It’s one of the first pieces of advice new authors tend to hear – you’re going to need a thick skin. I watched with interest a facebook debate yesterday, talking about harsh criticism and a tough industry, stinging knockbacks, and critiques that rip your work to shreds. A surprising number of folks saw these as good and useful things. On an egroup this week there was also some talk about the more brutal end of being reviewed, and what that does to an author. So you’re a creative soul and you want to share your work with the world? Grow a thick skin.
What makes us creative? There are undoubtedly a lot of answers, but it’s very hard to make art in any form unless you posses some sensitivity. Creative types, bard souls put work out into the world because we have something to share, a desire to be heard, perhaps a need for affirmation. Sure, there are people who are also doing it for ego, and a desire to be famous, but it’s hard work creating something and finding a way to share it. Anyone who gets that far has to be worthy of some respect just for trying.
It’s a learning process. Every creative person, when they first start putting work out there, will not be as good as they have the potential to be. There is always more to learn. Editors, reviewers, agents and so forth often have more experience, and there’s scope to learn from them. Being over-protective of what you’ve made and unable to hear where you need to develop, is a recipe for failure. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up on the integrity of your own work and let an editor make you sound just like everyone else. And some will try. There’s a balancing act to find between commercial viability, and artistic integrity, and it’s a challenging balance to strike, but it can be done.
I also work on the editing side. I’ve had fleeting encounters with authors who do not believe that their work needs anything doing to it. I’m aware of prima donnas who won’t be told and who cry ‘but this is my style’ when you try and explain that really, the mixed metaphors are not a good thing. Again there is a balance to find. If you are an arty person, then yes, odds are you are a sensitive soul and you may have some artistic temperament, but when you start dabbling with the business end, with the industries who might or might not pay you, a change is needed. Like it or not, you become a business person with a product to refine and sell. A cool head is handy.
All of that said, I strongly resist any suggestion that it’s good for creative types to be ripped to shreds by anyone who decides they know better. The pressure to ‘grow a thicker skin’ is not a healthy one. The industrial end of creativity may find it more convenient to make us behave like cogs in a machine, but we are not cogs, we are people. Industries of all kinds, institutions and anywhere that treats people as numbers, can be guilty of this. There’s a culture of expecting people to take whatever heartless crap is dished out, and to label as immature, over sensitive or otherwise neurotic anyone who cannot tolerate being bullied.
It is possible to tackle flaws in a piece of work without totally demoralising its creator. It is possible to nurture talent without ripping anything, or anyone apart. Having your work verbally annihilated is not a necessary rite of passage. It is as well if you can learn from bad experiences, but they should not be celebrated. People who set themselves up as authority figures do not always know best. I once had an editor who edited out my subplot and tried to change the description ‘sex fiend’ into ‘sex kitten’ making nonsense of the entire story. She thought that bullying me and telling me I needed a thicker skin was the way to go when I disagreed with her. I protested to the publisher and got someone decent to work with.
I may be naive, but I believe that we should, as far as is humanly possible, treat each other like people, regardless of the circumstances in which we are working. Start from the assumption that the person you are working with is a decent human being. Treat them with respect. There may be a flaw in their work, or they may have just given you a shitty review, but they remain a person, and the world would be a radically better place if more of us could remember that. Then no one would need to grow a thicker skin, which could be a really good thing.
Fellow Author Marc Vun Kannon has blogged on a similar theme – http://authorguy.wordpress.com/2010/06/23/what-do-you-think/ so do check out his thoughts too.