The Creative Resilience Manifesto: How to Stay Strong in the Face of Criticism & Rejection

In my first post I introduced what I’m calling the “Creative Resilience Manifesto.”

It’s basically a collection of affirmations, beliefs that have helped me stay focused on my goals as a writer and weather the storms of difficult rejections.

The purpose of this post is to elaborate on them and explain why I think they are important.

If any or all of the affirmations resonate with you, you can print them out and post them near your workspace, on your bathroom mirror, or on your fridge. When you get a rejection, take a deep breath and read them aloud to yourself. (You can find the manifesto without the explanations here. I hope to create a pretty PDF version of it that you can print out–or to inspire a graphic artist to do so! How about you? ūüėČ )

I create because creation is an act of love.

Creation is taking elements that exist–words, paint, clay, musical notes, movements and gestures, mathematical formulas, whatever–and connecting and combining them in a way no one has ever done before, breathing your own life into them.

Like the Creator breathing life into Adam, this is an act of love. When we create, we channel the Divine.

When we create, we give expression to the dreams and thoughts and images and sounds from within us. This is an act of love for ourselves. We create because we love to.

When we share what we create, we give of ourselves to the world and leave our unique handprint on the tapestry of humanity. This is an act of love for the universe.

I share my creations because I believe in their worth.

When we share to seek approval, or to please or impress others, we make the worth of our work conditional on that approval. That means that when someone we share it with disapproves or criticizes it, we crumble.

Creation is an act of love, and true love is unconditional.¬†A resilient sense of worthiness¬†cannot¬†be conditional on someone else’s feelings about our work. We must start out believing that our work is worthy to withstand disapproval, criticism, and rejection.

Not everyone is going to share that belief,
but the only opinion that really matters is my own.

Disapproval and rejection are always going to hurt. But they don’t have to destroy us.

We don’t need the approval of some “higher authority” to tell us¬†that our¬†work is worthy.

We have been trained to think this way. “If my book is published by one of the Big Five publishing companies–then my work is worthy.” “If my poem¬†is accepted by a high-ranking literary magazine–then my work is worthy.” “If my piece is put on display in a prestigious gallery–then my work is worthy.” “If my piece is approved by an elite professor–then my work is worthy.”

This is BS.

When it comes to your work, you are the highest authority.

When I was a teenager and already the author of several novels, I thought I wouldn’t be a Real Author‚ĄĘ until I was published by a “traditional” publishing company. I thought I wouldn’t qualify for that title until I was “approved” by an editor in an office somewhere.

It took until just a few years ago, when I read one line by singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer, to realize that that wasn’t true. She says, “You‚Äôre an artist when you say you are.”

That’s it.

That’s all it takes.

“And you‚Äôre a good artist,” Palmer goes on, “when you make somebody else experience or feel something deep or unexpected.”

If you find an audience, even if it’s an audience of one, who believes in your work–you are a good artist.

And your work is worthy of sharing because it can cause other people to experience or feel something deep or unexpected.

This has nothing to do with the approval or validation of some “authority.”

That said, I embrace constructive criticism and opportunities for growth.

There is a colossal difference between believing that your work is worthy, and believing that your work is perfect.

Constructive criticism hurts. All criticism does. And you definitely shouldn’t take everything anybody says about your work as gospel. If you do, you’ll end up creating only what other people think is good, and not what¬†you think is good. And remember whose opinion is the only one that really matters?

If someone says something negative about your work that does not ring true to you–ascribe it to a difference in taste, toss it in the garbage, and move on. If it does ring true, though, and starts to give you¬†a vision of a way your work could be better–seize the opportunity to engage with your work and play with it some more. (After all, why do we create in the first place? Because we love it. See item #1!)

Constructive criticism is just that–it builds you rather than destroys you. Once you get past the initial wave of hurt, you may find that the criticism actually inspires you.

After I wrote my latest novel, I actually found myself craving constructive criticism. I had so much fun writing the book that finishing it was like losing a friend. Finding opportunities to improve it meant that I could go play with my imaginary friends characters some more.

I cultivate hope.

This is a big one.

So big, I wrote an entire guest blog post on the topic of hope for poet Trish Hopkinson’s blog. You can check out the full post here, but here are the highlights:

I used to be terrified of hope.

Well, I was actually terrified of disappointment. But I saw hope as a seductive and deceptive force that enticed me to climb higher, making the inevitable fall hurt that much more…

Here’s the thing… maybe [hope] entices us to climb higher, and maybe the fall from that place hurts more. But that place it takes us is not just a place we fall from. It‚Äôs a place where we see farther, where we breathe better, where we reach higher.

Hope is the basic human emotion that keeps us moving forward, that keeps us striving for a better future, and that fills us with a sense of purpose in life. We deserve to feel it in our lives. Which is why…

I refrain from the use of ‚Äúprophylactic pessimism‚ÄĚ to¬†numb myself to disappointment.

