How to Rescue Creative Failures: Our Embarrassing Stories


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There’s a Hunter S. Thompson quote I was obsessed with in college that I still think about once a month or so:

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Holy shit, what a ride.’

And, while my days of prioritizing smoke and exhaustion are more or less behind me (I’m more of a diffuser and staying-seated gal these days), it still applies powerfully to the way so many of us make — or want to make — a living: our creativity.

Successful Entrepreneurs: Win Some, Lose Some

Because the truth is, if you want to become a visible, valued, and even beloved creative, you can’t go through life holding back because you’re scared to make a fool of yourself or take a few lumps in the process.

Do we all wish we could sail through our careers with nothing but chart-topping hits and accolades? Well, ya. We’re only human.

But what really happens is so much more interesting and so much more important: we win some, we lose some, and we wanna crawl in a hole and die some.

It’s gonna happen. It’s part of life, making stuff, and the great motion of the Universe. And how we choose to handle that last bit determines the kind of creative we’re going to be.

Failing Forward…

Because how we choose to take licks, and react to failure, negative feedback, and criticism determines your stamina for staying the course so you can eventually create something great.

Which is why Margo and I had such a ridiculously good time working on our latest #HAMYAW episode: Creative Failure: Our embarrassing stories.

In this episode, you’ll hear the true tales of how my 16-year-old self wound up on a site called “godawfulfanfiction dot net”, and 6-year-old Margo Aaron’s first business running what she assumed was an elite dance company.

IT’S FUNNY I PROMISE SO COME LAUGH AT US AND FEEL BETTER ABOUT YOUR LIVES. (Oh, and get some action steps for what to do when a flop happens.)

A few choice cuts from today’s #HAMYAW episode:

3:00: Wait, Hillary wrote Fan Fiction!?!? (Yes.)

6:00: That time Margo bored an audience to death

10:50: The difference between praise, criticism, and feedback

11:30: Why being “brutally honest” sucks so shush with all that mess

13:18: Why audience reaction has little to do with you

15:11: “There’s a difference between a fundamental problem with your work and YOU being flawed.”

16:30: What the heck are Creative Allies (and why they’re essential)

18:47: Don’t knock motivation – why it’s imperative to find those things that keep you going

Also huge shoutout to Paul Jarvis who was so excited about his mini roast in the cold open he emailed us within seconds of watching the episode. #HAMYAW loves you, Paul.

So as you go about your day, just remember: the flops that don’t kill us only make us weirder. And in the grand scheme of making stuff for other people to watch, read, and love… isn’t that the better option anyway?

Write on,

H

Episode Transcript

How many books do you have stacked? Because I have [indistinct].  

Only three.  

The top book is currently…

Oh, shit!  

Paul Jarvis’ Company of One, which I still haven’t read. I’m sorry, Paul, but it makes a great mic stand.  

You’re using it for its true purpose. (laughs)  

Yeah, bolstering my own career! Thank you, Paul! 

(upbeat hiphop music) 

Welcome back, nerds, it’s time for another episode of HAMYAW, and today we want to talk about one of the hazards of being visible as a creative, as a professional, as a thought-leader, as an authority, as a whatever you’re aiming to be in the space.

Because it’s almost impossible to show up consistently and persistently in your industry, doing your creative work without avoiding something Margo and I call creative embarrassment. 

Basically what happens when you put something out there in the world, and it does not go as planned. Either you are getting mocked, people hate it, or maybe worse, if you’re Margo, because she considers this a worse fate: you’re ignored.

I think this idea of creative embarrassment is something that is just one of again, the hazards and side effects of showing up and consistently being a creative and going pro with your chosen art. But I think there are different ways to handle it.

Some people can’t handle it, but I think Margo and I have some strategies we wanna share with you, and also we wanna share our very first embarrassing stories around creativity.  

Hey, where do I start?

When you first gave me this prompt when we were like this is what we’re gonna talk about, I couldn’t even come up with one, because literally every single endeavor I have been on has been a profound failure, and I’m mostly surprised by the wins.

(Hilary laughs)

I’m always like, oh that one worked! Like I’m so acclimated to it, I mean literally right before we got on filming, I posted on Instagram and five people liked it.  

