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Coping with discouragement

I have made a number of different things over the years. I’ve created books, apps, events, podcasts, newspapers, magazines and websites (alongside, of course, proper jobs, such as my new role here as Managing Editor of The Literary Platform!) But for every project to be nourished by daylight there are a dozen unfortunates wilting in the shadows. The hits spawn a cloud of idea seeds, and everything sits and lives, and dies, and waits for the sun to come out again. Making things is a painful business, but a business it is – and we should treat it like one.

There are two big obstacles to making things: fear of the new, and perfectionism. Once you’ve overcome #1, the first (and biggest) hurdle, and done the thing you always wanted to try but were too afraid to, you often find yourself at #2: paralysed by the desire to do it well. I’ve noticed that finding a way of doing something you didn’t think you could do is often so rewarding in itself, and that the game changes so much between “doing” and “doing well” that people don’t always get past it onto step #2. Whenever we are driven to create, and eventually to create better, discouragement appears. If it can’t stop us doing things to begin with, it will certainly try to stop us improving. It is a skilled adversary, but there are ways to handle it.

The more new things you want to try, and the more unusual the things you want to do – that is to say, the smaller the commercial audience – the more rejection you will encounter. You will of course get a lot more rejection than acceptance, but only a cursory moment of rational thought reveals what a nonsense it is to allow either to change the way you feel about your work. Neither rejection nor approval has much to do with objective value judgements, and neither, eventually, will have much effect on your self-worth or general well being. Both the buzz and the sting will fade.

I receive a number of emails every single week from funding bodies, production companies, publishers, agents, editors, organisations, and individuals telling me how mesmerisingly fascinating my ideas are, and yet how sorry they are that I’m not quite right for them, at this time. Still, maybe someone else will like your stuff even more than we do. Someone with less good taste. Have you tried the Writers’ and Artists’ Handbook? Best of luck in your search.

After a while, this simply gets built in to one’s model of how things play out. I have come to accept there is nothing to be done about it, other than continually checking that I’m responsible for as much of the situation as I can be. Love your offer for itself, appreciate the endgame is someone else’s problem, and eventually rejection barely touches the sides. It’s an ongoing experimental process, and one you have more control over than you think. It’s a number’s game, not a character assassination. Your only responsibility is to yourself in all of this, defend your motivation to the end, and keep your distance.

It strikes me that discouragement and rejection are not the same. Discouragement is telling someone inexperienced that they’re going to loseregardless of whether it’s helpful to say anything. It is not without emotion, it’s a chemical reaction that occurs when an external expectation contradicts a heartfelt hope. Discouragement makes you want to stop trying at #2, to stop bothering to get better. You’re no good, and mistakes have no value so you might as well give up now before you’ve had a chance to make any. But these are voices generated in your head by a toxic combination, and the instigator often doesn’t realise what a festering mess they’re adding their chemicals to. Discouragement is corrosive, but it only spreads if you allow the conditions for it. If you let it, it will burn through your motivation and spread from past to future in a flash. And it will visit all of us trying new things.

Its professional cousin rejection, however, is simply turning down an offer that’s already been made. And you don’t have to respond to any form of discouragement by turning down your own offer. You’ve already accepted your own offer! That’s the beauty of gas.

I wanted to list a few of the discouragements from the last week but quickly lost count. Here’s one though: yesterday I told someone I want to try surfing. “Sorry,” she said. “But I can’t really see you surfing.” This kind of thing happens so often it is largely water off a duck’s back, but I wonder if there’s a way to turn some of these responses into motivation, without the grit overwhelming the pearl.

I think the answer might lie in rejection. Discouragement says, “It’s not going to happen for you (based on what I know about you)” Maybe the reaction should be, “Screw you then, I can be anyone. I’ll become a world champion at it.” Maybe, to varying degrees, that rejection reflex that we must painfully tolerate so frequently from publishers is how we get good at anything – it feels a little unnatural, a little assertive, but it’s a muscle worth flexing. Ignoring discouragement is not good enough. Fight fire with fire. We have to take action, or words like these will burn through us completely, because they chime with our deepest, darkest certainties about ourselves.

If you want to get better at something, you need to find a way to block, combat, or ignore discouragement – it is not something you have to accept. Never accept that things can’t be done. It’s about taking control, and it’s actually very exciting. Every piece of feedback in life can be treated as something we can choose whether or not to accept. Perhaps discouragement should be treated as an offer from the outside, and like all those producers who email me every week, we can, without feeling, choose to reject it.

Image by Sean MacEntee.

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