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The On Being Project

Remember This the Next Time You Are Rejected

Dear beautiful friend who just received a rejection letter,

I know that you are feeling down. Way down. That you are looking at the long road of your career and thinking that this rejection is a significant fork in the road, an important signal about where you should go next — which is probably back to a job you hate that actually pays the bills and doesn’t require such a Herculean amount of self-confidence and faith in the value of your own creative work. I know it seems big, but that is actually an optical illusion.

It means very little when compared with other things, which are given short shrift in our money-obsessed, competitive culture, like the fact that people who you have made art for and about have written you letters and told you, looking right into your tired eyes, that your work made them feel valued, different, moved to action. Those little moments between two humans — one being you, one being someone else with a deep need for inspiration and validation — don’t go in press releases or come with monetary awards.

At the end of your life, it is very easy to see these things proportionally — the teeny, tiny rejection and the monumental evidence that you made something that mattered to someone — but in the middle of life it can be hard to see things accurately.

Here is what your rejection actually means: a small, probably weird and stressed and well-meaning committee of people didn’t choose your application out of an embarrassment of applications for various peculiar psychological and/or political reasons. One of the applicants may have been a very rich donor’s grandson. One of the committee members may have had an art teacher who once told him that he sucked at just the kind of work you do, and he has had an unconscious and jealous hatred of it ever since. You never met him. You never met his art teacher. Or the rich donor. Or the grandson. And yet, all of the sudden, this all seems so personal.

There are probably sexist and racist people on this committee. Actually there are sexist and racist people on this committee — I can guarantee that because most committees of prestigious institutions are chock-full of white people, especially men, many of whom haven’t done much work to think about their own internal bias. So maybe they don’t “get” your work.

Here is what also probably happened: You didn’t fit into the neat, boring categories that a group of experts (some of whom probably wish they were making the art, not judging it) created in order to understand who should “win.” You are a weirdo. In the best possible way. You make stuff that people don’t fully understand how to categorize. You know who else does that? Barbara Kruger. Faith Ringgold. Theaster Gates. So you may have received a rejection letter that puts you in pretty admirable company. Would you rather be at an all-night dance party with the admissions committee, or with Barbara, Faith, and Theaster? I rest my case. (Please invite me to this party if this ever happens, which it very well might.)

This is not to say you aren’t entitled to feel shitty for a few hours or a few days, to wander around the house and wonder why NOBODY LOVES YOU AND YOUR WORK (which we have already proven inaccurate, but it’s okay to feel that for a minute in big capital letters. Rejection cannot be fact checked right away). So mope. Eat macaroni and cheese while watching reality shows. Take long, hot showers and wandering walks. Read what other writers and artists say about failure. Scroll through #howIhandlerejection and feel less alone.

And then, get back on the horse. Because we desperately need you riding bareback and wild through this world making weird shit that means a lot to people. Even strangers. We need you following your own instincts about what matters and has not been said or seen. We need you defying categories and weathering rejection. We need you reaching out and being honest. We need you. We need you. We need you.

Sincerely,

Your friend who doesn’t claim to be objective and is not on the awards/admissions committee, but knows a lot about the way you have affected people with your work and hates to see you doubting that for even one moment, although she knows it is a part of the process and will inevitably make your work even better

P.S. Please keep this letter and send it to me when I, no doubt sometime very soon, start eating copious amounts of macaroni and cheese while watching reality shows, surrendering to the optical illusion of rejection from a fancy institution.

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