Dear Jim Carrey: Your Art Is Beautiful, and the Cheap Critics Can Shove It

Dear Jim Carrey,

I recently came across your short documentary on your new career as an artist, and I was very deeply moved, not only by your colorful and poignant pieces, but by the pure courage and vulnerability that resonated from you as you spoke about your childhood and your struggle with heartbreak.

Then, I stumbled across this article in The GuardianJim Carrey’s art is yet more proof that Hollywood stars should avoid the canvas by Jonathan Jones.

I’m sure this is not the first time your work has been criticized and ridiculed by some critic or other. Your acting career has included a dazzling variety of roles, from the signature comical roles in silly films like Ace Ventura and The Mask to the very serious and emotional performances in films such as The Truman Show and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I was not very surprised to learn that you are an introvert with a rich inner world. As we have learned from tragedies like the suicide of Robin Williams, the funniest people are often also full of pain.

Still, I was angry for you when I read Mr. Jones’s article. It reminded me of the arena metaphor that Theodore Roosevelt invoked and Brené Brown elaborated upon in her groundbreaking book Daring Greatly:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I was curious about the critic who saw fit to write about your art in such a dismissive and mean-spirited way. It looks like he is a regular of the cheap seats at the arena. He has written in The Guardian that photography is not art: “This hollow and overblown creation exposes the illusion that lures us all, when we’re having a good day with a good camera–the fantasy that taking a picture is the same thing as making a work of art.” He has also described Wikipedia as “a corrupting force” that is “eroding the world’s intellect” through a relativist approach to knowledge. The cheapest shot I found (which, by the way, I found on Wikipedia, and I’m not ashamed to say so) was his snide critique of Terry Pratchett’s work right after that author had just died. His article drew criticism, particularly since by his own admission, he hadn’t actually read Terry Pratchett’s work. He later went back on his words and admitted that the writer’s work was witty, but still claimed that it fell short of his standards for literary fiction.

Yes, indeed. Mr. Jones appears to be quite a veteran of the tomato-hurling section.

The blog on which I publish these words is called The Rejection Survival Guide, and in it, I discuss strategies and attitudes for artists and writers that build resilience against criticism and rejection. In one post, I listed three criteria that comprise “good criticism”: it should be constructive (that is, it should build and not belittle), it should resonate with you, and it should be specific and point out specific issues that don’t work or can use improvement rather than make sweeping statements about how bad it is. Mr. Jones’s criticism of your work fails all three of my criteria.

In another recent post, I posited that there’s actually no such thing as an objective measure for what makes good or bad art. The only factor that makes a piece worth reading, viewing, or listening to is how much it resonates with people. Apparently, your work didn’t resonate with Mr. Jones, and he has every right to hate it. It did, however, resonate with me–very much. I may not be an “art critic” for The Guardian; I’m not even a visual artist, and I never went to art school; but I’m a fellow human, a fellow human who has actually spent a little time in the arena–risking criticism, risking failure, risking being seen in the most vulnerable of ways, and therefore, according to Brené Brown, my opinion matters a lot more than his does.

Your art is beautiful. I would love to have that “heart entering the atmosphere” piece on my wall. The colors, the motion, the imagery all speak to me on a deep level.

Screenshot (19)
Screenshot from “I Needed Color”, featuring Carrey with my favorite of the featured paintings

Mr. Jones and his ilk can enjoy their cheap seats and continue making themselves feel important by belittling others, but their opinions will never really matter.

With admiration and respect,

Daniella Levy

Author of By Light of Hidden Candles and Letters to Josep: An Introduction to Judaism, and blogger at The Rejection Survival Guide and Letters to Josep

How to Recover from Painful Negative Feedback, in 5 Steps

There it is.

That feedback you’ve been so terrified to receive. The one that makes all your self-doubt demons shriek: “YOU SEE?! WE TOLD YOU SO!!!”

You know which one I’m talking about.

Ouch, ouch, ouch.

I’ve written here and there about strategies to deal with this sort of thing, and I’ve addressed coping with constructive criticism. But today I want to give you a straightforward, step-by-step first-aid procedure to follow when that very painful rejection or piece of criticism hits.

