What Do You Do When the Worst Happens?

Connor Ratliff Dead Eyes Tom Hanks

What Do You Do When the Worst Happens?

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I didn’t want to write this post yet.

I had another one all queued up for this week–which you’ll be seeing next week–and meanwhile I had this post percolating in the back of my mind for down the road, after reading this article in Vulture about Connor Ratliff’s podcast “Dead Eyes.”

Here’s the thumbnail sketch: 22 years ago, early in his acting career, Ratliff was cast in a small role–a couple of lines in the show Band of Brothers, at the time a huge hit, and his episode was to be directed by Ratliff’s idol, Tom Hanks.

Until he heard from his agent that he was being called back in to reaudition directly for Hanks because he felt Ratliff had “dead eyes.” Ratliff went back to audition again–for a part he thought he’d already won–and lost the job.

Two decades later he started this podcast–not to smear Hanks or as some kind of vendetta, but simply to make sense of this seemingly random event that had had such a profound impact on the rest of his life and career. And after two years and 30 episodes, Hanks finally came on the program to talk to him about it directly.

This story captured me for so many reasons, not least for its parallels with the writing life. But also for my sheer curiosity–what would it be like when Ratliff finally was face-to-face with the man whose casually cruel dismissal had been a blip in Tom Hanks’s life, but such a huge factor in Ratliff’s?

Who of us wouldn’t love to have a chance to ask that agent or editor who turned down your manuscript why they did it, what it meant? (Or maybe not…)

Who of us wouldn’t love to have a chance to ask that agent or editor who turned down your manuscript why they did it, what it meant?

I intended to listen to the Tom Hanks episode first and then, if I liked it, go back and listen to earlier ones, and then write about how the show might reflect on creativity and the risks and costs of choosing a creative life; about taking a negative experience and turning it into something positive that helps feed the very creativity the original incident stifled; about rejection and persistence and randomness and perspective.

But I just finished the Tom Hanks episode, and there’s too much here already for me to possibly write about in a single post—it does all that in a single episode, and with a profundity and an emotional punch I did not expect.

I don’t want to oversell this episode–I was worried the Vulture post might have done that for me. And yes, as that article states, this is probably the best Tom Hanks interview you’ll ever hear.

But I found it so much deeper than that, too.

Like acting, writing careers are filled with moments like Ratliff’s “dead eyes” experience: You get the yes or the no, and it feels like everything in your career hinges on that. Someone’s feedback cuts your knees out from under you—and yet you don’t know how to fix whatever it was they may have seen as a fatal shortcoming in your writing. Your confidence flags. You flounder and struggle.

Maybe you give up.

As authors we wrangle with repeated, often cold rejection of something so close to our souls–our creative efforts–and it can feel like a body blow. But can you imagine being rejected for something about your very essence as a person?

Hanks and Ratliff discuss the fact that Ratliff should never have heard about the “dead eyes” comment–it was a lapse in discretion that resulted in his hearing a coldly naked assessment that he should have been cushioned from.

Yet that moment–the fact that he not only lost a job he’d booked, but one with an actor he idolized, and for this painfully personal reason—crushed him, and for a long while it defined him, sidelined his career and creativity. Ratliff talks about spending the next 13 years working as a dishwasher and preschool teacher and bookstore employee.

But eventually he went back to acting—and that formative Tom Hanks encounter became a cornerstone of the way he approached his creative career the second time around.

What I found when I looked back on the experience was that it had built a lot of character in terms of when I returned to show business, I knew not to take everything so personally,” Ratliff says. “I knew that for everything that can go right, it can also go wrong just as quickly.”

That crushing experience that once sent him out of the business eventually became fuel for his reclaiming it, to work through what it all meant for him, for his career, for his art. And he even used it as substance for his creative process in starting the Dead Eyes podcast.

“It’s been such a gift because we never would have arrived at this place if I hadn’t had my little show business nightmare,” he tells Hanks at one point in the interview. “It’s been a real lesson in terms of even a negative experience can sometimes be the thing that is ultimately more rewarding than if I just had a lovely time filming for a day on Band of Brothers.”

“Well, isn’t that the serendipity that you must have faith in?” Hanks replies. “There is a type of seasoning of, Who knows what’s going to happen? A pure, unadulterated chance that moves stuff along somehow. And it never stops happening in a career.” 

Hanks repeatedly uses the word “dispassion” in the interview, as a central tenet of how creatives must approach the business of their art. You have to find a way to do this passionate thing with a measure of dispassion—yet how do you navigate the impersonal career aspect of this most personal pursuit? “How do you process disappointment when something doesn’t go your way?” Ratliff asks at one point.

