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…)
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.”
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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