Art, Guilt, and Motivation

I consider myself to be pretty good at dealing with rejection. It’s something that, as a writer, is as commonplace as breathing or chocolate or bourbon.

But sometimes, when you get a bunch all at once, it brings up the old weasels that whisper things like, “What the hell do you think you’re doing? Is your opinion of yourself so skewed from the reality of your skill level that you think someone’s actually gonna buy that crap?”

It’s like all of your carefully managed and long-suppressed neuroses bubble up to the surface.

When you’re starting out, you hear the advice that you shouldn’t take rejections personally. Everyone gets them. Even the pros. Yes, the story may be broken, or it may just not be to the taste of the editor. Send it out. And as VP reinforced, keep sending it out until hell won’t have it.

But writing can be a very emotional thing. If you’re doing it right, you’re pouring bits and pieces of yourself into a story, so when you get that note back that it wasn’t what they’re looking for, it hurts. It feels like the judgment is being passed on you, not the story.

And when you’re starting out, the rejection feels like it’s rejection your dreams – you want to be a writer? HA! Nice try!

But when you’ve been doing it for a while, the personal edge to a rejection is not about you being a writer. You’re still writing, so you ARE a writer. It instead can become an indirect critique of your process, which is something that you DO have control over. If a story failed in a certain vain, it’s because maybe you haven’t failed in that way before and you needed to learn that approach won’t work. Or maybe it just wasn’t to the taste of the editor, but even so, there are the weasels there, endlessly extrapolating.

Why, then? Why do we keep doing it?

I have a lot of arguments with my therapist about the role of guilt in art. She argues that it’s counterproductive – that it distracts from the sitting down and doing of the thing. I argue that the magnitude of the guilt corresponds to the magnitude of desire. It’s an emergent property of motivation.

I think we’re both right to a certain degree. Guilt flows easily from the feeling that you should be doing more, which is tied into deeper motivations for wanting to do whatever it is that’s making you feel guilty.

I know I could be doing more. I sometimes have escapist fantasies about what being able to write full time would be like – the eschew all social obligations and just come home, sit down and write until I’m too tired or braindead to keep going. But I don’t even do that when I get home from work because sitting down to write is fucking hard. It’s emotional, full of equal parts self-criticism and delight. When it’s going, oh man, it’s the best feeling in the world. When it’s not, the questions turn inward:

Why can’t I do this right now? Isn’t this what you WANT to be doing?

And it is. But that new story idea gets you so excited to sit down to write comes out different than you expected once it’s written. It’s broken and weird and overstuffed. Then you’re left wrestling with a broken thing, trying to make it work and do the thing you wanted it to  do. But it won’t. It’ll become its own thing. And after reading it over and over again, and tweaking it and obsessing over it, you are no longer able to see it for what it is. Eventually you get comments on it, wonder what it is that other people are seeing in it. You get it as done as it’s gonna get and you send it out, unsure it does the thing you wanted it to do, but hoping that it does.

And then you get the rejections and you have a decision to make: is this really done? Should I send it back out or agonize over it and re-edit it, suspecting it’s broken in some way you can’t put your finger on.

Do this enough times and when you sit down to write, you remember all of this, know that whatever this new story becomes, you’ll go through the same thing. So the rejections become as much a critique of the story as they are of you and your process. Maybe if you’d done more, been more thoughtful, more diligent, that story wouldn’t have been such a mess.

But you keep doing it anyway because when you don’t you feel guilty. If you felt nothing, you wouldn’t keep doing this to yourself, because your art is too important to you to not do it.

And that’s the thing that on mornings like this, where I’ve got a whole damn day to write. I need to give my guilt some chocolate, Tom Waits, kind words from friends, and a hug from my girlfriend, to get over itself.

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