Step 1: Breathe

It may sound trite, but it’s the most important and most effective thing you can do right now.

Close your eyes and draw a deep breath to the count of four. When your lungs are full, rest there on the top of the breath for a moment, then let the air out to the count of four or six. Rest again at the bottom of the breath when your lungs are empty, then draw a new breath. Repeat this several times.

Breathing this way is not just a woo-woo spiritual thing; it’s neurobiology. Our brains interpret criticism as a threat, and they react to it exactly as they would to an attack by a saber-toothed tiger. Your heart starts pounding, your breath gets shallow, your hands and knees feel rubbery, you break out in a cold sweat, your vision narrows, your senses sharpen, and you might find it hard to think clearly. This state of alertness is constructive when we are, in fact, dealing with a saber-toothed tiger. But we’re not. We’re dealing with some painful words. We can’t respond constructively to them when we’re in this state.

The good news is, you can hack that neurological response by deepening and slowing your breath voluntarily. This sends a message to your brain that actually, there is no saber-toothed tiger in the vicinity, and no physical combat or swift escape will be necessary for your survival, thankyouverymuch. This deactivates the stress response and bringing us back to a state of calm.

Like I said: breathe. It works.

Step 2: Create a Positive Association

This is my second brain-hack: my “rejection reward system”. Here’s how it works: every time I get a rejection, or a negative review, or painful criticism, I reward myself. Not for being rejected per se, but as a reward for daring to risk that rejection in the first place. I keep a bag of mini chocolate bars around for this purpose.

Why does this help? It creates a positive association, however trivial, with receiving negative feedback. Instead of just sitting there in the gloom and shame of the rejection, I have a little something to enjoy about it.

The moments at which this helps the most are the moments where I’m about to click “send” on the next submission. “BUT WHAT IF THEY HATE IT?!” my self-doubt demons scream. (As you may have seen before, self-doubt demons are not very good at maintaining their indoor voices.) “Hey, what’s the worst that can happen?” I ask them. “Either they accept it, or they reject it and I get chocolate. Win/win.”

Chocolate might not be the best idea for everyone, of course. If you have issues with comfort eating or are afraid you won’t have the self-control–or, if you deal with rejection and criticism on such a regular basis you’re afraid it’ll be too much–find a different way to treat yourself. Maybe keep a “rejection jar” around and put a coin or bill in it for every rejection, and when it’s full, use it to buy yourself a gift.

Step 3: Reach Out for Empathy and Support

Brené Brown says to take a one-inch-by-one-inch square of paper and write down the names of the people in your life whose opinions really matter. If the names won’t fit on this tiny piece of paper, you are counting too many.

The people whose opinions really matter are the people in your life who you trust to stand with you in your worst moments with nothing but empathy–no judgment, no shaming. They’re the ones you call in moments like these.

As Brené says: shame cannot survive empathy. Call that friend or sibling or mentor or whoever it is who will listen, calm the self-doubt demons, and connect you back to your confidence and hope. Bonus points if they will also make you laugh (see below)!

By the way–this person doesn’t have to exist in real life. I once got the most helpful feedback from my favorite imaginary friend character in my upcoming novel, By Light of Hidden Candlesby writing myself a letter from him. If you don’t have such a friend in real life or in your imagination–make one up and write yourself a letter from her. You can call her Daniella. 😉

Step 4: Call on Hope

We’ve been over this, right? Hope is the main key to resilience. This is when “getting your hopes up” becomes a tool for healing.

There are lots of different ways you can call on hope:

  • Keep a record of any positive feedback you get, and read over it in moments of doubt.
  • Engage with your work and remind yourself what you love about it. Be careful with this one, though; if the criticism is too raw, you might see nothing but flaws in your work and that’ll make you feel worse. If you find that happening, try something else.
  • Start a new project, or plan one. This gets you thinking about future possibilities unrelated to the piece that was rejected or criticized.
  • If you’re feeling confident enough about the current piece–send out more submissions!

Step 5: Self-Care

When the world is being cruel to you, you have an even bigger obligation than usual to be kind to yourself.

