I 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.
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. 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 Brené 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.
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. 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 my version of a good life.