It’s been up for like 40 minutes. I think she’s overreacting.  

That’s a long time! But that’s my point, you just don’t know! The one before that had like over 100 something, which by the way my numbers I small, okay, I get it.

(Hilary laughs)

But the point is you’re always just one post away from creative embarrassment at all times.  

God, that’s so true.  

(laughs)

And you never quite get there. I think that’s the part that has been real shocking to me is that I used to think, as a kid, that you get to this point where you turn pro and you sort of get it. But I remember watching Seinfeld’s documentary on Netflix, recently – and he’s this amazing, has so many accolades under his belt – and when he gets up to do standup, it’s still just him and the audience judging his jokes and deciding whether or not he’s funny and liked it.

And it’s like the same circumstances that existed, 30 years ago when he was starting are the same ones. It never, ever goes away, and so I think the real challenge is how do you acclimate to that, knowing that those things are true?  

So I will start by telling my first story of creative embarrassment.

I was getting active in the fan fiction space. The fanfiction.net archives you can probably still find my stuff. So I was about 16 years old, and this was around the time one of the StarWars prequels came out. I forget which one it was, and I had this huge crush on Ewan McGregor, I mean who didn’t. Anybody with taste in the early millennium was an Ewan fan.

So I put this story together, and it was just like a short story. I’m a 16-year-old girl, I’m gonna put myself in the story with my fictional character crush. There’s gonna be a romance; things are gonna happen. So I put that story together, and I actually had some already successful fics prior, and so I put it up, and I was like all right, well we’ll see where that goes.

That was a fun to write story; I hope people like it. And I logged back on a couple of days later to a string of comments, and I was like, oh great! (laughs)  

Never read the comments. (laughs)  

This is wonderful!  

Oh no.  

I start reading the comments, and somebody had posted my fan fic to a website called godawfulfanfiction.net. Somebody had posted it, and trolls were essentially coming over from godawfulfanficiton.net to tear me apart.

They had no idea I was 16. I’m sure they probably guessed. They had no idea that I was just a girl, sitting in her living room with tears running down her face.

But, I remember my heart just plummeting to my shoes, and feeling so embarrassed and so ashamed and just so frustrated with myself that I would have ever dared to put something that people would be so universally hated out there.

Fortunately nobody had any idea what my fanfiction.net handle was or that I was even posting this stuff, so what I did was I deleted it before anybody else could find out, and I did not tell a soul…

Until now!  

(laughs) Until now!

Congratulations! No, I didn’t tell a soul until 2017 when I actually wrote about a creative stream on my blog.

And that always stuck with me, because it was very much a moment where I was like, wow, if people don’t like something you make, it really hurts, and there’s not a lot you can do, so do you keep going or do you quit? And at what point do you figure out how to handle it and when to keep going?  

Why did you keep going?  

Why did I keep going? I couldn’t stop.

Writing’s been the only thing I’ve ever been good at, so I just had to keep doing it. But I kept going because I was like, okay nobody has to know this ever happened.

It will be a secret that I will take to the grave, and then I might not even tell Saint Peter, but I think it was basically the idea that I knew something was bad, and I wanted to prove it to people that I was better, and I wanted to prove it to myself that I was better.

So I kept going. 

That story of figuring out your first creative failure is something that stays with everybody, and it still makes me cringe to this day. But I think it was a useful tool, because when you are in that zone of confrontation, you decide how much your work is worth to you.

Doesn’t matter how much it’s worth to anybody else, you decide whether you’re gonna be the one to keep going and eff the haters or if you’re gonna let them cause you to fold and crumble. But I know everybody has a creative embarrassment story, so I’ve told mine.

Margo, I wanna hear you tell yours.  

What’s standing out to me is actually not even one about writing but one about dance.

So when I was like six and seven years old, I founded a dance group called the MJ group, Margo and Jenny. We had bright neon pink business cards that we handed out with our home phone numbers. I was the choreographer.  

Do you still have one? Please say yes. (laughs)  

I definitely still have it. I think I have it on Instagram, no lie.

