Art of Rejection

            I started writing my first script when I was 10. It was pretty bad. Really bad actually. But in retrospect it was the good kind of bad. The project was called Mixed Movies and essentially it was a mix of different characters and themes from popular franchises to create something for everybody. So basically, I came up with the idea for the Lego Movie decades before it was released.
I never did finish that project. But I did complete a novel shortly after. Orion was a story about teenagers saving the world in the future. It was also pretty bad. Better. But still bad.
I remember giving Orion to a few of my mother’s friends to read. They gave encouraging and altogether positive feedback. But they also mentioned the things that I needed to improve as a writer. I’d never had that happen to me before as a kid. Or not to that degree anyway. Having adults read your innermost thoughts and outright tell you that they’re not good enough?! Daamn.
I was crushed. Literally stunned. I lay in the car without moving for hours. It felt like my world was crashing down. Rejection redefined my experience of what it was to be an artist. Before that, storytelling was only about expressing myself. Now it was about finding something deeper than what I already understood. To really write I needed to grow up and experience the world. Rejection was my initiation.
I wrote my second book over the next two years as I moved through junior high school. My parents got divorced, general teenage anxiety and adolescent discomfort ensued, but on the whole, things were ok. Nintendo was great. I was the fat kid so I ate a lot. And most importantly, my dreams of being an author/filmmaker were still plentiful and possible. I put everything I had into writing that second book with the full intention of being taken seriously as an author.
It still sucked. But it did have a few decent parts…
In my mind, book three was my final shot to prove once and for all that I wasn’t a total crap writer. Book three (at age 16) was the be all end all defining moment of my life! This was it… I’m coming world and you better be ready! I feverishly wrote that third book over the course of the next couple years. I poured everything I was feeling and thinking into it!
And then… when it was finished… it was by far… without a doubt… the worst thing I had ever written.
I kind of gave up on being a writer for a couple years after that. Kind of a ‘Screw it, I suck at this, I’m done’ sort of deal. But I kept thinking of stories all the while… slow cooking ideas in the back of my mind just in case I got struck by lightning and suddenly developed talent.
High school ended in an anticlimactic residue of moving on to college. No lightning. Just life.
And then… a few years after my catastrophic third book… I decided to try writing again. Just… throw something on the page and mix it up, you know?
It was good. Actually good.
My fourth novel (age 19), Popped Culture is the story of a woman named Joan, formerly a woman named John. It’s about her life, the people in her life and… her former penis in a pickle jar. The book tackled themes of identity in a complex, absurd yet mature way. It helped me realize just how important writing was for me.
For the first time, expressing myself wasn’t something that hurt. Now writing was something that helped me to grow. That transition marked an important shift in perspective and drive. I was officially a writer again. And with that, I was going to submit my work to publishers.
Part of rejection is feeling like a failure. It turns out it doesn’t matter if your work is good if nobody publishes it. I tried submitting repeatedly as everyone does but… nope. A few hundred rejections and a couple of replies but… nothing materialized. So… I tried writing another novel! Reverie, my fifth book (age 20) and submitted that to publishers too! But… nope. It still wasn’t on the level that it needed to be. Close but no cigar.
Frustrated and discouraged by relentless rejection I decided to make a bold move and produce a local graphic novel. I orchestrated a two-month photoshoot with dozens of locations, actors, friends, costumes and effects to unfold all across Edmonton. I then drew overtop of those photos in photoshop and created a unique cell painted style. This took months of production, illustration and assembly.
I then took a Flash Web development course at NAIT. I was going to design my own website—self-publish my fourth and fifth novels as well as my new graphic novel! I needed to think bigger… that was the key to finally breaking through! I needed to aim higher… and that website (age 23) was my road to reaching the world! Ready or not here I come!!!
Nothing. Nobody. Zip.
In retrospect, my site barely had anything on it. The graphic novel I made with my friends was juvenile and poorly presented. I didn’t promote or publicize my work at all. It was just… me wanting to be all grown up as a writer without actually being there yet. But it felt like I was onto something. Like there was something really there… deep down… beneath the surface, hidden in the words.
It felt like there was a distance between people that writing had the power to amend. Rejection was just other people telling me that I hadn’t succeeded in communicating with them yet. I viscerally longed to articulate things deeper than what I understood. It drove me. It fueled me. And in a way it consumed me. My once pastime was now my sense of purpose.
