Songs for the Struggling Artist

Rejection Reframed (The first of a series)
September 30, 2014, 10:40 pm
Filed under: art, theatre, writing | Tags: , , ,

After my “Reframing Rejection” blog, one of my (wonderful!) Patreon supporters suggested a possible solution to my application motivation question. [Short version of that post: How do I hook getting rejection letters to something positive? How do I keep motivating myself to receive them?] My patron’s solution?

“If you write a blog post – even one sentence – for each rejection, maybe you can turn it into income via Patreon? Let your patrons cheer you on?”

And so, my readers and patrons, I am giving that a try. I’m not quite sure how this chronicle of rejection will evolve but it starts now.

My latest rejection letter is from The Room of Her Own Foundation for the Shakespeare’s Sister Fellowship. I didn’t expect to get this Fellowship – but gave it a shot anyway, though. Some rejections are painful because you really think you’ll get the thing you applied for and some are painful because of the crappiness of the letter. This one was a particularly shitty rejection letter. There are a million qualifiers, letting me know how stiff the competition was, how qualified the judges are, how I didn’t even make it to the second round and gee, thanks for helping us make the process better. It’s such a clear example of the sort of rejection letter that is written to make the letter writer feel better.

As the receiver of rejection letters, I don’t need any qualifications or the “gosh, the competition was so good” lines. I just want the information. Did I get it? Yes or no. I might like a letter that just said NO or BETTER LUCK NEXT TIME!


When you don’t have enough money in the bank to make a withdrawal, the ATM doesn’t say, “There are a lot of factors that go in to how your money comes to you, various fees, the salaries of our CEO, etc and unfortunately, your request for dollars was unable to be met. You should know that a lot of other really great people are also asking for money right now and as much as we’d like to give money to everyone, we can only dispense a limited amount. We wish you all the best in your money seeking endeavors. Don’t be discouraged! Keep asking for money in the future!” Nope –the ATM just spits out a little slip of paper that says Insufficient Funds and that is that. I would prefer a rejection letter that was more like a bank slip, for sure.

I particularly hate when rejection letters for writing tell me to keep writing. (This one: “We hope that you will continue to write.”) Give me a break. You think your shitty rejection letter is enough to dissuade me from writing? Sometimes it might be enough to dissuade me from writing shitty applications – but from writing?!? I don’t know anyone who’s quit their art just because some committee didn’t accept it. I can’t really imagine a writer who could be put off writing by a rejection notice but then return to it by the same letter’s suggestion. There he is, crying into his email box about his loss as he reads the opening paragraphs, declaring that he will never write again and then, there in that last line, when they tell him to keep writing – he feels. . . HOPE! Again! “Oh, I WON’T quit writing after all! Thank you, Rejection Letter!”

Anyway, that’s Rejection #1 in the Rejection Documentation Project. Stay tuned for future rejections. I’ve just written a bunch of grants and residency applications, so, fingers crossed for some really good ones.


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Learning Funny from the SNL Ladies
September 25, 2014, 9:30 am
Filed under: comedy | Tags: , , , ,

The Women of SNL was a Special featuring the ladies from Saturday Night Live over the show’s history. While watching it, I was suddenly reminded of when my friend and I started an improv group in college. We wanted to practice some of the skills we were learning in our comedy class, so we booked the student run space and gathered a small group of interested improvisers. We tried things we’d only read about in books and explored things we’d done in class.

We went to a college where the male to female ratio was 1 to 3 but somehow in our little group, we had more men than women. We all improvised enthusiastically for a few sessions and then someone pointed out that my co-founder and created almost exclusively male characters. At the time, I was mystified by this habit. We were feminists at a (mostly) women’s college, why did every character come out that way?

Watching the Women of SNL, I had an insight into the why of that pattern. We grew up with very few funny female character models. Funny defaulted to male. I was a dedicated SNL watcher in my youth and at the time, there were very few signature female characters – aside from the ones in drag. (a la “The Church Lady” or Terry Sweeny’s Nancy Reagan)

The women that were on during my formative years were funny in relationship to men. They weren’t the stars of their sketches. They were written into the roles of bimbos, prudes and nags. You can see how they could have been so much funnier if anyone had known how to write actual women for them.

Watching the survey of the women of SNL all pressed up next to one another revealed how much of a difference there was in the newer generations of women on the show. Tina Fey’s position as head writer surely has to be credited with some of the monumental change between those seasons. Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch and Kristen Wiig all took on female characters in a way that no one had been able to before them. Particularly radical to me, was how often these female characters are in relationship to one another. They were in sketches with other women. SNL started to pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors in their era. There are whole worlds of women that had never been on-screen before and it was inspiring to see them.

