On Wanting, Shame, and Artistic Ambition

You didn’t get the grant that would have affirmed your talent and promise. You don’t have a book to hold in your hands that would make all this flailing on the page real. You have been immersed in a deep well of inquiry and making, which is sometimes lonely business, and you want to share it for sense of connection it brings, but it’s not ready yet. Some things are deep underground in these dark days, in the process of becoming. Other things out in the world are wicked and wily. To add to the overall sense of doom, the words you love so much are being flung and twisted for the sake of harm, threat, and injury. The world says no.

I have been thinking about ambition, wanting, and rejection—and shame. And I noticed my brain doing something this morning that I had to talk myself out of, so I thought I would share it in case it’s true for others.

Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 8.40.51 AMIn the aftermath of a “no,” I thought, “Well, maybe I shouldn’t want so much in terms of my work. Why aren’t I satisfied with what I have? Isn’t that ego?”

Then I caught myself, and I realized that it’s very important to distinguish—and draw a firm line—between artistic ambition and your more garden-variety ego.

There’s been lots of good discussion prompted by the work of VIDA and elsewhere about why women and other disadvantaged groups don’t submit their work as tenaciously as others.

This morning I was wondering what it was about wanting, submitting my work, and then failing to be chosen made me feel a little embarrassed or ashamed. There was a kickback sense of “I can’t believe I even tried—what was I thinking?”

I need to contextualize for myself that I’ve had a good run recently with acceptances for publication, promising things happening—but also I have begun to be more wildly ambitious in my submissions, my writing, and so on. That means hearing more “no.”

Not everyone feels ashamed when they hear the word “no.” Not everyone hears in their own heads, “You don’t even deserve to try.” So I wanted to get to the bottom of this.

Here’s my theory. I have in the past been in an abusive domestic situation that had me walking on eggshells for years. As a result of that, I’ve been conditioned to take any negative signal as a sign of danger, as an early warning of personal antipathy. When we talk about women submitting to journals, one of the things we don’t talk about is what trying and sticking one’s neck out can sometimes bring to some women and other groups who are noticed. Hearing “no” has in some lives meant real physical danger. It has meant, “Don’t you even try to do that again.”

So I just want to affirm for myself that of all the spaces in the world that might reject me, my artistic work is not a site of danger. “No” is just a routine like a red light in traffic. It will shift to green. Now it just means “Not this time, but try again.” It really does, and I know this through my work as an editor.

It’s so easy to take a negative situation and turn it on ourselves, to say “What is it about me that makes this happen to me?”

It’s not about you.

But what I really want to say, and to remind myself of, is that wanting is hard work. Sticking one’s neck out can go against individual and generational prohibitions against risk and visibility. When that wanting doesn’t result in affirmation, it can trigger all kinds of feelings and assumptions, including threads in one’s life that have nothing to do with writing—or that have everything to do with what you are writing about, including your hunger to tell untold stories.

As much as possible I want to praise the hunger and the wanting itself. What your work longs for is to connect with others. That wanting is not ego. It’s artistic ambition, and your art deserves that. It’s natural, because art often seeks communication and communion.

Hearing “no” is not a referendum on the quality of the work you submitted. What’s more—and this is possibly even more important—it’s not a signal to stop wanting.

Your want is awesome. It’s a fire you should feed. Today I’m trying to give credit to that wanting. I’m trying to think about how consistently I have created, submitted, and risked despite the obstacles.

The biggest danger we face—both in terms of our communities and in terms of our artistic lives—is shutting down, taking our fear or shame as a road map, assuming that we have nothing to contribute, and closing off our end of the conversation.

64 responses to “On Wanting, Shame, and Artistic Ambition”

  1. “No” is just a routine like a red light in traffic. It will shift to green. Now it just means “Not this time, but try again.” I love this.

    Thank you for posting, Sonya. I think that hearing “no” so many times makes you really appreciate the “yes” when you get it . . .