I worked two years lining steel pipe with fibre glass to save up to go to the New York Film Academy’s intensive one-year filmmaking program. I wrote my sixth book, The Collection—18 shorts stories—in that time as well. I submitted that book to publishers too. Nothing. So I published it myself on my website again. I submitted grants in my spare time while working industrial labour. Nothing. Nobody believed in me. Not yet. No publishers, no grants. Just me and the dream I clung to.
My expectations about my art were always overzealous, rushed and entitled. Like an arrogant kid. I wanted to reach a point of understanding so badly that I insisted I was already there. But the truth is you never stop reaching. Even if you’ve fallen and especially if you’re falling. Desire’s like that. And as bad as desire is, dreams are worse. My dreams were haunting. I’m sure you know what I mean.
I went to film school (age 25). I graduated. I made multiple short films that I wrote, directed, produced or edited. I learned to do everything I needed to do so people would finally listen.
My short films were good. They got into mid-range festivals, not top tier. They won a few awards. The feedback was very strong. It felt like a shot of hope on an otherwise bleak path. I finally had a stage to speak from. The value of my work was clear and apparent to everyone. Finally!!!
And yet… it was only shadows and whispers. Fleeting applause in sparsely filled theatres. No job offers, opportunities, paycheques or conceivable paths forward. The road of fifteen years that I had already worked to be a writer/filmmaker was only now beginning. Reality wasn’t as warm as my naïve imagination had been.
And so… I put my short films online for free.
All three short films focused on relevant real-world issues in a unique non-confrontational style. I wanted to use narrative to encourage conversation. To take what I had learned from my previous inability to articulate myself and transform that into a means of helping other people overcome conflict.
The decades that I had been a bad writer, combined with the amount of rejection that I’d received slowly refined my ability as an artist. I finally understood what was previously beyond my understanding. Writing held an invaluable secret. Combinations of words contained a long-lost way to traverse discourse and compel bitter enemies to bury the hatchet. That was my mission now. That was the purpose behind my art. I was going to use my words to confront controversy.
Coming Home premiered at the Montreal World Film Festival and shed light on negligence surrounding elderly care. 3 Needs premiered in Montreal a year later and was a short film about homelessness in New York. Blindfold was nominated for the Edmonton Film Prize and was a short film about the strong unconscious resistance people have to confronting controversy. All three films invited deep nuanced discussions. Not only were those films vessels for me to be understood as an artist, more importantly, they were water cooler events for other people to gather around and discuss deeper concepts by.
A good story is a reflective lens to view reality. It offers perspective and compels deeper thought. It’s not simply a uniform, linear, three act monotone romp. It’s a vibrant, lush awe-inspiring ballet. And because of this, narrative and artistic storytelling are uniquely situated to delve into the most heated of controversies. Even those controversies that people would normally want nothing to do with. That’s the power of storytelling. That’s the power of words. A turn of phrase can upend a concept.
Fans of my short film Blindfold created foreign language subtitled versions of the film just because they wanted to help get the word out about it. That’s how much community spirit was behind the idea. I was featured on popular online podcasts, Big Breakfast, Edmonton Film Festival, had 10’s of thousands of views and penetrated the conversation of activist circles all around the globe. Even the editor of the National Post personally wrote an article about my film. Blindfold struck a cord with people who were tired of pleading to deaf ears. It told their story in a way that everyone could understand.
Through Blindfold’s brief success I met a local activist named Bruce who was willing to invest $5000 into my next socially conscious project. That project just happened to be Hold Me, the script I had already written for my first feature film.
Hold Me is the story of an end of life caregiver whose job it is to hold and console people being voluntarily euthanized. The film was written to shed a light on grief in a way that helped the audience overcome their own grief. Hold Me was designed to be a tool that people could use to heal themselves in their real lives. The film was my first feature length project (age 28-33).
Bruce’s $5000 investment was soon met with a number of other smaller investments from my friends and family. The support that I had always lacked and never been able to pull together from the outside world now came in from those closest to me.
I managed to raise $25,000 dollars between friends, family, crowd funding and a public screening of my short films held at the Garneau. It wasn’t enough to make the movie. Not by a long shot. But it was enough to lighten the load.