Hanks doesn’t hesitate: “Oh my lord. It’s by going into it with absolutely no expectations whatsoever.”

We are creators not because someone buys what we create, or gives us the yes, or says we’ve made the cut. We’re creators because we create. That’s the crux of what we do: the work itself.

Disappointment is a feature of every life, but in a career that involves putting ourselves and our work out there over and over and over again—with every story, every submission, every single reader of our work—authors are going to face it more than most. And in a business based on something as subjective as art, often it has little to do with the worth of your work or of you as a writer.

“There’s no bad guys here,” Hanks reflects on the original “inciting event” of firing Ratliff, which he explains as a standard casting decision that might have been based on any number of arbitrary factors out of the actor’s control.  “It’s not like you offended me and so therefore I sought retribution by not giving you this job…. When we have narratives we break it up into ‘I was a victim of blank,’ Or, ‘I triumphed over bad guys.’ And that’s not the way the world works.”

Dead Eyes podcast Tom Hanks and Connor Ratliff CR: Hannah Szalay

What is in our control is how we react to these setbacks. What we do with them. Ratliff eventually turned one of the worst moments of his creative life into a meaningful exploration of disappointment that became a wonderfully meaty creative outlet, a critically and listener-acclaimed creative product, and the platform for myriad other creative collaborations.

“You don’t have this magnificent story without some form of tragedy happening to you,” Hanks says. “And that speaks to perseverance, about keeping going despite any number of bad news. It speaks to the serendipity of you never know what’s going to come down the pike.”

In a business like writing, we cannot know what’s going to come down the pike–what seemingly soul-crushing, career-ending event might actually turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to us. We simply have to focus on our creativity itself—because it’s so much of who we are.

“All you can do is try to try to be fascinated by the work that you’re doing,” Hanks says. “That’s it…it’s a journey of many steps and the only thing you can do is keep stepping, keep walking. That’s the perseverance that’s required.”

I can’t encourage you strongly enough to listen to the podcast–there’s so much of value even in that single episode that I haven’t delved into here, and I’ve since binged several more episodes and it’s everything deeply relevant to writers and the creative journey, plus some pretty stellar storytelling I’ll no doubt be writing a future post about. And tell me, authors–what setbacks and disappointments have you faced in your creative careers? How have they impacted you, and how do you process and cope with the often painful parts of risking sharing your creative efforts?

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27 Comments. Leave new

  • What a great story, I’ll definitely have a listen to the podcast. I’m always banging on to the children about how ‘failure’ is a step on the road, something to learn from etc, avoidable only by sitting on the sofa never doing anything. This sounds like a great example of learning from a difficult and crushing moment.

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      March 17, 2022 1:30 pm

      Easy to say, hard to do, isn’t it? Funny you put it this way–I have a whole post queued up for next week about that very topic, failure. It’s one I also struggle with: my head knows what you say is exactly right, but my delicate little psyche can sometimes struggle with it. 🙂 Thanks for being here, CJ.

  • Erin Flanagan
    March 17, 2022 10:36 am

    Tiffany, I don’t know how you know exactly what I need to hear, but honestly, these blog posts feel like personal letters you write me each week. I’m waiting on word for a project right now and feel like my life is in the balance, and this is a good reminder that no’s can mean something better is coming, and even a yes doesn’t change my life. It’s the work that does that. I will try try try to keep that in mind!

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      March 17, 2022 1:32 pm

      I love that, Erin! It’s that old parable “good news, bad news–who can say?” And isn’t it the truth–we can feel like everything hinges on things like that. If I’m hitting chords with you it’s because we must wrestle with similar bugaboos–most of my posts stem from something I’m working through myself. Thanks for this. And I have everything crossed for you!

  • Thank you for writing and sharing this! I’m listening right now.

    The message syncs and reinforces the story I wrote this morning about finding a piece of rejected art and being reminded how much I enjoyed creating it. How important it is to create art or stories for my own creative spirit. No one else’s approval need matter.

    Thanks again, your words lift me up.

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      March 17, 2022 1:36 pm

      Your words just lifted ME up, Bex, so thanks for that. That connection is what makes all this meaningful to me–but I have to refocus on that sometimes, as you did with your rejected piece. That means nothing about its worth, or the experience you had in creating it.

      This is SUCH a hard business! Commoditizing something as personal and subjective as art has to be, I guess, because so much of our selves goes into it, and because the creation of it is entirely different from the selling and marketing of it as a product. When I can stay connected to why I do it–the creativity of it–I’m happy no matter what’s happening with it. I think that is the secret of a successful, long-term creative career. As Hanks said, you have to find a way to stay fascinated by the work. Thanks for your comment, Bex.