But we did birthday parties which meant just all of my cousins. (both laugh)

That was your birthday gift, sorry! We did the Jackson 5, we did Aladdin, we did movies. We were like solid, but I remember one particular birthday party that was mine where we had produced a whole choreography, an entire run of show, and I remember at one point, people’s eyes started to glaze over, and my mother made a comment that maybe we should wrap it up.

And at the time, I remember being so mortified, because it never occurred to me that people wouldn’t be interested in my dancing. It never occurred to me that it wasn’t the most entertaining piece of art you had watched in your life.  

I would always be entertained by you.  

(laughs) Thank you.

In retrospect, I found some of these videos. My mom found the home videos. Literally we’re doing one move. I thought it was advanced choreography, and I’m just going like this the whole time.  

(laughs) Oh my god!  

(laughs) I had no idea!

And of course my mom’s probably saving everyone. I would have gone on for three hours. I had no concept of time, no concept of other people’s experience, but I do remember it feeling like I was mortified, just mortified that I was forcing people to do something that might be boring or uninteresting or made them think that I was mock-worthy, like you were saying.

And so, it’s a little bit where the self-consciousness got bred that wasn’t there before. Like I didn’t know to think about audience reactions until that moment where it’s like, oh, you don’t like me. You don’t feel like I’m as great as I am?

First of all, how dare you! (Margo laughs)

No, it’s so true. Actually, Emilia Clarke from Game of Thrones has a story about, it’s so interesting, her story about her first play when she realized she wanted to be an actress. And she apparently got onstage and forgot all of her lines and just stood there in total silence.

But she wasn’t afraid in the moment. She was just like feeling pretty strong, just looking out being like huh. Like, she wasn’t scared, she was just having a moment and only realized to get embarrassed after the fact.

I think you raised such a good point that when we are young and we’re starting to create, we don’t think about that. We’re just so excited about what we’re doing, we assume that everyone else is gonna be excited too, and then there’s that ice cold water on our heads that creative work in order to exist, must receive some kind of feedback, positive or negative. And that’s the hazard. 

The one thing that creative work needs to work, which is an audience, is the one thing that can also tank it. And I think those are two extremes. And you also don’t get to a point of powerful and prolific creativity without experience of, what was your word, profound failure and embarrassment.

(both laugh)

So, I think everyone should know, HAMYAW, the result of profound failure, mounted on the bedrock.

(both laugh)

But I think that sort of learning how to handle it and adjust to it is an ever-continuing challenge. I don’t think there’s one strategy that you can come up with, but I know in my experience what has been really helpful for me is just remembering how short people’s memories are.

(Margo laughs) It’s been helpful. 

And I think when people, because this is when I talk to my students, and I know your students, too, because we talk to each other’s students. There’s so much of this fear when you are continuing to be visible and put yourself out there and be sort of in the spotlight, turn the spotlight on yourself.

That is the greatest fear is that people are going to make fun of me, they’re not going to like it, in fact, they’re going to hate it, or they’re going to ignore it completely and I’m going to be shouting it into the void. And I think the only way to get comfortable with that is to do it over and over and over again.  

In public, that’s the other thing that people don’t realize. You said something really smart. The thing about art is it doesn’t exist until it has that interaction with the audience. Not to say that your writing isn’t good or probably amazing that has never been seen, but it’s in that interaction that it becomes you being in the arena.

And where it takes on a life of its own that becomes bigger than you. And buffering yourself against that reaction, because there are times where the feedback is useful.

Okay, let’s start with this framework, so you mentioned that you’ve gotta remember that people’s memories are not that long. (laughs) So I’m gonna add one of my strategies which is, this an alt-MBA concept that there’s a difference between praise, criticism, and feedback.  

Yes!  

And, it is up to us to know which ones we actually need. So there are times where I, again you learn this through doing, where I have handed someone a piece of work and said that I’d love your thoughts, and what I should have asked for was praise, because it was too early, and I didn’t actually need feedback yet, because I’m smart enough, like at that stage, I could’ve figured out what was wrong with the piece, and I needed them just to say, keep going.

