Criticism and How I Got a Book Deal

birch-treesI started and stopped several light and easy posts for today, but I’ve been stuck on this idea of criticisms so I decided to just go with it even though it’s neither light nor easy. It’s also not a short read, so I’ve inserted random illustrations I’ve been painting these days to break up the text.

When I was in my early twenties, I quietly mentioned to someone I respected — a much older woman — that I might want to be a writer or a “creative” of some sort. She leveled her world-weary eyes upon me, and told me in a matter-of-fact way that I should never try to write or make art as a living because I cared too much about what other people thought. She meant to be kind, and was certainly honest. I’ve always been a people-pleaser and overly sensitive to external input and it struck a nerve that she called it out so bluntly. “People will try to crush you, you know,” she said, and I nodded meekly. I tucked that information away in the recesses of my mind, and applied for graduate schools that year. As much as I hated to admit it, her words had resonated. Oddly enough, I didn’t take her statements as a putdown about my thin-skinned-ness. I had grown up with an artist mother; I knew the uncertainty of that life intimately and because of that I’d fought hard against my artistic grooming. Even though a part of me wanted very much to make things, a bigger part of me wanted to be responsible and I was accepted into several graduate programs — I felt smug that I had evaded the tortured artist’s life, that I was carving out options of the practical variety.

I also remembered that when I first started this blog, I was at a coffee shop as usual and ran into an acquaintance who is a marketing guru. He accidentally got a glimpse of my screen and asked what I was working on. At the time, I only had about four posts, and I was pretty embarrassed, but I admitted that I started an illustration blog (sewing was still a few months away). “Huh,” he said, “it’s very…accessible.” Not a criticism per se, but definitely not an enthusiastic response and I almost shut down my WordPress account. It was very uncomfortable to see such a lukewarm reception to something I’d put so much care and thought into.

citrus-y

Last week, I remembered these words as I worked feverishly on the cover art sketches of my book that is slowly taking shape. I tentatively showed the sketches to M, and though I was proud of them, I was also scared. Β His job description as my husband requires that he be encouraging, of course, but he was also curious. “What are you going to do when you get criticism?” he asked. That nerve twanged yet again. I don’t handle negative comments well, but I’m not sure that anyone would say “I love me some criticism!”

Criticism is unavoidable. Someone’s gonna hate, no matter how much heart and soul you pour into your…whatever. Graphic design. Music. Sewing. Your faith. Your new pet grooming business. Whatever you identify as your truest you. Sometimes the harshness won’t even be about you, but what the other person is going through (inadequacy? jealousy? a bad taco causing an upset stomach and foul mood?). Sometimes the criticism will be genuinely constructive, given from a compassionate place. And sometimes all you’ll get is indifference, which is horrible in its own way. I’ve been incredibly lucky that so far, I’ve been floating on positive and supportive vibes here in this space and with all the new ventures I’ve been trying of late. I’ve found the sewing and creative community to be warm and accepting. But the flip side is coming. I know it. And I am ill-equipped.

As a preemptive measure, I started googling articles and watching a lot of youtube self-help videos on how to handle criticism. I’m a little bit ashamed of this. I’ve always been wary of the whole “self-help” genre, despite my obvious love of the topics commonly covered in the self-help section. I guess I feel like I should know how to deal with this sort of thing by now, since I’ve been on this earth a long time. That I should blast forth my sunny, unshakeable belief in myself and poo poo the naysayers without catchphrases and “experts” telling me what to do.

I think it’s safe to say everyone wants to be healthy, financially comfortable and fulfilled in their work (however you define work) and relationships. And most of all, we want to feel okay about ourselves. No one likes to be reminded of their shortcomings or mistakes or general uncoolness (very few people, I’ve discovered, actually think they’re cool). Because of these very basic human wants, there is a thriving and explosive “personal development” industry. My goodness, there seems to be a direct correlation between life coaching and yelling — I had to keep turning the volume down. Most of the videos left me feeling puzzled or confused, though I did find a few that I liked.