“Prophylactic pessimism” is forcing yourself to expect the worst outcome in order to avoid the pain of disappointment. As I write in the guest post I linked to above:

I became a pro at ‚ÄúDon‚Äôt get your hopes up.‚ÄĚ In fact, I made an art of killing hope at every opportunity. When an unread e-mail with the subject ‚ÄúRe: Query‚ÄĚ would pop up in my inbox, I would automatically assume it was a rejection. Usually I was right. Occasionally, I was pleasantly surprised with a request to see more material. When I found myself fantasizing about The Call, I immediately shot it down by imagining how awful the rejection of that full request would be. I wanted to be prepared for the let-down, so I practiced it. This system‚ÄĒpreventing disappointment by preemptively shutting down hope‚ÄĒseemed to be working well for a while.

Until it didn’t.

We all do this sometimes. Because disappointment hurts. The greater the hope, the more we wanted something, the more it will hurt, and we want to protect ourselves from that hurt by suppressing our desire and our hope.

This may seem reasonable, but here’s the problem: when we numb ourselves to negative emotions like fear, sadness, disappointment, and anger, we also numb ourselves to positive emotions like joy, hope, love, and excitement. (If you haven’t seen Bren√© Brown’s TED talk on the power of vulnerability, you need to get on that pronto.) I believe that we deserve to feel the highest heights of these positive emotions even at the expense of having to experience the negative ones. That’s why…

I invite myself to feel everything.

Experiencing the negative emotions can give us invaluable gifts: empathy, understanding, self-compassion, self-nurturing. We deserve to cultivate and experience these things alongside the positive emotions.

I think we are so afraid to feel pain because we haven’t been taught how to care for ourselves through the pain. We have been taught to numb it or to “stick it out” or do anything we can to make it go away. We have not been taught to be kind to ourselves, to ask ourselves what we need to heal, and give what we need¬†to ourselves as generously as we can.

When we learn how to do this, when we trust ourselves to be there for ourselves through the pain, it becomes a lot less threatening.

Read more about the case for hope and against prophylactic pessimism here.

Getting criticized or rejected means
I dared to hope,
I dared to create,
I dared to share my work,
and I dared to face disappointment.

How many people do you know personally who have ever dared to risk getting a creative work rejected by an agent, editor, judge, or curator, or criticized by anyone at all?

If you can count them on two hands, you hang with an unusually awesome crowd.

The vast majority of people don’t do it. Most people are too afraid of exposing themselves and making themselves that vulnerable.

I give myself permission to mourn the loss that each rejection represents: the death of a dream.

Every time we submit something, we give birth to a dream–a dream that our work will be accepted. When we get a no, the dream dies.

It’s okay to grieve for it.

In our culture stoicism is often mistaken for strength. It does not take strength to shove your grief under the rug and pretend it never happened. It takes a lot of strength to face your grief head on and let yourself feel it. This is the only way to really work past it. When we deny our grief, it comes out in other, sometimes harmful ways. The only way out is through.

I also give myself permission to honor that I dared to dream in the first place.

If you have ever created something, you are brave. If you have ever shared something you created with somebody, you are very brave. If you have ever tried to get your work in front of an audience, you are unbelievably brave.

I celebrate the incredible courage I showed in trying to make that dream come true.

Life won’t always reward you for your courage, but you can.

I keep a stash¬†of mini chocolate bars in my closet. I call them “rejection chocolates.” When I get a rejection, I treat myself to one. It may seem¬†silly, but it actually makes a big difference for me. It associates rejection with something positive to look forward to, however small and insignificant. And it¬†makes rejection into something more than just the loss of a dream. It makes it a celebration of courage, too.

I highly recommend this practice.

Is there anything you would add to this? What rituals or perspectives have you developed to help you handle rejection?

The 5 Words that Keep Me from Giving Up After 15 Years of Rejection

My name is Daniella Levy, and I’m a manuscript submission addict.

I’ve been writing stories since I was four years old.¬†I¬†wrote my first full-length novel between the ages of 12-14, and I sent my first query letter–for my second novel–a year or two¬†later. I wrote five novels before I turned 20, and was¬†this close to signing with an agent on the fifth one before she kinda disappeared on me (turned out she had quit).

I am now 29,¬†with another novel, a novella, and a handful of short stories under my belt… and more than 200¬†rejection letters to show for all of it.

That’s it. Not one of them has been published.*

(Okay, it’s not that all my writing efforts have failed so extravagantly. I’ve had articles and poetry published, and I self-published my first nonfiction book,¬†Letters to Josep, based on the eponymous blog, a couple months ago. But my passion has always been fiction.)

Well, you might be thinking, maybe you just suck at fiction.

I don’t.

Don’t take my word for it:

“I really enjoyed this and think you are talented and that this manuscript has potential,” said one literary agent.

“Your query letter stood out from the many we receive… we encourage you to continue with this project,” said another.

“I found much to admire in your writing,” said another.

“You show an obvious talent for writing… I’m sure we’ll find a project to work on together,” said another.

“I enjoyed this so much… I hope you will think of me for future projects if you don’t find an agent before then,” said another.

“Your sense of pacing and dialogue are better than many hopefuls twice your age,” one agent told sixteen-year-old me.

“We really enjoyed this piece, and we hope you will submit more of your work to us,” said one¬†literary magazine.

