Writers, Criticism, & Rejection – We’re ALL In This Together

Writers are writers, and in some aspects it really doesn’t matter if you’re into novels, poetry, blogging, or songwriting.  What we’re all doing is taking that stuff that’s boiling around inside us and dragging it out into the light, squinting and scratching and whimpering, and trying to make it presentable and offering it to the world.  Some of it comes out like an eager oiled eel, and some of it takes a block and tackle with a crowbar thrown in for good measure.  And that’s the same for all of us.

Another thing that’s the same for all of us is that what’s boiling around in us and needs to come out is a part of our souls.  It’s deeply personal and nobody else really knows what you’ve got like you do.  You have to have faith in what you’ve brought into the world and go with your heart.  And you’ll find rejection and criticism that will stop some of the beauty and joy of life from being discovered by the world, because some feel that like a brick wall to the face, and it just stops them in their tracks.  It doesn’t just happen to you…it happens to almost all of us.  It’s how you respond that determines the fate of all that beauty and joy.

This is a really good article by Paul Zollo of American Songwriter magazine.  It’s specifically about songwriting, of course, but it struck a chord (see what I did there?) with me because it applies to every other kind of writing, and, really, about so many other facets of life in many ways.  If you’re a writer, almost every word of this applies to you.  It’s worth a read to know some perspective from other aspects of our craft and understand how we’re all in this together.  ALL of us.

Songwriter U: Rejection & Criticism As A Songwriter

Paul Zollo

-February 12, 2020

“As long as you don’t stop, you’re unstoppable.”

Being a songwriter in the world is the best of jobs and the worst of jobs. It’s the best because we make songs. We make order out of chaos, and find harmony within the dissonance. We give meaning to an increasingly crazy world, and create something timeless in a time when nothing seems to last more than a moment. And we get to live inside of music, which remains one of mankind’s most beautiful forces, as mysterious as ever, and powerful. 

But it’s also the worst job in many ways, not only for the decimation and reconstruction of this industry we once knew, but because being a songwriter is a vulnerable position to be in.  To be a songwriter in this world –a creator of music – requires a singular sort of person. It takes someone who feels things deeply, deeply enough to reach down into that well of emotion and swirl of ideas, and capture it with the abstractions of music combined with the specificities of language.

Of course, the kind of person who wants to do that – and is capable of it, even creating an entire career of it – is the kind of person who feels things deeply. Who might overthink some things, or all things. Who might linger often on the edges of obsession if not in its very core. Such is the source of art. Everyone knows sorrow, among other dynamics, is often at the heart of songs. And someone who connects so directly with sorrow, or any intense emotion,  is deeply hurt by criticism and rejection. So this songwriting thing can be painful. But it’s necessary pain.

It takes real courage to do what we do.  It takes chutzpah, as my mother would say. Creative courage. This is the business of putting your heart and soul out in the world, where everyone feels free to criticize and tear down what you’ve done. And it hurts. Songwriters, except if they’re genuine hacks, feel this stuff to our cores. And when somebody tears into one of your songs, it’s like an arrow straight to the heart. Because, as Randy Newman told me, songwriting is “life and death.” It’s everything. Nothing means more. Few things achieve the kind of bliss a songwriter experiences after completing a great one. And few things hurt more than unwarranted criticism.

Sure, constructive criticism is good and even necessary. Not always invited, and should be offered only when asked. But destructive criticism, well, that is quite a different matter. Any kind of rejection can be hurtful. Yet this is a business, not a humane organization created to coddle songwriters. This is an industry, and those in charge necessarily want something from you they feel will sell. And they determine what will sell by what is presently selling. At this very second.

Which means they aren’t going to be looking for your most experimental work. As great as we know it may be. They are not looking to stretch the envelope in any way. They want something that fits directly into that envelope. As those of us who have done this for more than a few days knows well.

So your challenge as a songwriter becomes not only the writing of songs, but the ability to withstand criticism and rejection. If you are not derailed by it, you can stay on track. If it does stop you, however, you won’t make any progress. Louis CK, the great comic, spoke of bringing this wisdom to life – the wisdom to withstand circumstances that don’t work well for you. “As long as you don’t stop,” he said, “you are unstoppable.”