The key to taking care of yourself is learning how to ask, and answer, the question: “What do I need right now?”

Start with the basics. Are you tired? See if you can arrange a nap or an early bedtime. Are you hungry? Treat yourself to a healthy and delicious meal. Have you been drinking enough? Stay hydrated!

Beyond basic needs: what’s one kind thing you can do for yourself today? A nice hot shower? A relaxing walk in the park? Ask someone to give you a massage? If you’re too stressed out and busy to do it now–give yourself a pledge, and schedule it in.

Two strategies I particularly recommend, both of which make excellent use of YouTube:

  • When I feel emotionally overwhelmed and like I need to “reset” myself, I lie down and do a guided meditation. YouTube is full of them and you can find one at any length you like–5, 10, 20 minutes, an hour, however much time you have.
  • When I’m feeling down and want to try to pull myself out of it, I look for something funny to watch on YouTube and get myself laughing. Laughing is great: it gets you breathing, releases endorphins, and generally makes the world a better place. I recommend staying away from political humor for this purpose, because while it is funny and might make you laugh, it is also usually quite stressful. Stand-up is my go-to.

I’d say I hope you never need this post… but actually, I don’t.

My friend, author Saadia Faruqi, quipped to me that you’re not a real author until you get a bad review. I got my first bad review for By Light of Hidden Candles today; I’m popping open the champagne!

So, I hope you join the club of “real” artists–real, not because we have a stamp of approval from a higher authority, but because we are authentic enough to put ourselves out there and brave that kind of criticism.

I hope you need this post, because I hope you’ll dare greatly enough to need it.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll be off to have myself some rejection chocolate. 😉

But What If I Actually Suck?

I believe you have had the misfortune to meet my self-doubt demons. I wanted to dedicate today’s post to one of them; a tiresome little guy I like to call the What-If-I-Actually-Suck Demon.

He’s not one of my regulars, probably because I have a strong resistance to his wiles; I have been lucky enough to build up enough external validation from “high-stakes” critics (agents and editors, for example) that I have a solid pile of evidence against his case.

I’ll tell you when he does tend to show up, though. He shows up when I am unimpressed by somebody else’s work. Especially when that somebody approached me specifically and asked my opinion of said work, and I find it sloppy, or not well executed, or just plain bad.

You see, self-doubt demons are highly skilled at creating paradoxical vortexes of shame. On one side of the vortex is the fear that I’m a snob: who the hell am I to judge someone else’s work as being “not good enough”? On the other side is the fear that we’re both in the “riffraff section”–it takes one to know one, right?

Look, there’s a grain of truth here: not everyone is a “great” artist. Not every person who dabbles in a creative discipline is going to become a master at it. There is a certain measure of talent that’s required, and talent is not something you can choose or develop, it’s something you were born with. It’s all well and good for me to say, as I do in the Creative Resilience Manifesto, that “the only opinion that really matters is your own”; but what if your work does suck and you can’t see it?

On surface level, it’s a legitimate question.

But let’s look a little deeper.

Art Is Subjective

In the academic world, what they consider “high-quality” art or literature generally lives up to a certain set of “standards”. However, the thing about those “standards” is that they are subject to change. Once upon a time, if your piece didn’t resolve neatly into classical harmonies, it wasn’t music. If your poem didn’t rhyme or fit whatever meter was fashionable, it wasn’t poetry. These things aren’t objective; they change all the time.

So what does all “great” art, literature, and music have in common?

Can greatness be measured objectively?

A Matter of Taste

The more I’ve learned about literature, the more I’ve been able to put words to what I enjoy or don’t enjoy about a piece. For example, I probably won’t enjoy a story that doesn’t have a solid plot structure, good character development, crisp, believable dialogue, and the kind of writing that reads smoothly and engages the senses well. I also happen to prefer stories that convey a nuanced and complex message–preferably a hopeful one, but not Pollyannish. That’s my taste; it’s developed through my own encounters with literature, as a reader, a student, and a writer.