“Although we cannot publish this piece at this time, we enjoyed it, and hope you will continue to submit to us,” said another.

So why haven’t I been published yet?

Well, here’s the disappointing¬†truth for all those starry-eyed, well-intentioned people who like to tell me that Harry Potter was rejected dozens of times (…and don’t know that J. K. Rowling snagged an agent after sending two query letters. But I digress).

The market is hopelessly flooded.

More people have access to the literacy, materials, and leisure time necessary to create art and literature than ever before. And humans are creative by nature and many of them come out with some decent stuff. While most of the slush pile on agents’ and editors’ tables is pretty¬†crappy, from what I gather, there is still a fair¬†percentage of writing in there that is pretty good.

But “pretty good” isn’t what gets a novel¬†published these days. Even “excellent” isn’t enough. It’s the M word. It has to be marketable. And the traditional publishing industry is in something of a crisis¬†because of the huge changes in¬†information technology and the “Amazon revolution.” They can’t afford to take risks. So they stick with the guaranteed bestsellers–probably depriving the world of a lot of¬†diverse and intriguing voices in the process. It sucks, but at the end of the day, publishing is a business, and that’s how it is.

As for literary magazines… let’s be honest: who¬†reads them? Save for¬†the handful of elite publications¬†that are impossible to break into, the vast majority of lit mags¬†are not for profit and don’t pay their writers. Many of them¬†support themselves by¬†submission and contest entry fees, which basically makes them a self-contained echo chamber for literary academics. From my (admittedly limited) experience, they seem¬†to be¬†more interested in “daring” and “experimental” writing techniques¬†than in producing things that us common folk¬†actually want to read. It’s almost the opposite extreme of the full-length fiction industry.

And… let’s not even get into the question of prejudice¬†and sexism.

Then why, you may ask, do I continue to submit my work in the face of these impossible odds? Why bother?

I have asked myself this question many times, and the answer is subject to change.

“I still have hope.”

“I’m a frikkin’ masochist.”

“I’m trying to prove myself.”

“Why not? What have I got to lose?”

“I’m addicted to querying. I can’t stop.”

“Isn’t the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? Maybe I’m just insane.”

Most often:

“I don’t. even. know.”

But deep down, I do know.

The answer is five words, whispered by a small, still voice at the very core of my being, beneath all the layers of self-doubt and fear and self-criticism.

“I believe in my work.”

That voice has¬†never¬†been silenced by anything. No amount of criticism or rejection dampens it¬†in any way. It’s why¬†I’m either going to get published¬†one day, or die trying. Giving up¬†was never an option. Because I believe in my work.

So many people stop believing in their work because of rejections.

So many people give up or don’t try in the first place¬†because of rejections.

I’m here to tell you that if you are a creative person who wants to share your work with the world, rejection is just going to be part of your life.

But that doesn’t have to suck nearly as much as you think it does.

If you¬†ask a writer how to handle the ups and downs of the submission process, you are likely to get one or both of these answers: “don’t get your hopes up,” or “move on to the next project so you’re occupied with something else.”

In other words: suppress your feelings, kill your hope, and distract yourself from something that is deeply important to you.

…Somehow that doesn’t seem like the healthiest approach to me.

It’s time we started talking about dealing with rejection in a way that is¬†constructive and builds resilience… as opposed to reinforcing the neuroses that probably turned us all into writers and artists in the first place.

So, that’s what this blog is for.

I want to share what I’ve learned, and what I’m still learning, about resilience in the face of rejection. I want to explore the dialogue with self-doubt and the interplay between hope and disappointment. I want to publicly question the common coping mechanisms we employ to deal with these things, and where appropriate, find better alternatives.

I want to help you, too, discover the still, small voice in your heart that whispers, “I believe in my work.”

I know what it’s like to be in the trenches. I’ve been there. I’m still there. I may be there forever. So I’m getting comfortable, setting up shop, and mapping this place out for those of you who haven’t gotten to know this place like I have.

I have written out a manifesto to serve as a guide for myself and for you as I set out on this journey. It can be accessed at any time from the main menu. (ETA: Here is a post in which I elaborate on each section of the manifesto.)

The Creative Resilience Manifesto

I create because creation is an act of love.

I share my creations because I believe in their worth.

Not everyone is going to share that belief, but the only opinion that really matters is my own.

That said, I embrace constructive criticism and opportunities for growth.

I cultivate hope.

I refrain from the use of “prophylactic pessimism”¬†to¬†numb myself to disappointment.

I invite myself to feel everything.

Getting a rejection letter means
I dared to hope,
I dared to create,
I dared to submit my work,
and I dared to face disappointment.

I give myself permission to mourn the loss that each rejection represents:
the death of a dream.

I also give myself permission to honor
that I dared to dream in the first place.

I celebrate the incredible courage I showed
in trying to make that dream come true.

I hope you’ll¬†stick around.

*This was true when I first posted this. Happily, it is no longer true. My debut novel is forthcoming from Kasva Press in the fall of 2017; my short story, Immersion, was published in the Jewish Literary Journal in September 2016; and another short story, The Olive Harvest, was published in Reckoning in December 2016.↩