In my helter skelter research method for how to deal with criticism, I came across this series by Jonathan Fields called the Good Life Project. I saw that he interviewed BrenΓ© Brown, who is fabulous, and I wound up watching about 15 GLP interviews. Not all of them hit the mark for me, but I loved the basic premise of his project. Don’t we all want to live a good life? And what does that mean? Jonathan Fields talks with people deemed successful in various fields, though he’s partial to entrepreneurs with a spiritual bent. From fashion designers to venture capitalists and artists and writers and bloggers and academics, the stories were eclectic but all involved overcoming a personal struggle and taking some sort of risk. He always closes his interviews with the question, “What does a good life mean to you?” He assumed that he would get the same answers repeatedly but discovered that everyone defined a good life differently — and that made me evaluate what I consider a good life.

pink-circles

So what does all this have to do with getting a book deal? I’ll get there, I promise. I’ve been trying to figure out how to talk about it because it’s the number one question I get when I mention I’m working on a book. “How did it happen?” And the subtext is, so often, “How can I get one too?” Because I’ve been there. I’ve thought the unasked question.

The short version would be: I knew someone who became an editor for a local publisher and she asked me if I was interested in publishing a book. How lucky, some might think. How unfair, others might mutter.

But that’s not the whole story. I’ve known the woman who would become my editor for over seven years. T, I’ll call her, is friendly and vibrant and absolutely lovely.Β She worked and still works at a small independent book store, and through the years, she became my go-to bookseller — her specialty is in children’s books, but she reads everything. Her house is filled to capacity with books. Every Christmas I send books to my in-laws, and every year, I would roll into the store during the holiday season, seeking her out for recommendations. T has never failed me and her recommendations are always spot-on. With her help, I selected the first books with which K learned how to read. We gushed over young adult novels (a deep love of mine), and T and the shop represented everything good and right about a local book shop.

Now, I keep yammering on about how little I talk about this here blog to people in my day-to-day, but back in the old days when I had my first blog (RIP), I barely told my family. Very few people knew about it. It was truly out of character for me to tell T about it, but she’s the sort of person you can tell these things to, so I did.

The store, sadly, closed in 2012, a couple of months before Christmas. I was bereft (who would help me choose books for the in-laws??) and remember desperately and ridiculously buying 10 books at once in the small hopes that it might help the store keep their doors open just a little longer. But it was the fate of independent bookstores everywhere; big online retailers gobbled them up left and right. The writing was on the wall. However, in a stunning reversal of fortunes fit for an inspirational Lifetime movie, the neighborhood rallied and found new owners, re-hired the employees and the doors re-opened in 2013.

I didn’t know this. I had gone through my traumatic job loss, I had finally gotten my health under control, and I was on a mission to save money so had cut down on buying books. But one day, I passed by the store and saw the new sign and how could I not go in? T was there, and she said, “I’ve been thinking about you!” She told me about her new job as editor and asked if I’d be interested in illustrating books. Then she asked if I had any book ideas of my own to write and illustrate — I nearly fainted.

It wasn’t as though I automatically got a book deal though. I still had to go through the proposal process, create a storyboard, and work with T to pitch the book idea. There was no guarantee that the idea would be accepted. It took many months. It was hard work, and I didn’t sleep much while working on the storyboard. When I finally got the email from T with the multiple exclamation marks, it felt as though I had been working on the book for years already.

So at the face of it, it seems simply serendipitous and yes, there’s a bit of that. But I think it’s important to remember that I went out of my comfort zone to share my old blog (which literally had two readers) with T many moons ago, and that, for my fragile, criticism-averse nature, was a huge risk. Also, for years, I’d been dreaming and secretly accumulating ideas for children’s books, and I had been unwittingly preparing. I was ready for the serendipity. And every day, by posting something personal and wholly about me or made by me on this present blog, I am continuing another kind of risk – of collective public eye-rolling or criticism or who knows what other terrifying things. It is also a training of sorts for me, a new kind of preparation for projects I haven’t even dared to articulate yet.

What’s that quote everyone always cites? The Nelson Mandela one: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” After all the awkward self-help videos and myriad of articles I read about coping with criticism, it essentially boiled down to realizing that I will never handle criticism well. I’ll always want to please people and will care too much what others think. Yes, there will be dream-crushers and hope-killers. But there are also people who will buoy and uplift you, providing the balance and support you need. Unlike my younger self, I’ve stopped ignoring the part of me that wants to make and make and make. Most of all, my fear of criticism doesn’t mean I’ll stop plugging along, or stop putting myself out there or stop seeing if I can make unimaginably wonderful things happen. In my own way, I am trying to create myΒ version of a good life.

