Thick Skin

I know you are a fragile creature. Lord knows I've heard it enough from artists, or about artists. We are delicate butterflies. We are timid. We can't take criticism. Our art is our soul. ANNNNND -- that's bullshit.

If you feel that way -- you need to get over it. Because you will be criticized. You will be blasted. Even if 99 people out of 100 love you, that one guy that hated your work will stick with you more than the 99 that adored it.

And I'm certainly not telling you not to take it to heart. I'm not telling you to push it away. I'm not saying that when I get a bad review, even if it's 1% of them, that I don't stew about it for days, weeks even. I still think about my worst reviews.

But what I'm saying is you have to grow a thick skin, because if you can't take criticism then your artistic life is going to suck. You'll never put anything out. You'll never leave your cocoon. And you'll never grow as an artist. And right now you have a lot of growing to do.

I remember when I first started I was having lunch with a writer friend. He'd just read one of my scripts and said "This is okay. Nothing special."

It crushed me. Hearing him say it was like he'd just said the last 18 months of my life were worthless.

Because back in those days it would t me forever to complete a project. And I would craft every word until it was perfect.

And if he only thought it was okay, then my idea of perfect was terrible. And I was a terrible artist for thinking I was good. And that I'd just wasted so much time. Thinking about it now I still have anxiety about it.

But as I started showing my work to people little by little, they started saying things that I didn't think of, and they all would say one thing "This doesn't sound like you."

And it was because I was scared to show myself. I was scared to show who I really was. Because if they didn't like this fake me and it hurt me, if they didn't like the real me it would just kill me.

I couldn't take it.

But then I started showing around this small project. This project I knew would never sell. This project I really really cared about. And people started to tell me how much they liked it. How authentic it sounded. And they would keep asking about that project, that project I cared about and loved and nurtured.

"I can hear you when I read this." My one friend said, which to me is the greatest compliment.

And I started thinking that maybe if I wrote more things I cared about, and torpedoed everything I didn't. Maybe I would be happier. And maybe my writing would be better.

But that would mean developing a REALLY, REALLY thick skin. Because these things were really me. They were personal. I bled them.

And when I wrote them, or showed them around. People really responded to them. It affected them in a way my old writing didn't.

And I was able to take the things they said as criticisms and build them into my story. And my next story. And my next story.

And with each criticism I learned about my stuff. I got more confident. I knew where my weaknesses were, and I built them up, maybe not into strengths but certainly not into detriments anymore. I used those parts of my brain I didn't think I needed because they were atrophied.

And I started moving into new mediums. And each time I made sure to involve people early, to get their thoughts. I would show them chapters. And snippets. And see what they thought. And I would incorporate the good and throw away the bad.

And suddenly my thick skin was working to my advantage. Because I wasn't letting the criticisms bounce off me. I was absorbing them. And anticipating them before I got them to change things to make them stronger.

But it takes work. It takes a thick skin. It takes screaming at the world when they don't like your stuff, and taking an hour, or a day, or a week, to reel from a bad review or bad notes. And then to get back to it. And realize those notes -- maybe they weren't so bad after all.

And having an a ha moment from a note you didn't even think about. I remember I had a note about one of my characters not existing for about 45 pages of a movie once. And I thought about where he went, and what he did. And it started to build my idea of a world, and how to make three dimensional characters.

And every bad note I've received has helped me more than the praise. It's made me better. And now I welcome it.

So how can you do this?

  • Show your project to people -- FRIENDS, not industry people -- before it's ready. Make sure you've done one or two revisions, but show it early. Get real opinions.
  • But please don't expect them to read every revision you've done. They are friends, not slaves. And they have lives.
  • Once you finish a couple revisions, and you think it's good, don't hold onto it. Get it into somebody's hands. And hope they are honest with you.
  • When you get back notes, especially if they are bad, be pissed off for 24 hours. Don't look at them.
  • Then, try to incorporate every single one of those notes without thinking about it. I guarantee at least 25% of them will be worthwhile and another 50% may help you. You'll probably disregard the other 25%.
  • Don't get callused. There is a difference between a thick skin and a callused skin. You still have to let things in. Don't block off everything. Feeling the pain or rejection will make the next time easier.
And you just have to keep doing it. We are people are not built to handle criticism well. Like everything else it is a muscle that we train.