Some of the things I appreciate in literature are fairly “standard”. If you take a creative writing class, your teacher is likely to help you develop your skills to create pieces that have many of those characteristics. But that doesn’t make them objective requirements for great literature. Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse has, like, no plot. Charles Dickens was paid per word, and you can tell from his pages and pages of descriptions that any sane writing coach in the 21st century would take a serious hatchet to. Heck, even J. K. Rowling, who was my heroine as a teenager, could definitely have done with a frank conversation about conciseness vis-a-vis the latter books of the Harry Potter series. (What editor let her keep that epilogue in book #7?! Seriously!!!)

So What Makes Art “Great”?

If greatness doesn’t have objective perimeters–what makes something great?

One thing, and one thing only: it resonates with people.

That is, people connect to it and find it meaningful.

The more people the piece resonates with, the more likely it is to be considered “great”.

This is very fickle and impossible to predict. Because even the same person might feel completely differently about a piece of art if he has a different background, or different information, or is influenced by fashion and the culture around him. That’s why artists, writers, and musicians are often grouped by era; what they were doing resonated with people who were influenced by the times. Bob Dylan would probably not have won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905. Then again, if he had been raised in the late 19th century, the stuff he’d be producing would probably have been very different.

The Quality of Your Work Isn’t Static

If what you’re producing now is not the kind of work that resonates with a lot of people, that doesn’t mean that will never change.

Talent is only a small part of what it takes to make art that resonates. Hard work, experimentation, technique, and practice have a much bigger part in creating impressive art.

You’re on a journey. As long as you stay open and willing to learn and experiment, you will continue to improve, making your work resonate with more and more people. Take a class if you like; read about your craft. Never stop viewing, reading, or otherwise enjoying art in your field; you can learn a ton from the work of other people. I can’t promise you that you’ll excel and find hundreds of thousands of fans. That, as I’ve discussed in the past, has more to do with luck than anything else.

But your job isn’t to find hundreds of thousands of fans. Your job is three things:

  1. To remember that you are the highest authority where your work is concerned. It doesn’t actually matter what anyone else thinks of it. If you think your worth is worthy–it’s worthy. Period.
  2. To find your audience–even if it’s an audience of one. If your work resonates with someone, it may resonate with more. Find those people and use their support to inspire you and improve your craft. Don’t let it discourage you if your audience is small. What matters is that you are making someone’s life richer and more meaningful with your work.
  3. To keep growing, keep practicing, and keep “daring greatly”.

The Bottom Line:

“What if I actually suck?”is not a helpful question.

This shouldn’t surprise us; it’s a self-doubt-demon question. If anyone sucks at anything, it’s self-doubt demons at coming up with helpful questions!

Here are some better questions to replace it with:

  • What am I trying to accomplish with my work?
  • Is my work achieving that goal?
  • How can I move toward that goal?
  • Who is my work resonating with?
  • Do I want it to resonate with more people?
  • How can I make that happen?

Remember item #1 on the Creative Resilience Manifesto?

I create because creation is an act of love.

Not greatness. Not success. Not talent. Love.

So get out there and show us some love.

An Interview with My Self-Doubt Demons

So my editor and I are almost finished editing the manuscript of my upcoming novel, By Light of Hidden Candles.

Among the things I’ll need to do next is start asking around for reviews and testimonials.

And… dear God almighty. It’s the absolute worst. So much scarier than querying agents or submitting to literary magazines or publishers.

Why? Because it involves putting yourself in a much more vulnerable position. You’re personally asking someone you admire to read your work and say something nice about it. The more famous the person, the more likely she is to say no (or nothing at all, which to me, is worse than no).

I started freaking out about this and found myself digging through the archives of this blog looking for something to help me feel better, and I found this piece I called “Dancing with the Self-Doubt Demons“.

The only way to navigate this is to recognize that those demons are not speaking Truth, they are speaking Fear…. don’t forget–they are still a part of you, a part of you that is trying to protect you. So don’t be too harsh on them. Be the responsible adult. Let them have their say and then, when they’ve calmed down, do the brave thing anyway.

So I decided to take my own advice.

I sat down my self-doubt demons for a thorough interview.


Daniella: Well, my friends. We meet again. Do make yourselves comfortable. Can I get you anything?