I couldn’t raise any more money. I tried. I pitched the project to a couple of people to collaborate with, but they didn’t understand the underlying motivation behind my work. I didn’t just want to make an entertaining movie. I wanted to re-contextualize the application of filmmaking for therapeutic use. Entertainment wasn’t the point. Helping the audience was. That was my vision for my work.
Without raising the money that I needed and accustomed to having to do things on my own I did the dumbest thing anyone can possibly do for a film they believe in. I decided to go into debt to fund the feature myself. The rest of the budget was now my responsibility.
I moved forward with independently producing Hold Me for five full years. In that time I also wrote two other books that publishers snubbed, Rise and Play Reality: How Videogames Are Changing Everything! All of my work was now exclusively focused on cultivating deeper conversations and encouraging compassion in response to controversy.
Financing a feature film on your own is kind of like tangoing with a guillotine. If anything goes really wrong, it’s on you to fix it… that is, assuming you survive. If you run out of money, you have to find more. It’s a really, really awful feeling. I managed to scrape by. The shoot went well, principle photography wrapped without incident. The film was half complete. I had managed to get what I needed.
It wasn’t until post production that it all finally became too much for me. Much to my dismay, in the window of time when Hold Me was being produced there was a change in policy unfolding in the city. What once would have been $17-$20,000 returned to me from local production expenses on Hold Me suddenly vanished. The tax credit no longer applied. And that $17-$20,000 differential was now my personal responsibility to make up for. I appealed the decision. I did everything I could. But they wouldn’t listen. They only heard paperwork not the fact that I had actually done the work.
That broke me. Completely.
This time, it wasn’t just rejection. It wasn’t just failure. It felt like the world was trying to kill me and everything I valued and had worked so hard for. Being an artist was just too hard. My energy was fading. After decades of work… I was losing my dream.
But then, while working industrial labour again to chip away the debt of the film, I decided to try writing another grant for Hold Me. Maybe the entire world wasn’t against me? Maybe I just had to keep trying? No matter how much it hurt. I had to keep trying.
I opened the envelope on the toilet expecting the verdict to end up in the bowl. But to my amazement, this time I actually managed to get it. The Edmonton Arts Council, after previously rejecting Hold Me twice in pre-production, gave me a grant. They approved a $6000 investment to help me with editing costs. It literally kept me alive.
And yet… receiving that grant in the face of concurrently losing far more money because of production woes left me viscerally changed. I wish I hadn’t felt that way. I wish I were just grateful and nothing more. But a queasy uncertain feeling of everything crashing down around me had crept into my veins. The film had been too hard to make. The marketing budget was now gone and I was up to my ears in debt. But even worse than all of that, I had completely burnt myself out.
Burnout is brutal. I won’t go into details. I’ll just say that I learned my lesson.
Taking that film on myself was a stupid decision. I should have made sure everything was what it needed to be before producing Hold Me. I should have been more pragmatic and cautious—understood just how insanely long and hard an independent feature film is to pull off! But I didn’t. I had stubbornly only cared about the opportunity to share my work. And as much as it hurt to keep struggling all the time, I remained proud of the work that I had done. Hold Me was a strong film. For that at least, I hadn’t failed.
After the film was completed I was invited to sit on a grants review board and pass judgement on other people’s projects. It was tough. There are a lot of very talented people in this province and they all deserve a hand in their pursuits.
After one of the meetings I remember walking with a woman who had been invited to represent the literary arts. I was there as a filmmaker even though fundamentally I identify as a writer.
As we walked she talked about her work and her experiences learning from rejection. She brought up the fact that she had a part time job teaching creative writing to the next generation of people just like us—the next generation of artists with looming initiations. She said to me: “I don’t know why I encourage them to write. You know what it’s like.”
Her posture was fragile. Her pupils were wide. She moved with an elegance and grace of someone who had once danced on broken glass. She knew what it was to plant her heels too firmly on unwelcome ground. She maneuvered herself as if she had learned to fly. Anything to keep that weight from setting in again. I could see in her delicate and tortured mannerisms the scars and war wounds that I myself had come to acquire. From writing. From trying to be an artist. From rejection after rejection. And despite it all, to keep reaching.