The other day I was talking to a fellow musician who had recently experienced a disappointment on the career front. She was understandably upset and was deep in that very familiar pit of lamenting, second-guessing and self-doubt. She was questioning her worth as a musician and contemplating as to whether or not she should continue. I dangled my legs over the side of the pit and peered down. God, I’ve so been there. My friend continued her devastating query, moving on to skepticism about her ability to learn anymore. I extended my paw down to her and offered words of encouragement. I couldn’t change her upset in that moment but if nothing else, I could help pull her out of the pit and knock some of the dirt off her dress. Pain has a stubborn way of moving along at its own pace. It takes its own sweet time. And unfortunately, the pain of disappointment is something we all encounter in our creative lives. Although I will, no doubt, one day be back in the spot that my friend is in now, I would like to take advantage of the present moment of relative calm and offer up six tips for dealing with disappointment in your creative life.
When you’ve just broken your arm and the ski patrol is carting you down the side of the mountain, it might not be the best moment to decide that you’re giving up skiing forever. The same is true when we’re toppled over from disappointment. When we’re in the throes, everything is really elevated and frantic or really muddy and dark. In either case, it is an inhospitable environment for big decision making. Anyway, absolutes declared in a moment of crisis rarely stick. Think of all the women who swore, at around 8 or 9 centimeters, that they would never have another baby and went on to have enough kids to fill a minivan.
Go do your art or play your music or hunker down with your writing. The shed is a juicy place, full of wonder and discovery if approached with an open attitude. There are always basics to drill, new things to learn or problems to fix. Rolling up your sleeves and putting razor focus on your craft can do wonders. It snaps you back to the present moment and takes your hand-wringing mind off the upset at hand. After one bruising disappointment, I retreated to the shed and worked on breath control and increasing the muscularity of my head voice. Part of this involved singing along with Barbra Streisand recordings and trying to emulate her power and control. Trust me, that undertaking definitely took my mind off the disappointment that prompted it. The shed is also a great place to lick your wounds. It’s womb- like and private. You’ve got nothing to prove there. You can just be.
A few years ago, I experienced a particularly brutal musical situation. While I have enough self-preservation not to rip open that wound and share all the gory details, I’ll just say that I got my ass handed to me in front of God and everyone. A musician who was on the gig that night still refers to it as “the massacre.” It was so painful that I not only considered giving up singing but also even contemplated moving someplace far, far away–like the Himalayas. Yeah, it was that bad. I didn’t have enough cash for an international escape, so I simply retreated to my bed and pulled the covers over my head for several days. When I emerged, I called my teacher. She had actually been in attendance that wretched night and shared her angle on what went down. Interestingly, despite all my horrific imaginings, it was not as bad as I’d thought it was, not by a long stretch. This isn’t to say that she hadn’t observed some rough spots–she definitely had–but she was able to reel me back into a more realistic assessment of the evening. In her view, there was no cause for the lethal sense of humiliation that I was feeling.
Your teacher/mentor has your best interests at heart and can offer perspective, something you might not have when you’re deep in the belly of a monster disappointment. More than likely, she has been through something similar before. Sometimes there is odd comfort in war stories. Your teacher sees all of you, not just the banged up soul who went all in and came up with nothing. (this time) She can hold up a mirror, come up with a game plan or simply lend a shoulder to snivel on. Just be careful not to slime her blouse.
OK, here it is: I pray to Carmen McRae. It all started several years ago. I was going through a painful personal situation that involved the mother of all heartaches. My teacher, in her seemingly infinite wisdom, gave me a copy of “At Ratso’s,” a live recording of Carmen during stints at the famous Chicago jazz club. (See # 3) I spent an entire summer with my headphones on, listening to Carmen sing about life, love and blues. It felt as if an old broad who had seen it all was reaching through time to comfort me and to testify on behalf of the millions of women who have experienced what I was going through that summer. Laugh and point if you will, but it was a spiritual experience for me.
While I am not a God or Jesus type, I do, to this day, invoke the spirit of Carmen McRae if I’m going through something and especially if it involves a challenge in my creative life. When I think of Carmen and all the great vocalists that went before me, I feel certain that they too had their own trials, tribulations and disappointments along the way. Yet they endured and shared their gifts with the world. There is inspiration in that. The mere act of meditating on their humanity gives me a deep sense of grace and strength. When we pray to our predecessors, I like to think that we’re tapping into something timeless that can serve us in the here and now.
Dabble outside of your usual creative medium. If your thing is music, then dig your fingers into some clay and make something. If you’re a ballet dancer, write a short story. If your expression usually involves paint and canvas, crank up the tunes and get your funk on. The goal is to infuse your scene with some fresh energy and to possibly see things differently. Sometimes when we’re disappointed, we temporarily lose creative moxie in our own discipline. Trying a different means of expression can sometimes kick- start our flow again. And besides, it’s fun. I know I’ve made this suggestion in other posts but I repeat it here it because it works. Thanks to the exquisitely inspiring photographer Darrah Parker, I’ve been carrying around a camera and taking photos for over a year now. Taking pictures has been liberating and life-changing. There is no pressure for my photos to “be” any certain way or for me to be particularly “good” at taking them. It is just the simple joy of visual expression. Joy is a powerful panacea for disappointment.
Disappointment, in part anyway, is a state of skewed perception. When you’re disappointed, your focus is on what you didn’t get or what didn’t happen. It’s like a canker sore of the psyche. But if you dig back into your history, there were, no doubt, times when you did nail the audition or get the gig or win the prize. Summon up the memories of these wins and make a list–physically write it down so you have a visual. When you can see your wins written out on paper, things become a little less lopsided. You remember than it’s not always this way. You can start to see your creative life with a more balanced overview.
Disappointment is part of our creative experience. If we’re putting ourselves out there, then inevitably setbacks and unhappy blows will happen from time to time. There will be periods of feeling like crap and questioning everything. However, our disappointments don’t define us. And when we accept that disappointment is just part of the dance, then we can quell the freakout just a little.
If all else fails, ask yourself the following questions:
Disappointment happens and perspective is everything.