Kick Me While I'm Down...Please

[The following is an essay I wrote in 2001 for Callboard magazine (now Theatre Bay Area magazine), in which I wax philosophical about success and failure. Thanks to Peter Varvel for prompting me to dig it out of my archives and liking it enough that I thought it would be worth sharing with you all.]

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.)

PRINCE: Mmfffwwmmm!

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.

February 2001


  1. Someday we will be in the same room, and I will kiss you.

  2. While I love your snarky social commentary, I have to say that it's insightful posts like this that keep me coming back for me. Thanks for helping to stoke the creative fires.

  3. GW, is that a threat?

    Donovan, oh, I'm glad you like the "serious" stuff. Look at me wrinkle my forehead in seriousness!

  4. Awesome comments. I have to shamelessly mention this is what we preach in our book, "Go for No!" The more No's ultimately the yes will be there. You get 50 rejections, you're so much closer thatn the person who can only take one.

  5. Awesome comments. This is what we share in our book, "Go for No!" It is the Ultimate Strategy for Failing Your Way to Success. You must get lots of No's to get the yes. The person with 50 rejections is far closer to the goal than person that has collected one or two. Woody Allen said 80% of success is showing up. In show business (and many other endeavors) it is showing up again and again and again....

  6. having been the production manager for the neil simon festival for five years, i can only say some of his work sucks rocks.

    but, some of it? brilliant.

    the worst of it all? the man is prop mad.

    oh, but, wait, we were discussing you. i won't kiss you, i'll just fetch you a drink or something polygamist wifey like that.

  7. PG, I have filed this essay away for emergency use, for inevitable future discouragement.
    Obviously, you've struck a wide-sweeping chord, with newbies like me, and established professionals like yourself.
    Thanks, friend.

  8. This is meaty and delicious, and I say that as a person who writhes in pain if people are even neutral toward my work. Thank you.

  9. Prince, I once voluntarily made out with a gay boy so he could go back and tell his mom, "Yes, I've kissed a girl, and I still like boys."

    I'd have been really insulted by that entire deal, because he was way hot, except that he said that I was an amazing kisser and it was too bad he wasn't straight.

    So yeah, it's totally a threat.

  10. I loved this essay. I think I may have photocopied it at one point - back in the day, the one before you could just bookmark shit on your computer.

  11. Thanks for the mad props, everyone. I'm always hesitant to dig into the archives 'cuz I'm a much better writer now, but I guess genius is eternally present. Ha ha ha ha ha!