Do Something Else
So how do you shake off failure and shame in order to keep living a creative life?
First of all, forgive yourself. If you made something and it didn’t work out, let it go. Remember that you’re nothing but a beginner—even if you’ve been working on your craft for fifty years. We are all just beginners here, and we shall all die beginners. So let it go. Forget about the last project, and go searching with an open heart for the next one. Back when I was a writer for GQ magazine, my editor in chief, Art Cooper, once read an article I’d been working on for five months (an in-depth travel story about Serbian politics that had cost the magazine a small fortune, by the way), and he came back to me an hour later with this response: “This is no good, and it will never be any good. You don’t have the capacity to write this story, as it turns out. I don’t want you to waste another minute on this thing. Move on to the next assignment immediately, please.”
Which was rather shocking and abrupt, but, holy cow—talk about efficiency!
Dutifully, I moved on.
Next, next, next—always next.
Keep moving, keep going.
Whatever you do, try not to dwell too long on your failures. You don’t need to conduct autopsies on your disasters. You don’t need to know what anything means. Remember: The gods of creativity are not obliged to explain anything to us. Own your disappointment, acknowledge it for what it is, and move on. Chop up that failure and use it for bait to try to catch another project. Someday it might all make sense to you—why you needed to go through this botched-up mess in order to land in a better place. Or maybe it will never make sense.
So be it.
Move on, anyhow.
Whatever else happens, stay busy. (I always lean on this wise advice, from the seventeenth-century English scholar Robert Burton, on how to survive melancholy: “Be not solitary, be not idle.”) Find something to do—anything, even a different sort of creative work altogether—just to take your mind off your anxiety and pressure. Once, when I was struggling with a book, I signed up for a drawing class, just to open up some other kind of creative channel within my mind. I can’t draw very well, but that didn’t matter; the important thing was that I was staying in communication with artistry at some level. I was fiddling with my own dials, trying to reach inspiration in any way possible. Eventually, after enough drawing, the writing began to flow again.
Einstein called this tactic “combinatory play”—the act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another. This is why he would often play the violin when he was having difficulty solving a mathematical puzzle; after a few hours of sonatas, he could usually find the answer he needed.
Part of the trick of combinatory play, I think, is that it quiets your ego and your fears by lowering the stakes. I once had a friend who was a gifted baseball player as a young man, but he lost his nerve and his game fell apart. So he quit baseball and took up soccer for a year. He wasn’t the greatest soccer player, but he liked it, and it didn’t break his spirit so much when he failed, because his ego knew this truth: “Hey, I never claimed it was my game.” What mattered is only that he was doing something physical, in order to bring himself back into his own skin, in order to get out of his own head, and in order to reclaim some sense of bodily ease. Anyhow, it was fun. After a year of kicking around a soccer ball for laughs, he went back to baseball, and suddenly he could play again—better and more lightly than ever.
In other words: If you can’t do what you long to do, go do something else.
Go walk the dog, go pick up every bit of trash on the street outside your home, go walk the dog again, go bake a peach cobbler, go paint some pebbles with brightly colored nail polish and put them in a pile. You might think it’s procrastination, but—with the right intention—it isn’t; it’s motion. And any motion whatsoever beats inertia, because inspiration will always be drawn to motion.
So wave your arms around. Make something. Do something. Do anything.
Call attention to yourself with some sort of creative action, and—most of all—trust that if you make enough of a glorious commotion, eventually inspiration will find its way home to you again.