 

 

42 thoughts on “Criticism and How I Got a Book Deal

  1. We all need to remember not to let the negative people get to us – thanks for the reminder because I need to tell myself that too. I am sure there is luck involved with all positive opportunities like a book deal, but that is only one small part of it. Your blog shows your crazy hard work, sewing, photographing, writing, illustrating and sharing your personal life. If that is not working hard for something and earning your audience, I don’t know what is.
    One thing that I have learned from dabbling in sewing blogging is how much work it is, and how skilled are the people who succeed at it – they know the technical skills of the craft of sewing and sometimes pattern-making, photography, photo editing, vector drawing programs, marketing, writing, using all sorts of social media platforms. I think the world sometimes classifies us as “mommy crafting bloggers” in a devalued kind of way, but the truth is that the people behind many of these blogs are amazingly skilled and driven in all sorts of ways that impresses the heck out of me.

    1. I so appreciate your comment Nicole — I do work hard on the blog, so much so that the husband is grousing that I’m never going to help bring home the bacon at this rate! πŸ˜‰ And you’re right – there are so many amazing blogs out there that boggle the mind — all produced by one person in most cases with sewing blogs. I also agree that there’s a bit of a stigma attached to the mommy crafting blogger perception, which is ridonkulous. Those ladies are legit!

  2. You help me and your other blog readers to face ourselves. One of my fav quotes from Marianne Williamson is, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate . Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous ? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. … As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

    1. I love that quote! I almost included it in the post, in fact. I love that this space might provide opportunities for some introspection – one of MY fav things πŸ™‚ Though perhaps I should get out of the house more…

  3. I love this post, Sanae! Once again you’ve hit the mark by sharing something that so many of us can relate to, though few of us are talking about it. I’m so glad that you are taking these leaps of faith in life that involve letting go of your own personal insecurities in order to follow your dreams and do what you love. I also struggle with a fear of criticism that, although I try and hide it by appearing very easy going, has really held me back in so many ways from pursuing my passions. That sounds kind of lame, I guess, but these things work at a subtle level, and it’s so easy to get caught in that trap. There’s something about growing older (and wiser, I hope) and also about having children that we are examples for that makes it the time to cut the cr*p and overcome all of the crippling self criticism- because that really is what it’s about at a deeper level. Hurray for serendipity and all of the good things and challenges to grow it brings our way. This book of yours is going to be a very special deliverance when it finally comes to light- thanks for sharing your process in the meantime.

    1. Thanks so much, Gita! The fear of criticism – whether intrinsic or extrinsic — definitely has debilitating effects, doesn’t it? You go, girl – I have no doubt that you’ll be taking on the subtle trap and kicking it to the curb. Hurray, indeed!

  4. It’s often the quiet, unassuming people who are the bravest. We face our fears much more often than most people since they’re a part of everyday life! We’re also much more likely to work at improving our character, since we’re forced to evaluate ourselves when we’re uncomfortable in everyday situations. So take heart! If you’d been born a confident, thick-skinned extrovert, would you have lost something by not having to work through all the things that made you who you were today?

    1. Absolutely, Kathryn! On the whole, I’ve had a very blessed life though no one gets through the years unscathed. Because of my habit of constantly reflecting (sometimes too much and driving myself crazy), I do think it makes me…I guess more at ease and honest with myself. πŸ™‚

  5. OMG best post ever! I am so happy for you and your book deal. I just loved reading this, and reading about how you have kept plugging along and were “ready for the serendipity.” This is very inspiring. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you, Sarah! So sweet of you πŸ™‚ I’m so grateful that you’ve taken the time to read my ramblings!

    1. Blogging is like the ultimate digital elementary school playground — bullies can be lurking in the bushes, friends are zooming around on the monkey bars, you might be the new kid unsure of which group to join. I’ve always thought the playground served as an important preparatory arena πŸ™‚

  6. I can’t express it as well as everyone else already has. Congratulations and know that we see the hard work. You make it look easy and isn’t that the cherry on top?!

    p.s. and of course I’m totally jealous, but definitely not a hater. I loved the mention of having eaten a bad taco…I know too many people to whom that has happened πŸ™‚

    1. Oh, thank you Alana!! I can’t believe I’m making it look easy. It’s sweatshopville in the background here! And man, bad tacos….so. not. fun.

    1. I love being called brave! It’s not something that comes naturally to me, I think. But I’m older and have been in the trenches of life and really, I figure I have very little to lose with these brain dumps πŸ˜‰

  7. This is a beautiful and brave post, Sanae and I can really feel where you are coming from. I know I can’t stop you from receiving criticism in your new ventures but if you like you can always vent here and we will shower you with positive comments and tell you how the haters have no idea what they are talking about!