Watching the SNL special made me wish I had grown up watching women like Wiig, Fey, Poehler, Dratch and Rudolph for inspiration. I envy the young women who have grown up with them to look toward. I think they must have a much clearer sense of what’s possible, of roles they could play and how to be funny and still be a woman.

I heard a film critic talk about the definition of good satire as something that should always punch up. He said that the best satire targets the guy at the top. I think for me, in college, taking on male characters of any kind felt like punching up. There weren’t enough women in power to feel like I could punch up to a female character, I guess. Funny defaulted to male then, even as a woman and I’m so grateful to see that it doesn’t have to anymore.

SNL ladies

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Ashes and Light
September 11, 2014, 4:32 pm
Filed under: art, dreams, theatre | Tags: , , , , ,

It is the 11th of September, 2014. Thirteen years ago, the smoke blew over Brooklyn, where I was nestled, safe from harm. This is an anniversary for so many awful things but for me, it is also a reminder of something powerfully great and the two are inextricably linked in my mind.

That morning, even before all the damage was done, my friend Shannon called to make sure I was okay. (I was. And still in my pajamas. And remarkably, she got through to me via the phone when so few could.) Shannon and I had been talking for months about working together on a play. We’d bandied the idea back and forth and Shannon, who was living in California, had been toying with the idea of moving to NYC to do it. When she called that morning, I thought, “Well, that will be the end of that! She’s not going to move to New York now, not now that the city is under attack, not now when rubble is falling and smoke is permeating the air!”

In fact, it was quite the opposite. The horror of the situation seemed to galvanize her and she said, “That’s it. I’m coming. We’re going to do this.”

For me, that was the real birth of our theatre company. It was that moment when the world was falling apart, when destruction seemed to be raining down on us – and we decided to make something.

It felt then, and still feels, like the only response to destruction is creation. And while that first show we made had nothing to do with 9-11 or politics or even destruction – it was, in a sense, a response to all of that. It was, for us, an assertion of the power of creativity in the face of death.

I find myself newly moved today, when I think about Shannon’s fierce choice to come here and make something with me. It got me thinking about how our little company, that was born in a difficult moment, has survived throughout all the subsequent difficulties.

If feels like this theatre was born out of ashes and it helps to remember that when it seems too hard to go on, when it’s so challenging to keep making things with so few resources and so little encouragement. Today, I’m reminded that we were compelled to make a bright thing in a dark time. And as we go on, I feel like the darker the moment, the lighter we are compelled to shine, even when the odds are against us.

Today, I’m remembering both things, the ashes and the light and I will carry both of them forward to the next marker in time.


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Selling Out and Self-Deception
September 11, 2014, 12:56 am
Filed under: art, business, music, theatre, writing | Tags: , , , ,

On the You Are Not So Smart podcast, I heard that the generations behind me don’t know what the concept of “Selling Out” is. When asked, one interviewee thought it was when a show sold all the tickets. (It is, yes, that, too.) But – the idea of selling out, as in selling your artistic soul down the river for commercial success, is (supposedly, according to this show) not in the common parlance for the young.

It would seem that the current blend of market value and artistic value are now so mixed up, many people don’t even recognize them anymore. I find this disturbing. While I’d be happy to have an opportunity to sell out, I feel it would be important to know that I’m doing it and why.

But selling a lot of tickets and getting a lot of YouTube hits doesn’t mean your art is good. I enjoyed reading Penny Arcade’s post on this topic. She said,

“Today’s downtown performance world operates very much on a basis of popularity rather than on ability. It is very easy to feel like you are succeeding with your work when what is actually happening is that you are succeeding socially. “

Her perspective on the new landscape rings very true to me. Art should not be a popularity contest. And yet it feels like it is.

I heard an episode of RadioLab that I’d heard before. The last time, it set off a chain of responses, including anxiety and sadness. The thing that set me off then, and struck me again in hearing it a second time, was the story on self-deception. I don’t want to ruin the punch-line of the story (so maybe listen to the segment first before reading the rest of this.) but studies seem to indicate that people who are better at self-deception are more successful.