  • Kristi Leonard
    March 17, 2022 1:04 pm

    It’s all about perspective, isn’t it? I just read The Midnight Library and this lines up with the message in that book. Thanks for always sharing such thought-provoking insight. I will definitely give this a listen.

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      March 17, 2022 1:38 pm

      I cannot WAIT to read that book–you’re not the first to describe it in a way that makes me think I’ll love it. I’d love to hear what you think of the podcast. I’m popping episodes like TicTacs. They are so good, and so inspiring on a creative level, and I’m having a ball analyzing the storytelling itself. 🙂 Thanks for the comment, Kristi!

  • This quote got me:
    “But can you imagine being rejected for something about your very essence as a person?”
    My first thought: IT IS.
    Expecting a dispassionate response to rejection is unrealistic.
    The skill we must learn is to carry on anyway.

    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      March 17, 2022 1:41 pm

      Agreed, that’s one hell of a big ask, but I keep trying, though. 🙂 It helps me to remember that I am not my work, however much it may feel like that sometimes. I don’t exist because of my creative efforts–they exist because of me. That helps me create that sliver of separation that can be useful in achieving some measure of dispassion. But I think that has to come AFTER the creation part of it. When we’re creating it feels exactly right to pour all of our most naked selves into the work, doesn’t it? And then I try to take a step back and divorce myself from it as a product, as opposed to a creation; I think it morphs at that point and becomes something slightly different than it was when you created it. I am successful at that to varying degrees at various times, though. 🙂 Thanks for the comment, Shelley.

  • Melanie Ormand
    March 17, 2022 2:35 pm

    How do I react when the wave slams me back to the beach? I stand up, wipe off the sand, shake my body, go back to my desk and start writing again. Better, I go to my list of agent/media possibilities, and send the story to the next person on the list. Then I forget about it. Stunning the number of times that my forgetting results in a “yes” sometime later. Movement matters, so does meaning. Only after multiple “no” responses do I take a look to see if maybe it’s my work. Sometimes it is. I revise, again. This life is hard and it takes discipline to dip only a toe in the “why me” woes. Over time, it works. Or has for my writing life.

    • Love this, Melanie–it reminds me of Captain Marvel getting back up and back up and back up every time she’s knocked down. 🙂 Love that you keep moving forward too: to the next submission, the next story–Hanks’s “keep stepping.” Thanks for sharing your process.

  • Barbara Hoyt
    March 17, 2022 7:39 pm

    Thank you so much for this post, Tiffany. Talk about serendipity. Yesterday evening I found myself at the receiving end of a couple of pretty harsh critiques in a writing workshop, one from a person who said she hadn’t read my submittal as closely as she would have liked, and another from someone who claims she doesn’t like to read and even admitted to not having written anything at all recently. I didn’t try to defend my material, and I was lucky the class instructor dropped in on the session to redirect the conversation. But still I signed off in a tailspin, wondering if I was in over my head, and for a very brief moment part of me wanted to throw in the towel. So I can’t tell you how grateful I am that you decided to send this post out before you’d planned to. It has definitely lifted me up and inspired me to as Hanks says, keep stepping 🙂

    • OOF, ouch–sorry to hear that, Barbara. I always say crit groups can be among the best and the worst thing to happen to an author’s writing, depending on the group. Glad the instructor intervened–and really glad to hear this post was well timed for you. Just keep swimming, friend. Thanks for being here.

  • Barbara Hoyt
    March 17, 2022 8:35 pm

    PS: I’m really looking forward to Master The Flashback in May!

  • Melanie Doctors
    March 18, 2022 1:44 am

    Patricia Spenser, one of my characters says, “Expectations are preconceived disappointments.” Don’t you love it when characters are smarter than we are? Lol.

  • Melanie Doctors
    March 18, 2022 2:11 am

    And you are a wonderful muse to us all.


  • Just read the transcript now.


    Just what an amazing story. There are so many layers to this and it really makes you think that whole ‘when a butterfly flaps it’s wings and there’s an earthquake’ kinda thing.

    Thanks so much for sharing, that’s just awesome.

    • Especially as you listen to the full podcast (at least where I am in it so far, which is very early in season one)–it’s such a web of creative connections that’s fascinating. Same as in our business, which is another reason this is resonating with me a lot. Glad you liked it, Syl!

  • Craig Lancaster
    March 19, 2022 12:47 pm

    I was motivated to listen to this podcast when you told us about it. Doubly motivated (as much motivation as I can stand) after reading this.


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