I’ve heard, I think it was Liz Gilbert who went on a rant, and I wanna go on the same one, against brutal honesty. She was like why would you ever be brutal with someone’s vulnerability and their work? I will never be brutal to you, and how is that helpful? It’s never, ever helpful; that’s just criticism. (laughs)  

And this is so true, and I didn’t even realize that this was part of my work, especially when I do hot seats and I’m giving criticism, I always start with a compliment. Always, 100% and it’s a genuine compliment.

I always find something to love about the work, and then you deliver the feedback, because a person needs to remember just because something isn’t working, doesn’t mean they’re not smart. And I find when people are like, I’m brutally honest, that they really like to make themselves feel bigger than other creatives.

Like if somebody’s MO is brutal honesty, I’ll kick your ass, I won’t sugarcoat anything. Like this creative work in so many ways is people’s spirit laid out on a plate. Why wouldn’t you wanna be at least a little bit tender and gentle with that? Who wins when you are being brutal?  

Totally, your ego wins, your fucking ego wins.

I mean, it’s so stupid and it’s so nearsighted. It doesn’t actually move the piece forward. And you can say, the syntax in here is difficult to understand or it takes away from your main point. You could say something like that without being like this is a bad sentence. (Hilary laughs) Like, one’s a 15 year old, the other one is a fucking professional.  

I just, my mom used to edit my essays in high school and middle school and generally everything. I remember once, she took a paragraph in one of my essays, marked it out and wrote crapola in red on top of the paragraph, and I was like, oh my god!

She was right, but at the same time, I don’t think I learned anymore from seeing crap on the page, than I would’ve learned saying this paragraph, I don’t think this works, remove. You got our creative embarrassment solutions.  

If you’re asking for feedback on a piece from a friend, give them guidelines. If you’re putting something out into the world, recognize that there’s a pattern. I didn’t get to this point.

The pattern is someone is going to love your work more than anything they’ve ever seen, someone’s gonna hate it and think it should die in a garbage fire, and someone’s gonna ask a genuinely good question. There’s literally no one in the middle, and those three show up every time.

So when you start to see that it’s a pattern, and it actually has nothing to do with you, it’s easier to keep putting the work out, but that’s not to say like, give me a fuck ton of praise, because that is really great.

(Hilary laughs) It never hurts. (laughs)  

What I need everybody to do is go on my blog right now and tell me how much they love me.  

But the point is, on the second strategy, is also, it takes a level of self-awareness to know that if I’m posting on Instagram sometimes it’s because I wanna be liked, but if I’m sending an email out to my list, it’s because I wanted to share a message, and how you receive it is up to you. There’s a difference in the context of both of those things.  

And I also think to the final point, and this is the reason why we wanted to make this episode is that we wanted everyone to know that they’re not alone in their fear and discomfort with creative embarrassment.

I think that is the biggest thing, and the other way to sort of move through that experience is to remember every single creative you worship, respect, like, dislike, goes through this. If there’s a creative like “nah, I’m breezing, we good,” maybe it’s Beyonce, but she’s also done…

Lying.  

so much work to get there. You know, I know people who don’t even like Beyonce.  

That’s not true.  

I can’t imagine that.  

That’s not true.  

That’s true. I have it in proof; I have it in writing. (laughs)

There’s only one, but they exist, and I know one. Again, it’s remembering that, and I love, Margo, that you framed it with those three things, someone who loves it, someone who hates it, someone who asks a really good question.

And as long as you’re getting that kind of response, preferably you’re getting all love, we wish you all the love in the world, but if you have all three of those responses, maybe more one than the other, that’s okay, and that’s a reason to keep going, because it means people are reacting.

Yes, and there’s a difference between a fundamental problem with your work and you being flawed.  

Yes!  

There have been times where I’ve gotten feedback, and I’m like, aw shit, I really did. That’s a weakness in my argument, and that’s actually rightful, fair criticism. And then there’s other times where someone’s just being a shithead.  

Yeah, again, trying to make themselves feel bigger, and that’s understanding the difference between like brutal honesty and worthy feedback.

That feedback that is applicable, and I think all of us have to check our egos at the door for a moment just by the sheer process of putting out creative work and receiving feedback on it by saying that if you are automatically defensive to everything, you can’t improve. 