Self-Doubt Demons: How about every ounce of your self-esteem?

Daniella: Charming as always. Tea?

SDD: Sure.

Daniella: So. What brings you to me on this fine day?

SDD: This early review thing. It’s terrifying.

Daniella: What exactly are you afraid is going to happen?

SDD: We’re sorry to tell you this, but no one is going to want to read your book.

Daniella: Oh? No one?

SDD: We concede that a few individuals may be willing to take a look, but only out of pity.

Daniella: How charitable of you. And what are you afraid those individuals are going to say when they’re done reading it?

SDD: That it’s nothing special. It’s mediocre. Or maybe they’ll hate it. Maybe they’ll criticize it. Maybe they’ll write angry blog posts about how anti-[insert cause here] it is and how you are an evil person who hates [insert group here]. Or the worst worst worst? You’re a fraud. You wrote a book set in medieval and modern Spain but you know nothing about the places you wrote about and you haven’t even visited them. Someone’s going to find a flaw, a sign that you didn’t do all your research, and you will be exposed as an IMPOSTOR.

Daniella: That word. It sounds familiar.

SDD: ALSO, it’s not Real Literary Fiction™. It’s too lighthearted. It’s fluff. No author of Real Literature™ is going to think it’s any good. But it’s not Young Adult either because the characters are too old and that agent told you the “scope of the book” takes it out of YA. And it’s not New Adult because New Adult is basically Young Adult with older characters and a lot more sex scenes.

Daniella: I’ll definitely agree with you on that last point.

SDD: For real. And your book has no sex scenes. Also, as your editor repeatedly pointed out, no zombies, vampires, or werewolves.

Daniella: That was a recurring joke throughout the editing process and it was frikkin’ hilarious.

editor 8 cropped
Actual screenshot from the Google Doc.

 

SDD: –But nooooooo, instead of writing about paranormal heartthrobs, you had to write about RELIGION. RELIGION!!! WHO WANTS TO READ ABOUT RELIGION?!?!

Daniella: Not you, apparently.

SDD: AND instead of making it a fluffy kumbaya story about how we’re all actually the same, you presented the religions as being in CONFLICT! WHAT WERE YOU THINKING!!!!

Daniella: I was thinking, I’m a religious woman who has a different and refreshing perspective.

SDD: “REFRESHING”

Daniella: Are you okay? You look like you need some more tea.

SDD: YES PLEASE

Daniella: Can we just steer back on track here? Realistically, a lot of these people are probably going to say no, or nothing at all, and that’s going to suck. But do you really think every single one of the people who say yes are going to hate the book? C’mon–really, let’s think this through. If you think they’ll hate it because of the subject matter–why would they agree to read it in the first place?

SDD: We… it…. hmm. You have a point there.

Daniella: Also, I know this comes as a complete surprise to you, but most people are nice and like to help. Writers, especially, like to help other writers.

SDD: BUT

Daniella: Oh yes and another thing: why do you keep talking about it like it’s a huge burden? Like I’m asking them for the world’s biggest favor? WRITERS LOVE TO READ. I’M GIVING THEM A FREE THING TO READ.

SDD: Because it takes time away from reading Other Things! Other Things which are undoubtedly much more interesting and worthwhile than By Light of Hidden Candles!

Daniella: Yeah, like what, their Facebook feeds?

SDD: HAH! Real Writers™ don’t waste precious time on Facebook!

Daniella: …I have some earth-shattering news for you, Demons.

SDD: ANYWAY YOUR BOOK IS BORING AND THE TURNING POINT IS TOO LATE AND ALSO

Daniella: INSIDE VOICES, PLEASE.

SDD: *ahem* and also, um, “too much like real life”. At least one person gave you that feedback.

Daniella: Some might argue that that’s a compliment.

SDD: And you also sent the manuscript to a bunch of people who care about you and love your writing and they never even bothered to read or finish it. BECAUSE IT’S BORING.

Daniella: Boring? Really? Then why did my publishers at Kasva Press decide to publish it?!

SDD: Because they clearly have no idea what they’re doing!

Daniella: Okay, now you’re just being rude.

SDD: We’re just telling it like it is!!!

