After I read a particularly mean-spirited review of a play of mine, I immediately dove into a self-help book for guidance and comfort. The book told me literally to shake my fist at the heavens and exclaim, "I'll show them!"
My friend Trevor suggested that, though it sounded ridiculously new-agey and melodramatic, this might be therapeutic for someone like me. (You can draw your own conclusions as to what "someone like me" is like.) So indeed, right there and then, I raised my fist to the sky and screamed as loud as I could—twice—much to Trevor's embarrassment because he didn't realize that I would actually do it while we were walking down a crowded sidewalk.
PRINCE: I'll show them!
TREVOR: Uh...OK...we're in public. You can lower your—
PRINCE: I'll show them!
TREVOR: Um, all right, you're cured, now stop it.
PRINCE: I'll show—
TREVOR: (Sticks his palm over Prince's mouth.)
Did my passionate declaration help? I thought so. But at the time, I didn't realize that I had a cosmic "kick-me-while-I'm-down" sign on my back. I soon received rejection letters from two well-connected agents, I lost a national playwriting competition (to a theater critic, no less!), and I was denied a prestigious grant—all of which (or even one of which!) would have assured me that my recent decision to quit my day job was the right thing to do.
It's not often I tell people about my so-called failures. Most people hear about and are inspired by my successes—the big productions, the cash awards, the nifty grants, the rave reviews. All the other stuff—along with the day-to-day stuff that angers me—I seethe over quickly, stifle its full expression, roll it all up into a little ball and shove it into a small corner of my stomach in the hope that I will someday excrete it without ever having to deal with it. But I've suspected that's not healthy. So, over time and through my various experiences, I've learned to embrace my failures. I've discovered that they are necessary. The roads to success are actually paved with them.
My debut play was rejected by 50 theaters before it was produced—in three different productions around the country—putting me on the map as a playwright, opening doors at major theaters and creating a network of valuable contacts. For every contest I win, I lose a few to obscure artists in Alaska and theater critics who live secret lives as playwrights. For all the good reviews, I get stuff like this (and these are actual quotes): "yawn-inspiring," "Neil Simon wannabe" and "[elicits] applause like a publicly coerced office contribution to a good cause."
I actually look forward to rejection letters. The more I get, the closer I am to landing that huge production. Failure makes success sweeter. It reminds us to be appreciative of all that is good. It shows us that we truly can overcome anything.
But if we're not careful, we'll take failures personally. We'll see them as indications of our worth, or lack thereof. We'll get frustrated. We'll become depressed. We'll give up. Some people see their failures as signs that they should retreat, stop doing what they're doing, quit. But I have learned that there are no signs, and nothing has meaning beyond the meaning we give it. When we fall down we can choose to believe it's some cosmic indicator that we weren't cut out for this. Or we can choose a different meaning. We can get up and show them.
Failures and successes represent the yin and yang of existence. It's the natural flow of things. It's like life, breathing. It's important, though, to see our failures not as failures. When we can truly embrace the affirmation, "All things lead to my success," then we are worlds closer to understanding the true nature of the universe.
After the performance of a critically panned—but audience-embraced—show, I was approached by high school kids who told me that they loved it. The play had affected them deeply. I suspected the gay themes spoke to them in a way that they weren't spoken to before. I had presented my truth—that's the best I can do as an artist; in fact, that's the only thing I can do as an artist. I had made what has been called "an awesome communication." Amazing connections such as this make the contests, the grants, the reviews, seem irrelevant.
And for all the support I've received over the years, I've had my fair share of people who have underestimated me, thought I'd never make it, discouraged me. Some of them have been theater people, some have been critics, some have even been friends and family. But I have indeed shown them. Again and again. And I thank them. They're paving the road. They're lighting the way. They're nudging me forward. Each negative word is a new rung on the ladder. And because of them, I'm able to climb. Higher and higher. Neil Simon notwithstanding.