In the course of the extended conversation I had with our latest Rejection Survivor interviewee, Elizabeth Bell, something occurred to me about the long “creative dry spell” I experienced during early adulthood.
Upon completing my national volunteer service at age 20 (which I did as an alternative to the mandatory IDF service), I began studying theater, Jewish studies, and education at Emunah College in Jerusalem. During that time I met my husband, and within the next year we were married. Disenchanted with the program at the college, I quit, choosing instead to pursue a more precious lifelong dream: becoming a mother. I had three kids in three years. My youngest was born the day before his oldest brother’s third birthday.
Needless to say, I was busy.
But I was not happy.
Motherhood proved much more challenging than I had anticipated–not necessarily because it was different than I expected it to be, but because I was a different mother than I expected to be. I have struggled with depression on and off since I was a child, so the term “postpartum depression” doesn’t really encompass it, but we can call it that if it makes it easier to understand. I was exhausted, overwhelmed, and struggling to survive.
And I was not writing–at all. In fact, I had stopped thinking of myself as a writer. I thought that writing novels was just a thing I did in my teens. I like to say now that I write like I breathe; during those years, I wasn’t breathing.
Something else was going on during that time that, in retrospect, was crucial to my creative resilience.
I was developing a sense of identity, meaning, and self-worth that was separate from my identity as a writer.
Here’s why this is important: When we pour everything we have into our art, if we become nothing but an artist, we make our sense of worth dependent on the success of our art. And we just can’t afford that. Not only because success is so out of our control, but because… guys, we are more than just artists. Much, much more.
In my letter to my I’ll-Never-Have-Another-Good-Idea Demon, I wrote the following:
If I never write another story I love, I will still pray with tears streaming down my face; I will still sing at the top of my voice while washing dishes; I will still love deeply and fiercely; I will still support my friends and family; I will still wrestle with God; I will still bake the most delicious challah for Shabbat; I will still listen, I will still give solid hugs, I will still do what I can to inspire and encourage people, and raise my children to create a better world than the one I will leave.
The most important story I will ever create is that of my life, and it won’t need to be written anywhere.
The conversation with Elizabeth made me realize that those things were more central to my creative resilience than I had realized.
Below are five things I think every artist can do that helps us build up an identity separate from our artist selves–making us more resilient against rejection.
1) Cultivate Meaningful Relationships
Studies have shown that the most important determining factor in overall happiness and satisfaction with life is close relationships.
Being happy and satisfied with life is not a requirement for producing good art, but so much of art is about relationships, and it is our relationships that inspire us most. My first book was not only inspired, but the direct product of an important friendship in my life. I wrote my second book at least partially as a result of the chronic illness of another dear friend of mine (I tell the story here). My relationships with others and the stories of the people I know are constantly reflected, processed, and explored in the stories and poems I have written.
This may be more of a challenge for people who lead lonely lives and aren’t on good terms with family. It’s an important pursuit, however, and fortunately, you can incorporate meeting new people and creating friendships into the items below.
2) Help Other People
There is no better way to develop a sense of self-worth than to be of service to others. This doesn’t have to mean volunteering at your local soup kitchen or running a charity drive. (Those are great ideas, but such things may be particularly hard for introverts!) During my “dry spell,” I became an empowerment self-defense instructor and helped women, teens, and kids discover their inner power. Sometimes, when I’m feeling down, being there for a friend who needs advice, help, or a shoulder to cry on makes me feel needed and gives my sense of worth a boost. It doesn’t need to be grandiose! Everybody has something to contribute. Find an elderly neighbor who needs help putting groceries away. Write some encouraging or inspiring notes and drop them into the mailboxes of random strangers. Volunteer to host “story time” and read books to children at your local library. Set up a “free hugs” station. I dunno. Find your niche. Anything that makes you feel like you are making someone else’s life better in some way.
3) Learn New Things
Many people associate learning with school, and school with tedium. But learning for its own sake is not boring, it’s life-affirming! Get curious about the world! Read a mind-blowing nonfiction book, tune into an informative podcast, watch an insightful documentary, go to a museum, take a class or an online course, learn a new language, or try your hand at a new skill! Not only will these things enrich you and inspire you and expand your horizons, they help you discover other interests–and new aspirations. I’m kind of a languages geek, so allow me to effusively recommend the free DuoLingo app; I became more or less literate in both Spanish and French thanks to almost-daily use. I’ve taken great free courses through Coursera, edX, and FutureLearn, to name a few. I also learned to crochet and make cool paper airplanes for my kids from YouTube videos. The Internet makes it so, so easy to learn new things nowadays. Take advantage!
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it makes the creative come alive. You can quote me on that.
4) Pursue Other Creative Activities
What other creative activities do you enjoy? Pursue them too! The more creative stuff you’re doing, the easier it is to take that sense of play and channel it into your more “serious” art.
In my letter to my self-doubt demon, I mentioned two creative activities I enjoy: baking challah (the Jewish Sabbath bread) and singing.
My challahs are my pride and joy only a short step removed from my writing. I bake them for every week and have been told by more than one person that they’re the best challahs they’ve ever tasted.
Who needs to write bestselling novels anyhow?!
I sang in choirs all through high school, and I miss it dearly; so when I heard that a women’s choir was forming in my town, I eagerly joined. I’m never going to make a career of singing for a variety of reasons, but I’m good at it and I love it, so I’m glad I have an opportunity to do it–just for the joy of it.
5) Take Care of Your Body
Those of us hunched in office chairs or piano stools–GET UP. Stretch. Take a walk. Do some yoga. (YouTube videos to the rescue again!) Eat right, drink your water, stay away from addictive substances. You have a body, and the sensations and emotions you channel into your work are experienced and expressed in that body, so get to know it, be nice to it, and take good care of it.
What are some other things you think are important to do that have nothing to do with your art? Let’s discuss in the comments!