From Grease to Shakespeare: how to deal with creative disappointment
Shakespeare writes in Sonnet 29:
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope…”
As with many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, this one can be read simply as the speaker’s appreciation for his beloved.
OR it can be read as the expression of the trials and triumphs of living a creative life.
The sonnet expresses a dilemma most artists, creatives and makers face every day: how to deal with disappointment.
Shakespeare’s solution? Diversion.
Haply I think on thee…
I’ll get back to diversion as a strategy for dealing with disappointment later.
But first, a little story.
I learnt about the link between disappointment and creativity early.
A huge Elvis fan, my dad introduced me to his idol’s entire oeuvre when I was a kid.
Being pre-pubescent and having no idea about the meaning of the double entendre of swivelling hips, I didn’t really see the thrill in the so-called ‘King’.
But one of Elvis’s b-side tracks called ‘A Cane and a High-Starched Collar’ got me in.
Basically this is a jig portraying a dialogue between a man and a woman. The woman’s trying to persuade the man to marry her.
She starts with, “Cowboy, cowboy marry me, I’ll bake you a cherry pie.” and he makes some quip about not wanting to be killed by her cooking.
Mind, this is not highly sophisticated stuff. But I was nine.
Besides, I don’t really think I got the mating ritual part, for reasons explained above. But I was preoccupied with the storytelling mode of the song and the sound of the fiddle.
In my head, I visualised an intense performance of ‘A Cane and a High-Starched Collar’ that looked a bit like my only other cultural reference to a he says/she says story – that opening scene from Grease when Danny and Sandy are describing their summer love affair.
But I needed performers.
So when my tenth birthday party rolled around, I saw it as a perfect opportunity to enact what I’d created in my imagination.
Just after pass-the-parcel, but before the happy birthday song, I gathered my creative comrades together. I placed the boys on one side of the lawn, the girls on the other. And I shared my grand plans for how this performance was going to unfold.
Then I pressed ‘play’ on my marshmallow-pink boombox.
Thing is, the speakers didn’t have carry in the acoustic void of my suburban backyard.
The boys and girls stood facing each other, where I’d placed them, staring ahead and looking awkward.
And half-way through the song, Sharon Richards said, “This is dumb,” and walked off with her mates to get a cold party pie.
” Get under it, through it or whatever other physical contortion it takes… “
There have been so many moments since then when I have been disappointed about a creative outcome.
Grants rejected, writing rejected – that time when I thought it would be an excellent idea to be a naked performance artist…
My family comes from a nation that is perpetually threatened to be overcome by the flooding of dykes, so I have some innate strategies for resilience.
1. Wail loudly, then retreat to a closet and listen to Tori Amos songs
If you do not want to disturb others in the household, you can wail whilst IN the closet.
You’ve never read this one in your New Age gratitude journal. But it works. Wallowing in misery is cathartic and –if done over the short term – a better strategy than pretending you’re okay when you’re actually a burning ball of angst.
You may read this and think I am being droll.
But I kid you not.
Disappointment is an unpleasant feeling and far too often we try to mask negative emotions with ideas about gratitude and meaning. There ain’t nothing wrong with feeling it and responding to it, baby.
There, you have my permission. Go wail.
2. Exit the closet
Once you’ve been in the cupboard for a bit, you’ll feel how stuffy it is in there.
Plus, you’ll realise how stupid you look all hunched up beside the pure wool coat you bought in Italy but now can’t wear because you live in a tropical climate (yet another example of your disillusionment).
So, what’s next?
Turn off Tori, open the door and leave the cupboard. Take the Italian wool coat with you so you can pop it on Ebay and spend the money you make from the sale on your next creative project.
3. Keep moving
The closet is great for catharsis, but stay in an upright foetal position for too long, and you’ll get cramps.
So get your dog, or borrow someone else’s, and walk it out. Concentrate on the metaphor of your steps and remind yourself that you are in progress: never defined, never ‘accepted’ or ‘rejected’, never perfect or realised.
Always just stepping and gathering experience as you go.
4. Divert your thoughts
Look at the ants while you’re walking and come to the realisation that they don’t give a snip about the fact that your hokey little creative project didn’t work out.
This is actually the technique I taught myself whilst lying on my backyard lawn after the ‘high-starched collar’ fiasco. The ants didn’t care and neither would I. Instead, I would keep shovelling those crumbs back to my hole under the earth until eventually I managed to satisfy the hunger of the colony.
Diversion away from yourself is also the technique Shakespeare recommends in his Sonnet 29.
Instead of diverting attention to the ants, he remembers his beloved.
If you’re not into insects, pull your concentration away from your perceived* failure and ponder the reason you’ve chosen the creative life. What matters will be there somewhere. Find it and focus on it for a bit.
It’ll feel good after all that wailing.
The take home…
By choosing the creative life, you’ve also chosen rejection, ostracisation and non-conformity. These factors sometimes lead to you feeling disappointed by what you have managed to achieve.
Get your head around how to deal with this disappointment – not in the name of some cheap notion of success – but just so that every day you can wake up to the thought of “what will I make today.”
Believe me. It’s worth it.
Sharon Richards, haply, I think of thee.
* Author’s note and a slightly tangential but significant aside: I have no idea of what my creative comrades thought of my Grease-inspired birthday performance. Who knows, it may have led some to enact their own backyard performances. Some, like me, may still be doing that today. More luck to them.