    1. Aw, I’m taking you up on it, Laney. Pretty soon, you’ll be all, “Shut up already! We get it. You have FEELINGS. Get over yourself!” πŸ˜‰

  8. I can relate to the fear of criticism. My feathers aren’t oiled! Sometimes it prevents me from doing the work (or my true, meaningful work) I need to do. But we ought to take a leaf, or rather a verse, from your daughter’s favourite movie and just “Let it go”. Yeah, I have a seven and a half year old daughter.

    1. Ha, so good, Max! As soon as I read “Let it go,” the song popped into my head – oy. How long does the obsession last, do you think?

      1. Ha, ha! Yes, we can learn to be brave and willing to explore our own power from our kids, but I could do without the soundtrack! Honestly, I think about a year? Maybe longer in this world with you tube?

  9. I’ve been savoring this post all day. I’m not much of a pleaser, but I still am prone to self-doubt (worst of both worlds! ha!) and taking conventional wisdom (“artists never make money”, etc) to heart. I’m so glad you persevered with your love of making. I’ve come to believe that it truly doesn’t matter how “good” you are at something if you love it, because it’s only a starting point for what you make next.

    1. Thanks Morgan!! I hear you on the self-doubting. It’s a downer for sure. And having grown up with the actuality of the conventional wisdom of the artist’s lot, I can attest that it’s a tough road. But nowadays there are so many opportunities, so many previously non-existent ways to pursue the thing(s) you love and actually forge a living out of it/them if that’s what you want, I think it’s fabulous. And if it’s not what you want to make it into a livelihood, there are awesome ways to feed the creative maw and connect with other like minded folks — like blogging!

  10. Brava, Sanae. Keep on keeping on, just as you are, and you will be loved by the myriad who already adore you. And most importantly, you will be loved by yourself:)
    Thank you for sharing yourself with us – it is an act of trust.

    1. Blush, blush, Lucinda – thank you!! You know, it’s funny. I occasionally check my stats and can see which sites link to mine. One day I saw links from “Get Off My Internets”, which is one of those forums where people bash blogs and people and what-have-yous. I was devastated (though it turned out that it wasn’t anything negative) so I realized I need to figure out how to deal with the whole criticism thing. And then I thought, “I need to stay in my tiny little space where everyone is so lovely and positive!” πŸ™‚

  11. As a recent discoverer of your blog, I spent days reading old posts, marveling at the beauty of your work and the presentation. I am so happy each time I see a new post.
    I love your honesty, and how you explain the angst involved in opening ourselves up, but seriously, look at the great thing to happen by working hard at YOUR thing, sharing it, and conecting with other like minded souls! Congratulations on your book deal. I look forward to holding a copy in my hands. You inspire me, and I’ve sewn more clothes for myself since discovering your blog (just a few weeks ago) than for all of my sewing years. The way you write that you don’t consider yourself an expert sewist….I look at your beautiful wardrobe, and that of your daughter, and I want to get to your level. I know that you are very prolific , and I remind myself that improvement will come in my own projects. I’m also using up my stash or thrifted fabrics. It is adding a layer of joy to my days!! Thank you!!

    1. Oh Arlene, thank you so very much for your comment – I’m so touched! It added multiple layers of joy to my day πŸ™‚ I can’t argue that amazing things have happened and I think this can be true for anyone willing to try things out. I’ve seen it in others time and time again, which was a big motivator for me!

  12. Incredibly beautiful post, gave me goosebumps. Yeah, I am afraid of criticism, too, and of confrontation. Funny, though, that I remember being brash and brave as a young child, but somehow that got squelched. Words have an odd way of sticking, and to this day I remember what I should have forgotten long ago, they cling too tenaciously. Maybe we all have them, little shameful fears, unique to our being. I don’t know, who confesses all?

    But, I think you are brave, publicly admitting to your fear, and in that way, labeling and confronting it. Maybe someday its perceived power over you will lessen, maybe not. But I do know that you will soldier on and I also know that you have enriched my life with your honesty and sharing. Thank you!

    1. Thank you so very much for your kind comment, Kay! I’m honored that my stream-of-conscious writing may have had some sort of positive effect. And yes, I’m soldiering on πŸ™‚

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