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I recently showed a synopsis and the first 20 pages of my memoir to a couple of agents who said they’d like to read the final manuscript. Yes, I was pleased, of course, but I found myself worrying about whether it would ever be good enough to send. I’m only half way through the MS so I have to talk myself out of it, but the feeling is there, all right.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for exploring these fears Sonya – I have them all the time. I started blogging a year ago. My goal in 2016 is to get myself published / commissioned on both sides of the Atlantic. I’m super nervous about this and yet at the same time it is something I’ve got to do. I’ve got an artist friend and her motto when putting herself and her work forward is …..’if not me then who”……. Beautiful in it’s simplicity and straight-forwardness. Good luck from the other side of the Atlantic.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Sonya this is a great article on how one should interpret a No! in a more constructive nature. But one common mistake we do is ignore what style of communication do the people whom you are pitching to use. More often we are salesmen of ourselves than we are artists and producers of value. So it is very important you have a strategy to pitch effectively. I hope this http://savvylessons.com/2015/12/07/communication_main post can give you some insights into that. Hoping you would visit and comment. Wishing you success.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Hi! My friend, Barbara Tyler, first directed me to your blog when you’d written a new pain scale for people with chronic pain (I have fibromyalgia) which I adored. She also sent me a link to a post about working in academia (I’m starting my MFA at SCSU next year.) Well. I’ve finally subscribed to your blog. Yay! This is a fantastic post, striking me close to my heart. It’s been a long time since I’ve had an agent or published a novel of my own, so “No” is a big part of my life these days. I needed this post to reassure me that in publishing, “No” doesn’t mean “No,” it means to keep trying (and working)! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. in writing poetry I’m told only 10% of what is sent out into the world will be published. So it’s normal to have a 90% rejection rate… (geez!) So the more one sends, the better the chance. And yes, there is the wondering; how could there not be, even when rejections are kind. When I received positive news that my chapbook was accepted and published, I reread that note three times, sure I has misread. Then I walked away, made some tea, and looked at it again. Wonderful news , yet so hard to take in. Working with a critique group helps me a great deal,,, and gives a sense of balance.

    Also, Do you have another blog about fm? I would share that with some friends.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for reading! I’ve also had that reaction of not being able to process an acceptance. 🙂 I’d be happy to share a blog, but I’m slow-thinking today and wondering what “fm” is. Help!


      • Hi, I’m referring to the pain thing; and FM short for fibromyalgia, a word I’d like to replace… I not clear if you have everything rolled up into one blog, or you have separate blogs.


      • Ahhh! Yeah, my pain/fibro stuff is rolled up here on this blog, and I think you can search the tags for “chronic pain.” And a lot of my blog posts on pain have ended up making it into my new book, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, which just came out.


      • Brava! Sonja, I’ll look into having my local library getting a copy. So happy it’s out now. It’s tricky keeping a clear mind during high level of pain time! And sometimes there are funny bits.( black homor funny).


  7. Though I would never think, for myself, of entering a poetry slam, in which the material which surfaces is given freely without copyright, yet I have taken for myself the road of copyrighting and putting up literary works on my blog, where at least some people will read them. I know this sounds like despair, but I do have a PayPal button there, and even though almost no one has ever used it, everyone preferring to read for free, I do get some sense of reward when I review my stats and see that some people from all over the world are reading. Lately, I’ve been publishing some new poetry, and though it’s just on my blog, it keeps me going from day to day to do it. Maybe when I get done with this spate of creativity, I’ll try to publish it as a whole in an actual (sigh!) print book, I don’t know. I admire your resilience and fortitude, and wish you all the best luck in the world for being so brave as to keep submitting, and I wish you many more acceptances!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Reblogged this on Psychedelic Poetess and commented:
    A necessary read. Buddha may believe that the root of suffering is desire but it inspires people to live to the fullest. There is purpose in the fire and we must acknowledge the flames.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thank you for this post. Insightful for all creative endeavors. I especially like the reference to generational prohibitions. Hard to get past those sometimes; but not impossible.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Your post arrived in my virtual mailslot at the time when I need it the most. Ambition, motivation, and consistency are not my strong suits. I often ask myself, “Why bother?” But your post lends me tremendous strength and momentum.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Reblogged this on Stacks and Ranges and commented:
    I wanted to do more than just ‘Like’ this post. I went back again and again, especially after writing about disappointment. This part rang true in my life:
    Sticking one’s neck out can go against individual and generational prohibitions against risk and visibility.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Great post; it seems like you’ve gone through some really trying situations and emerged a stronger person. The way you distilled the basic impulse of creativity (“Your want is awesome”) is great, and is a useful reminder for when things might not be going your way. Thanks for the read,