Initially, I  found this news depressing because I am very bad at self-deception. I felt that I had not yet achieved success in the traditional sense due to this self-deceptive handicap and I despaired at ever having any in the future. And it can be a handicap – when I asked some fellow indie theatre–makers how they keep going in the face of almost certain indifference of the world, one of them answered with, “I think you have to be a little delusional.”

This makes a lot of sense. I was much happier and more successful when I was convinced that my tiny theatre shows were going to change the world. Over the years, I’ve lost many of my self-deceptive abilities. When hearing this story for the second time today, though, I started to think about the competing impulses of cultivating self-deception and cultivating truth.

As an artist, I am (perhaps compulsively) interested in truth. I am curious about what is REALLY going on. I am captivated by the investigation of what is underneath.  Do I wish for Elizabeth Bishop or Dawn Powell or Remedios Varo to have been more delusional to achieve more “success”? Definitely not. But is a lot of the art that is “successful” delusional? Absolutely. And how much of that might we deem sold out?

It’s becoming clearer to me that selling art comes from a very different impulse than creating it. The best artists I know are not self-delusional, they question themselves constantly. The ones that are impossibly sure of themselves often find more success but that confidence can feel like a con when it comes to the content of their work.

For me, being clear about the difference between artistic success and popularity, between truth and big numbers, between selling out and investing in, helps me focus on the task at hand, which is (always) making good art. And the only way I know how to do that is by being as honest with myself as possible. The successful self-deceivers can succeed on their own metric, I’ve got my own.


photo by litherland

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“Is this what it feels like to be a man?”

I recently finished watching Seasons 1 and 2 of Call the Midwife. My first thoughts, after watching an episode or two, were “Is this what it feels like to be a man? To see your gender entirely at the center of stories? To have a wide variety of characters and not just one pretty one to be the romantic interest for the lead?”

It has been remarkable to watch stories not just featuring women but about some of the most quintessentially female experiences you could have. Watching stories about pregnancy and childbirth, for one, but also abortion, domestic violence and motherhood.

That all feels pretty revolutionary to me.

But in addition to things like the thrill of having the main romantic story happening to the most awkward of the women, there is also the extraordinary effect of watching so many women in authority.

Every single midwife in the series finds herself in a position of authority at some point, so we watch the younger ones struggle with it and find their own voices and power. That, in itself, feels instructive as this is not a narrative we ever really get to see in the media. But the other part of it is the way authority sits on the older women in the show. They are in charge and there is no question about it. It occurs to me that I have spent most of my life watching media that models for men how to take on authority (or how not to) but leaves women to figure it out for ourselves. 

To watch a community of women in full command of themselves and the world around them is something I don’t think I’ve ever had an opportunity to watch on screen before. I love Orange is the New Black and its community of women, too, but because it is set in prison, all authority rests in the hands of the state, so even though the show is fantastic, it doesn’t have the same empowering effect. 

Call the Midwife isn’t perfect (It’s very white, it can be way sentimental and sometimes the plot twists make me roll my eyes) but it is thrilling to experience a TV show that offers so much female-ness.And given the way theatre tends to follow TV and film, it gives me hope for a future when we could also have this sort of thing can stage. More please. More of this.

*call the midwife

P.S.  On another note, I also love Masters of Sex. Set in almost the same time period, dealing with women’s health and created by women with a woman at the center. I am particularly thrilled to see a story that is so concerned with women’s sexuality and ambition in a way that we rarely see on TV. It doesn’t have Call the Midwife’s variety of bodies and ages or its authority – but it embraces some of the darkness and pleasure that Call the Midwife couldn’t possibly engage in. What would happen if these worlds could collide? I would definitely watch that show.

Reframing Rejection

Getting up the energy to apply for things can be really challenging. Whether it’s grants, fellowships, residencies, festivals, contests, publications or production, all applications amount to buying into RENT SEEKING, an economic concept (There’s a great podcast about it on Econ-Talk .) This is all to say that applications are highly inefficient way to distribute resources. When I’m the person expending all the effort to apply, it can sometimes be very hard to motivate spending the many many hours of work for either no return or very little return, especially when I weight it with resources spent. Because of this, I’d severely slowed down on applications like this round about the time I went to grad school. Until last fall.

A year ago, author, Monica Byrne published her rejection list (called her anti-resume) on her blog. It is an extraordinary document – and one of the things that particularly struck me about it was the sheer quantity of places she’d submitted her work. She endured a STAGGERING amount of rejection and just kept applying to things (theatres, literary agents, residencies, magazines, prizes.) After reading her list, I decided I need to up my game and apply and apply and apply to everything, no matter how many resources I wasted in this process. I was a flurry of applications this year, of all kinds, and I was pretty proud of myself for doing it.

