A Thicker Skin
There are plenty of articles written on Medium about rejection, about mean trolls, about how when people are critical of your writing it fills you with doubt. These articles remind me that I’ve lived most of my life in an atmosphere of critique. I am as sensitive as the next person but I do find I have perspective from living with both invited and unavoidable critique over the years.
If I look back and identify my first and harshest critic it would have to be my own mother. What she wanted and expected in her only female child was certainly not what she got. As a little girl I was unabashedly myself. I knew I was constantly messing up as far as she was concerned but there was something within my personality that let me feel OK in my own skin. I also had an incredibly supportive Dad.
So, I’ve had that going for me.
My mother’s frustrations with me were probably part of the reason I gravitated to the world of being creative. Instead of being a kid who followed that which was challenging (do kids do that?), I was compelled to stay in the lane where I got praised for natural talents. It was what I didn’t get from my Mom.
I always felt so deliciously validated by the praise I got when being the best at something. It was easy to be “the best” at reading when I was being compared to a group of first graders who were just learning to read — I had been reading since I was four. When you are “the best” artist in your class it’s not really amazing when you are being compared to others who don’t give being artistic a thought. For them it is the “fun” activity at school. “Best” at writing stories — same thing. Most kids I went to school with didn’t strive for excellence in creative endeavors the same way I did.
I went to a very competitive art school for college. It was there that my professors pointed out that each of us was probably the best at art in our smaller worlds. Now I was exposed to the reality that there were other talented artists all around me. My teacher’s goals were to help me improve my skills and part of that meant daily critique. Every week day, as I worked in class and presented works I had done on my own time, critique was a part of my classroom and studio experience.
Every one of the students in my classes was a good artist. Being accepted into this school was proof positive. It was also clear who among us was better and who was best.
If I was being honest with myself I had to come to grips with the fact that I wasn’t the best. The best in my freshman foundation class was a student named Paul. I probably got far more praise from our classmates because I was more outgoing and had more in common with them. Paul was a little bit older. He was married and lived off campus. He was quiet and his work was not obvious. I could see the situation clearly though. Paul and I got to be friends and I deeply admired and respected him because of his talent and intelligence.
Paul was humble. Because of Paul’s faith in me and my own talent I came to the understanding that there was room for both of us. He was the best but his greatness didn’t diminish the fact that I was good too. Better than average. So I further embraced my talents. And listened to the critique. I improved my eye, my skills flourished and I found a niche. I discovered my personal direction and worked as hard as I could.
After college I spent several years trying to make it as a studio artist and hoped for gallery representation. When I was working towards that goal I was not only up against other talented artists but was now in a world where one person’s taste would determine my success. Creating work that a gallery owner likes is only a part of it. To obtain gallery presence it is also incumbent on an artist to inspire the buying public to part with their dollars.
It was a constant struggle. I made appointments at galleries and lugged around my portfolio and an album of photos of my work. I applied for competitions and juried shows and in eight years I had two pieces of my work sell. I made $1150.00. Obviously, this wasn’t a path to make a living and while I worked on weekends to produce art I still had to work a 9–5 job. Burnout in creating without an audience and patronage was inevitable.
I gave up trying to be represented by a gallery but I continued being creative. I wrote. I painted and drew and did a variety of other creative things.
Eventually, I found my way to the juried arts and crafts fair circuit. Getting into the shows that become my livelihood was a different sort of challenge. Each year I was faced with sometimes capricious jurors and competition with flash-in-the-pan trending artists that lasted a year or two at best. A show that might have brought in thousands of dollars in years prior might no longer be a part of my schedule. During application season, a trip down my driveway to my mail box could be a minefield.
Sometimes I opened the box and found the dreaded self-addressed envelope with the pictures of my rejected body of work sliding around inside.
While at shows I got instant critiques that ranged from praise about how much the person entering my booth loved my work to the broader range of random folks who had both an opinion and a big mouth.
“Oh, I can do that.”
“I’ve seen that before.”
“I thought this was supposed to be an art show.”
It always hurts at least a little bit. I had shows where my work wasn’t striking a chord with buyers but there would be a few people there (Just Looking!) who would tell me how much they liked my work but would leave my booth without a bag in their hand. When your pocket is empty, when you know you have a hotel bill to pay and need money for gas to get back home the last thing you want or need is a compliment instead of a sale.
The thing is though, dealing with opinions about my work, day after day, like I had to when I was in an art school when the goal was to get me to be able to really see what I was doing or when I was subjected, week after week to the opinions of the general public within my earshot, I did develop a thicker skin. Otherwise, I don’t see how I could have kept going.
Part of that necessary skin thickening is knowing your own worth. Letting go of my competitive nature was a big part of it. If someone is better at something than me it gives me room to grow. The world is so big — why would there only be room for a single talent?
You have to be in a good head space to be creative. Too much inner dialog about how much you suck isn’t going to allow you to connect with the part of you that finds creating an exciting thing to do. Too much self-doubt stifles the very thing that makes you special. You can’t let all of that noise distract you from your work.
The world is full of people who kid themselves about their talents and worth. There are plenty of swelled heads to deal with. Those people aren’t fooling anyone except themselves. If you spend any time putting your creative work in front of an audience and get any sort of positive feedback (real feedback, not just the praise only you can hear in your head) you probably do have talent. It’s not just your imagination or your ego!
Talent is a gift worth developing. If you want to pursue your talent to the point of monetizing it, you have to plug away no matter what. One way to do that is to learn from your mistakes, to hear what is said about your weaknesses and to further yourself.
Listen to everything but choose what seems pertinent. Let your skin grow tougher. Growing a more durable hide will let you continue. It will be your protection against the naysayers, the doubters, the negative Nancys, the jealous and anyone who for whatever reason, doesn’t get you.
People won’t always get you. Never mind them. They don’t know what they are talking about. Hold your head up and keep on going.