experience, being able to channel my negative feelings into a new piece of work is the most positive way to avoid spiralling into depression, because I’m focusing that energy on being productive, which instantly makes me feel better about myself.

That’s another reason this blog is a good idea for me. When I first sat down to write this post, I was filled with that intense restlessness that makes it impossible to relax. I’d had a busy day – working on the blog, doing some freelance pieces, editing a short story and drawing up a rough outline for my next book – but I still felt too hyped-up to stop. That belly-ache was making itself felt.

Now, I’ve got 30STM on Spotify, a dog snuggling either side of me and a blanket over my lap, and as I come to the end of writing this I finally feel like I’ve got everything out of my system for the day.

I never thought I’d become the kind of person who gets agitated by inactivity, but I think once you start progressing your tolerance for work goes up, and when you stop it’s like peddling downhill – you have all that energy but nowhere for it to go. I’m counting that as a positive because it means I can use it to do more things, including writing this blog, but it’s taken me a while to learn how to channel it.

I hope this has helped – it’s certainly helped me as I’ve written it. Let me know what your coping strategies are or if any of these suggestions have helped, and don’t forget to check out my next official post on Monday on the first steps of beginning a new novel.

Feel free to tweet me @RoseJamesAuthor and take care of yourselves 🙂