Getting Back Up After A Creative Setback


I was standing on a rock in a yard in Colombia, trying to find good reception. My friend, a novelist, was on the phone, and his words, spoken from 4,000 miles away, poured like lava through my skin.

“It’s just not ready,” he said. “It’s not where it needs to be.”

My book, Welcome to the Writer’s Life, was DUE. It needed to be where it needed to be. 

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I had come to Colombia to stay for a month with nothing to distract me so I could complete the book. I needed to read two sections out loud a day and edit them, plus do the freelance writing work to support myself. 

Every day I had to dig deep to get it all done already, and here he was telling me I had so much more work to do.

This was a setback that knocked me on my ass. 

It was my best lesson in dealing with a creative setback. 

How to Recover 

Step One: Freak out

As a first step, you simply must pout and panic. He was talking about a whole chapter of a 6-chapter book. Not ok.

Negative feedback stings. Take a moment. You might need to ignore it for 24 hours. 

Definitely try to get some terrible sleep. Toss and turn if you can. If you can manage to think in never-ending circles, that will really help you with this step.

I don’t mean to brag, but I rocked this mode. 

Talk it out.

Reach out to a friend. Get some confidence back. Outsource a pep talk.

Then go back to whomever you need to, whether the person who gave you the feedback, or the person the work is due to. Sometimes they’re the same person, sometimes not. Get as specific feedback as you can. If someone says, “It’s overwritten” or “You’re trying too hard,” remove that person from your life immediately. 

You need to be reassured that you can do this, and given the guidance to do it right. 

Assess your resources.

Look over what you have to work with. It might be more than you think. 

  • Do you have enough time? Can you get an extension, or put another project on hold? (Turns out, I could not.)
  • Do you have money to get an advisor or coach? (I did not then.)
  • Do you have a talented friend whom you could trust for a consultation? (That’s where I got the negative feedback!) 

Make a plan.

It is so hard to make a plan to say “make this writing better.” Focus on steps you know work, like reading it out loud.

Here’s what else might work:

  • Have someone (or an app) read it out loud to you.
  • Copy it over to another document.
  • Make an outline.
  • Use the stickiness principles from Made To Stick
  • Draw the plot out. 

What I ended up doing was leveraging a relationship with a writing mentor to partner with me on that chapter. 

Time and effort are the keys. And you can’t be stressed during that time and effort. That’s not where creativity comes from. 

Then, promise yourself you’ll double down. Dig deep. Make yourself into a person who knows how to take feedback and turn it into something incredible. It’s a skill very few people have. And it’s a tough, tough skill to master.

Then, when you’re done, celebrate.

My Latest Creative Setback

Here I am again, three years later, working my lil’ buns off, preparing a big project for a client. And yeah, I have a lot going on, so maybe I was rushing just a bit? 

I basically said, “Hey guys, here you go, it’s done!” 

And they said, “Hey nice try no it’s not!”

I was embarrassed that I’d turned in something that wasn’t up to standard, and with all that I have going on and the tight time limit, unsure that I could do it. 

Cue the sleepless night. I woke up and my body felt like it was vibrating with anxiety. 

I moped and talked with the people I needed to: my best friend and my sister. 

I assessed my resources: I got a business loan to hire an admin person. Which is a risk. But it was my only way to buy the time and the focus to improve the project.

I made a plan: I scheduled 90 minutes to look at each section, created a checklist much like the one I had for my book, which included reading it out loud.

And I acknowledged that with working on my novel in the mornings, unpaid of course, I just had to work until 8 p.m. every night. 

I’m over the hump of the humiliation and fear, my ego is limping along, but still moving forward. 

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