However, learning to be discerning with the way you interpret, because we’re all discerning with the way we interpret praise, subconsciously, because we’re like, “really thank you so much for liking it, I don’t know if it was that good”.

Like, are they trying to butter me up or what’s happening? Like, we all can be so skeptical of praise.

I also think, not necessarily being skeptical of feedback, but saying when it happens that somebody raises a good point or points out a flaw in your argument, part of the reason why you’re showing up, the reason why art exists is to start those conversations.

So you are still bringing value in that sense, but you have to learn to figure out when somebody’s attacking you as a person versus not necessarily pointing out a flaw in your argument but helping you also grow by showing you things you haven’t seen before.  

Yes, the third one is having people in your tribe who you can talk to about your creative process, about your creative win and about your creative failure.

So I love having Hillary in my corner as someone who gets it. And it’s really hard when you talk to someone who maybe they’re putting their work on the line, but it’s not in a creative field, so the emotional mind fuck of putting your work out into the world, having all those gremlins of fear and resistance come up and then seeing what happens.

You need someone who’s well-versed in the messiness of the process to tell you, keep going, or pause! And has the right eyes to do that and the professionalism to be able to help you on your own journey. And it takes a while to find these people, honestly.  

Yeah, absolutely, and I’m so grateful to have Margo in my corner for the same reason.

Like if you guys listened into our Voxes, it would shock you, just how much self-doubt both of us, I mean, maybe it wouldn’t shock you but maybe it does (both laugh) just how much our self-doubt even when we’ve been in this industry almost 10 years, that still creeps up, whether it’s about creative work, whether it’s about business side of things. 

You need allies, and if you don’t have creative allies, then I think starting the hunt for one or two or 10 would be ideal. And also, we wanna meet your creative allies, so if you have a creative ally, somebody who you really love collaborating with, who’s always giving you advice, tag them in the comments, link to their stuff, because we wanna meet them and we wanna celebrate your glorious creative ally-ship.

Because we need each other out here on these internet streets, guys. When you create, when you put yourself out there, when you are vulnerable enough to put your concepts onto a page to be read by dozens of people, hundreds, thousands, millions, you are incredibly courageous, and you need support! Go get some!  

Yes, go get support. All right, so we have our three things.

We have one, the internet is 15 minutes, people’s memories are short.

Number two, there’s a difference between praise, criticism and feedback, know which one you’re looking for and which one you need and also recognize the patterns have nothing to do with you.

Number three, get yourself creative allies who understand the difference between when you should abort and when you should keep going.

Shout out Shannon McNay! She has been my creative ally for years and years and years. 

And number four, keep watching HAMYAW, because, I know it’s kind of a plug, but also we dump on inspiration and motivation sometimes where we’re like you need action, you need action.

But sometimes, you’re so in the shit, you actually do need some motivation. You do need inspiration, and you shouldn’t knock it.

Like, if you’re reading press deals, and it makes you feel better, if you’re reading Big Magic, if you’re reading Stephen King, if you need to read some fucking Dostoyevski. Whatever it is that gets you back on the train, I don’t know you. (Hillary laughs)  

Dostoyevski is so motivating! (laughs)

Just so inspiring to action, anyway go on.  

(laughs) You do you! 

But find those things that keep you going, because this is hard, it is hard, hard work, and you are constantly gonna discount yourself throughout the process, so you need to normalize it, and these things help you do that.

This has been our conversation on creative embarrassment. I feel like we could talk for 30 more hours. I have horror stories coming up in my mind that I wanna just like (Hillary laughs) put away.  

We’ll save those for a bonus episode. (both laugh).  

All right, this has been HAMYAW. I’m Margo Aaron.  

And I’m Hilary Weiss.  

If you like this episode, like it below. Post about your creative allies in the comments. We’d love to meet them; we’d love to champion them. All the good conversations are happening down there. Tell all your friends, and subscribe to our channel! We’ll see you in two weeks.  

(blows a kiss) Bye guys!  

Bye! 

Photo by Juliet Clare Warren

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