The Art of Rejection
A child of the baby boomers, I knew that in choosing to pursue a life in the arts and humanities, I was choosing to pursue a life of constant uncertainty. As someone who doesn't particularly enjoy 8 year life plan projections, I was actually excited by the idea of never knowing what was coming next. Despite living an "unplanned" life, I still created structure around my art and writing endeavors, with the end goal being graduate school. As far as 15 year old Emily was concerned, my life ended once I found a lifelong partner or went to graduate school. Well, I'm done with graduate school, I don't have a lifelong partner, and as far as I am aware I am still alive.
In this uncomfortable and awkward stage of "figuring things out," I've been thinking about why I chose to go into a field that is defined by constant rejection. As an artist, poet, writer, or creative person, the backbone to my career, or even professional side hobby, is a loud and resounding "no" from the indifferent inbox notifications with a subject line that makes my stomach drop. While rejection takes a toll on everyone at some point, I'd like to think that we (the "creatives") are increasingly letting rejection settle as a norm in the the rising culture of extreme consumerism. Despite this predicament, we have made a routine of bearing our vulnerability in the face of one-sentence emotionless rejection emails.
Western canon writers and unsung greats alike have all received rejections from publishers, conferences, shows, and exhibitions, but as I move through the world of millenial adulthood, I'm starting to question:
What does it mean to work, live, and play in a culture of constant rejection?
Unlike our predecessors, millenials are more willing to wear their hearts on their sleeves, fully knowing that there is little security in practically any choice we make. We wake up to the wake of a crashed economy/society and choose to embrace the mess anyways. Instead of reaching for a life plan of "safety," we reach to question things like diversity, work/life balance, and company ethics. Instead of opting for the four walls we've always known, we opt for new places with growing movements and cutting edge ideas. Instead of TV and newspaper post-work "me-time," we play with performance, we dapple in side hobbies, and we work freely on our individual crafts. Our work, play, and personal lives all thrive in a culture where there is no guarantee that anything will come to us, even if we do have a plan and reach a certain level of success.
We are creators and innovators, despite an overwhelming pushback of negativity and rejection from those supposedly trained to criticise tomorrow's greats. Realizing that I, too, may sound too prone to the millennial hierarchy of feelings above work ethic, I stand by my conviction that this particular generation of post-recession rejection is allowing us to turn "no" into an artistic expression.
America has come to identify itself through the literature of their rejection artists: Earnest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and John Steinbeck, to name a few. While I have a serious bone to pick with who we, as a country, consider "great" enough to be canon (which is for an entirely different post), it is apt to recognize that society's timeless classics came from those who had to pick up the pieces of what the generation before them accidentally let fall to ruin. Nearly 100 years later, the millennials are out to use rejection (from society, corporate life, the patriarchy in general) to fuel the next generation of grassroots movements and work cultures via art, music, literature, performance, and all other forms of creative expression. Just like our 20th century "founding fathers" (again, not a phrase I subscribe to), we know how to make a really horrible mess look quite beautiful and we know how to grow thicker skin and bigger hearts when we are constantly let down by the world around us.
As someone who could be professionally qualified in accepting rejection (from potential employers, publishers, and people's affections), I find that these words surprisingly don't come from a place of frustration or anger. Instead, they emerge from a place of deep hope in the creators around me. Most of the people I know in my generation have dared to allow creative rejection into their lives in some way or another. Because of their persistence, I live with a sense of inspiration--to work towards a future of meaningful and contributive art in and for our society. As someone who does a fair share of, what I call, creative "re-writing/re-envisioning," I'd like to think that the 20-somethings of today are equally armored for a grim future, but open-hearted to the potential of creative expression in the present, regardless of what a screen may tell them.
While the title of this post may have you believing that I am versed in the skill of turning down a potential suitor, I really do think that "art" and "rejection" squeeze one another's hands through our universal political and societal turbulence. I propose that the true art of rejection is making art in rejection itself. We "make it new" by accepting no, knowing the consequences, and choosing to do the damn thing anyways.