On being a thick-skinned artist

When you create, sensitivity is a must. But when you are trying to sell what you’ve created, it can be downright dangerous.

This is what has me thinking this morning before I head out to another day at Balticon (The Baltimore Science Fiction Convention at which I am a presenter/participant this year). I’m about to head out to meet more great folks, talk writing, and hopefully interest a bunch of people in my books.

Generally, before I an event like this, I’m nervous, but I’m an excited nervous. Today, I’m more nervous than excited. And here’s why. Yesterday afternoon at the Con, in the middle of the hubbub, we had a fire alarm. While outside, I ran into some people I know.

“Oh, I have my books,” I presented the new books and covers to my good friend whom I hadn’t seen in ages.

“The cover’s not bad,” one of the other people in the circle dropped the book back into my hands.

“Not bad? Not bad??? What are you talking about? It’s fantastic!” On the inside, I shouted in defense of my cover artist. On the outside, I talked about how happy I was with the work she had done and that she had realized my vision beautifully.

But then, I got to thinking. How do people do it every day? How do they open themselves up to the casual criticism of others? And more particularly how do they do it as artists? That sounds strange, but bear with me.

In my mind, to make art requires great sensitivity. It might be a sensitivity of feelings or of aesthetics. But I believe that some sensitivity is a must. Now the question becomes, if an artist needs more sensitivity than someone who does not spend time being creative, what sort of armor or protection does that artist need in order to not be cut to the quick when someone casually says their work is “not bad” or worse yet, “awful.”

I feel like everyone should get to wear a button that gives their level of availability to hear critique/criticism of their work. On the one hand, I wouldn’t want to live in a “Oh, that blob you just dropped on the page is worthy of da Vinci” bubble. On the other hand, I’d love to have a series of colors that designate the level of sensitivity about their work on any given day. And heck, on some level, I’d love to know that about people every day. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could see someone’s sensitivity level just by looking at the color of button they were wearing?

Don’t get me wrong. I know the general public doesn’t owe me that sort of consideration, but wouldn’t it be nice if they gave it anyway? I understand that when an artist creates something and then displays it that she or he has then invited response, critique, or criticism. I would love it if that response came from an awareness of the person’s capacity for hearing it.

Perhaps, the artist must learn how to transform the energy from the metaphorical gut punch of criticism into the fire in the belly of passionate creation. The question is how. And it is one I can see I will struggle with as I progress. Still, though, I want the intention to critique to be communicated beforehand. If you are going to tell me my work sucks, a, I’d like to be prepared, and b, I want to hear constructive ways to fix it. Just saying it sucks doesn’t help the work evolve. Rather, it likely stagnates it.

When I started my writers’ group, I made it clear that anyone who presented their work would need to express the sort of feedback they wanted. If they wanted only supportive comments, that would happen. If they were ready for serious critique, they needed to say it and more importantly, they needed to be ready for it.

There is something honest about that process that feels right. It takes self-assessment, but it leaves us all with a better idea of how to interact.

I understand that the modern artist must also be an accomplished businessperson. I also believe that we would all do better business if we were considerate of each other’s sensibilities during our transactions and interactions. Am I tilting at windmills with this thought? Sure, but it wouldn’t be the first time.

I’m a lifelong windmill tilter.

Sending you all my love.

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