    W & W Sawday

    Liked by 1 person

  13. This one made so much sense to me.. I suffer from depression and anxiety so you can only imagine the amount of catastrophe that a “no” or even a situation that remotely puts me in danger (or at least what I perceive as danger due to past conditioning), can trigger. This blog is also insightful because here you are talking along the lines of cognitive behavior therapy, which is all about challenging our core schemas that trigger the automatic negative responses and replacing these with more rational responses. Thanks for writing this one…

    Liked by 1 person

  14. This is amazing. You have to hear “no” a few times before you get the “yes” and it makes you appreciate it more when you do. I am an aspiring writer and this has just been so insightful and inspiring! Thank you for posting this.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I love the stoplight analogy provided here and it will serve as a new perspective both for the artistic things I want to do and likely other situations where I’m feeling like I’m vulnerable and putting myself out there. Thanks for sharing.


  16. I love this affirmation of the human need that drives our desire to offer and re-offer our creative expression to the world: ‘What your work longs for is to connect with others. That wanting is not ego. It’s artistic ambition, and your art deserves that. It’s natural, because art often seeks communication and communion.’

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Sonya,
    You are so right… there is no shame in ambition. I am almost certain that women and people on the margins are more prone to this sort of self-doubt. Let’s all help each other grow out of it.
    I appreciate your candor in walking us through your thought process. Very empowering.


  18. Reblogged this on sailorpoet and commented:
    I want to highlight the conclusion of this great article about overcoming negative emotions surrounding submitting writing that reflects the necessary persistence and courage to succeed on ones own terms. This quote is excellent and has applications far beyond writing. Please don’t shut down:

    “The biggest danger we face—both in terms of our communities and in terms of our artistic lives—is shutting down, taking our fear or shame as a road map, assuming that we have nothing to contribute, and closing off our end of the conversation.”


  19. Dance auditions really helped me learn this. There’s a regular expectation of no. It’s assumed. It’s learned. It’s normal. It makes the yeses that much sweeter, more genuine, more rewarding. And lastly, it’s motivating. No just means you can check another learning experience off the list. No = growth.


  20. After receiving another rejection email yesterday, I spiraled very quickly into that why-do-I-even-bother mode. I’m so glad I came across this post today, because I desperately needed the reminder that it’s ok to keep trying. Thank you.


  21. This article really touches my heart, as it’s closely relatable with my life. Thank you for making me realizing that I have greater things lies in front of me and the only thing that sets me back are myself.


  22. Reblogged this on lolalynwrites and commented:
    Thank you for your blog; I read it at a time that I don’t want to write eBooks anymore, as my previously self-published ones (4) are languishing on Amazon! You wrote so eloquently, I could relate to every word you’ve written. It takes enormous courage to keep going when there are only disappointments. As Leigh Mitchell Hodges (1876-1954), journalist and poet says, “Failure is often that early morning hour of darkness which precedes the dawning of the day of success.” With your inspiration, I pray that my writing will become alive again, that my desire & enthusiasm will get fired up soonest, and that persistent thought of giving up will stop being “a sword of Damocles” hovering over my head!


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