I started thinking about acceptance and rejection in the worlds of writing, music and photography.
“Judging” of one’s work, even with “constructive feedback”, arguably is inherently subjective; what might be a “great” photo or book to one person may have little interest or even value for another. It’s amazing the number of now-famous books that were once rejected, such as the experience of Scott Turlow’s “Presumed Innocent” that was rejected by every publishing house in New York City not just once but twice, until his agent got on the phone with an editor, called in a favor and asked him to actually read the manuscript over the weekend. The book went to auction and became a best-seller.
When Robert Frank’s photography book “The Americans” was first published, Frank notes: “it wasn’t very well received at all. They wouldn’t publish it. They thought it was terrible—anti-American, un-American, dirty, overexposed, crooked.” Now, it’s regarded as one of the most important works of the 20th Century.
A well experienced, and highly regarded, literary agent advised me that the merit of a book may have little to do with whether it is published or not, it’s far more a matter that an editor, and/or publishing house, is looking for a particular type of book and a manuscript arrives in the right place at the right time. From my experience, the same certainly holds true for music, and given the wide variety of styles of photography, it’s reasonable to argue the process may be no different.
What we can do, whether for writing, photography, and/or music, is to first develop a standard of comparison for ourselves, that is to read, see, and listen extensively, until we get to the point that we can honestly critique and assess our own work. When we send it out into the world, even though it may be rejected or ignored, we know that it’s a good piece of work, it just needs to find the right person at the right time.
The other question to always ask, wherever possible, is what’s the background of the judge/reviewer? What type of writing have they done, what are their personal music tastes, what style(s) of photography to they shoot, etc.? This can give you some insight into how your work may be received. I’ve had academic papers and books immediately, and caustically, rejected, only to have them instantly accepted and highly praised, by the next editor.
Next, keep things in perspective. Perfectionism and expectations are fatal diseases. Writers may have to do countless redrafts until they finally find what they really want to say. Famous photographers can shoot thousands of shots in order to finish with the handful of photographs that ring true. Robert Frank took over 27,000 photographs to end up with the 83 that finally appeared in “The Americans”. Recently, a photographer for the National Geographic took over 7000 shots, reduced these down to 100, then cut these down to the 20 he could work with.
But then, of course, there are those rare, incredible moments where the first take is the last take, and you immediately understand the work is complete and wonder “why can’t it be like this all the time?” :-)
[Writers of fiction also must be aware that the manuscript they first deliver may go through significant editorial changes before it is finally published. I highly recommend Michael Korda’s “Another Life” for its invaluable practical insight into publishing and the editorial process.]
The bottom line?
In music, there’s the famous saying that if you want to be a musician, don’t be, that if you really need to be a musician, don’t be, but if you are willing to sacrifice everything to be a musician, then you’ve got a shot. Music can be a vastly rewarding, inspiring, career, it also can be a very tough, ruthless business with rejection at every turn. This certainly can hold true for writing and photography as well.
I write and play music because it is who I am, it is every part of me. If I try to step away, a voice inside of me always call me back.
As Robert Frank spoke about his passion for photography:
“Only the people who are obsessed should continue with photography. Arbus—she was obsessed with her life…That’s what got her to get these pictures of these people. It’s that curiosity that one has to have.
Anybody who is going to be an artist has to be curious. He’s [she’s] got to go out and do his [her] own thing. If you talk to a student, and the student is any good, has any guts, he [she] will not do what you tell him [her]. And it usually works out that those students are the ones that you really get interested in, and they will get something from you. That’s the way I can help as a teacher. I can help those few.
I think my asset is only that I sort of know who I am. I know what I can do—what I can do well. As an artist, what have you got? No power, nothing. In the end, power I think is measured in dollars. I think of the power that I have encountered in artists that I know. When they get successful, they make factories out of their art… I often think that the best work you’ve done is the work you’ve done when you had no power, really. When you had no name. As a teacher, I would just try to get people to get up the courage to do it, not to be afraid that they would fail, just that they tried, that’s all. I certainly wouldn’t want them to be like me, or make films like me."