Then a few months later all the rejection letters started to roll in. Some of them were more disappointing than others. But they were all the same. No, Again and again. Grant? No. Fellowship? No. Residency? No. Prize? No. Production? No. Writer’s Group? No. An endless parade of No, from many different avenues.

The applications were for me, for my company or some combination of the two. It’s a whole lot of No. One day, I got three rejections in a row. One in my mailbox and two in my email. And from an economic perspective, this is ridiculous. If I’d gotten paid for all that work, I’d have a decent salary. (Shame I didn’t!)

But from another angle, these sorts of attempts are the only way to transcend the artistic ghetto I’ve found myself in and I probably just need to keep applying to things until something hits. Byrne submitted hundreds of applications before they started to hit and once they hit, the odds went up and she started to hit more and more. At least that’s what it looks like from her list.

The trick for me now is to try and figure out how to continue to motivate myself to apply even when the odds aren’t good, even when rejection is almost a foregone conclusion. Could I switch my thinking to see if I could get as many rejection letters as possible? Have each rejection be a celebration of some kind?

When I did a lot of auditioning, I sometimes managed to think of those auditions as my job, to see the audition as the performance, as the end goal and not an attempt for something beyond it. It helped. Because I like performing.

But I’m struggling to find a way to convince myself that filling in applications is the end goal, because I don’t enjoy filling out applications. And while I love writing, I don’t enjoy writing artistic statements of varying word/character counts or plot summaries or answering “Why I want this residency” questions.

Every time I spend hours (or days or weeks) filling something out, I have to convince myself I really want to get that thing in order to write convincingly about it. And every time I don’t get it, it becomes harder to apply to the next one.

So I’m in search of a re-framing device, some way to have receiving a rejection letter be good news and affirming. In their book Switch, the Heath brothers talk about Triggers (setting up an automatic response to something.) I want a new trigger for rejection letters. Some way to tie pride or contentment or some positive emotion to receiving them. I thought about getting myself an ice cream every time I received a rejection – but I really don’t need THAT MUCH ice cream. There are the writers who wallpaper their bathrooms with rejection letters – which I would totally do – except that 90% of my rejections come in my email now. And I’m not printing those things out just to smear paste on them or tear them up.

The Heath brothers also talk about this idea of an elephant and a rider, that when we’re riding a (metaphorical) elephant, the emotions of the elephant really determine where we go, that the rider can only do so much when the elephant’s emotions get involved. So I’m trying to figure out how to motivate my elephant to do something that generally makes me feel bad and somehow find a way to make it feel good.

Have you solved this? Suggestions welcome. I can’t imagine I’ll ever be in a position to be able to avoid applying for things altogether. So I need a way to make peace with the labor of applying and the rejection that comes after.



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A Tale of Three Teaching Artists
July 21, 2014, 10:51 pm
Filed under: art, education, Shakespeare, theatre | Tags: , ,

Once upon a time there were three teaching artists. These three were the entire teaching staff of a Shakespeare program. Between the three of them, they had a lifetime of experience teaching Shakespeare to young people. They inspired each other and complemented one another’s styles. Where one was weak another was strong and they made a circle of knowledge that benefited both the institution within which they worked and the young people they worked with.

They cared deeply about this program that they had all spent a considerable amount of time and effort in helping to craft. They went to meetings about how to improve the work. They saw managers come and go and changes go along with them.

They had a lot of collective strength but found themselves increasingly at odds with a changing institutional culture, and the sacrifices they’d made to keep doing the work started to seem less worth it. One by one, the unit fell apart. The first to go went to teach English full time at a high school, where her students are privileged to have the full extent of her teaching and she has an actual salary and benefits. The second to go threw herself on the whims of the marketplace to become truly freelance, as she had been before the institution (for whom she used to freelance) became more institutionalized.

The third remains there and is now surrounded by artists with much less experience and much less perspective. She doesn’t get paid any more than these new artists but must, continually, educate her colleagues as well as her students.

And it is the institution’s loss. It let a solid formidable program fall apart because it could not recognize the value of what it had. And this is what happens when experience is undervalued and obedience is the rule of the hour.

All three Teaching Artists are doing just fine. But the Institution has lost.


The_Three_Witches_from_Shakespeares_Macbeth_by_Daniel_Gardner,_1775 (1)

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