Daniella: LOL. Sure. For the sake of the argument, if the opinion of my publisher doesn’t count: why did several agents read the full or partial manuscript and compliment me on it?

SDD: Are you forgetting that one agent who said–

Daniella: No, but why is her opinion more important than that of the others?

SDD: Maybe she was the only one willing to tell you the truth?!

Daniella: Really…?

SDD: YES, REALLY!

Daniella: Okay, I think that will be all for today. Thank you so much for your time.

SDD: BUT

Daniella: Bye-bye now.

SDD: YOU’LL NEVER AMOUNT TO ANYTHING

Daniella: The door is that way.

How to Take Criticism and Turn It into Growth, in 5 Steps

This is a blog about coping with rejection of creative work, but it would not be complete without addressing rejection’s notorious cousin: criticism.

It hurts to hear people say negative things about something you poured your heart and soul into. It hurts to recognize that you are not perfect at what you do and can always use improvement.

However, criticism–good criticism–is a very powerful raw material you can use to build yourself as an artist.

People generally react to criticism non-constructively in one of two ways: resistance (dismissing, arguing, or denying) or withering (collapsing in feelings of shame and inadequacy). Both of these reactions deny you the opportunity to learn and grow from the feedback.

To get the most out of criticism, you have to be humble enough to admit your work has faults, yet confident enough that you won’t wither. You have to push past the instinct to get defensive, and instead, get curious about how the criticism can help you improve your craft.

Let’s break it down into five steps.

Step 1: Filter out bad criticism

The only kind of criticism that is worth listening to has three components:

  • It’s constructive; meaning, its purpose is to build you, not belittle you.
  • It resonates; meaning, you think there is truth in it.
  • It addresses specific issues with your piece or your technique.

Anything that does not meet these criteria goes straight in the trash where it belongs.

Some examples of bad criticism:

  • “This is terrible”
  • “This is a pile of crap”
  • “This sucks”
  • “This hurts my eyes”

Some examples of good criticism (and I’m limiting them to the writing world because I know nothing about critiquing art!):

  • “I felt that this character wasn’t developed enough. I’d like to get to know him better”
  • “I wasn’t drawn in; the hook wasn’t strong”
  • “The descriptions were too wordy”
  • “Too much showing, not enough telling”
  • “The structure of this paragraph is confusing”

>>This goes for what you say to yourself, too.<<

I’ve heard so many people say things about their work they would never say about someone else’s (to their face, anyway). “This is a pile of crap” is not constructive criticism, it is bullying.

Self-bullying, similarly to regular bullying, is an attempt to distance yourself from your faults and shield yourself from criticism. “Well of course it was rejected, it’s a pile of crap anyway, and I can see that now. No one else needs to tell me.”

Nope. This is not humility or being good at accepting criticism. It is the exact opposite: it is using your own harsh criticism to stave off whatever (potentially useful!) criticism might come from other people. This is not constructive.

And you don’t deserve to be bullied by anybody, yourself included.

Step 2: Breathe

Criticism always hurts. Let it hurt. But remember that you are here because you were brave. You wouldn’t be getting criticism if you hadn’t dared to share your work with someone and risk the criticism in the first place. Celebrate your courage, and nurse your wounds.

But the sooner you can move on to the next step, the better you will feel.

Step 3: Get as much information as you can

Real-life example.

In the early days of submitting my upcoming novel to literary agents, I got a rejection I found particularly disheartening. Here’s what the agent said: “I wanted so much to want it, because I share your interest in crypto-Jews and those who fled the Inquisition. I feel the manuscript (sample that I read) is much too telling and not enough showing, if you know what I mean? I’d welcome taking another look if you revise the heck out of it. I do wish you the best of luck.”

In other words, she liked the idea, but felt the writing wasn’t good enough.

…Ouch. That is definitely not something that is easy to hear.

But you know what I did?

Something I’d never dared to do before.

I wrote back.

I thanked her for the feedback and asked if she would be willing to be more specific about the parts she thought were too “telling” and not “showing.”

I knew this was a lot to ask from a busy literary agent, but felt emboldened by her willingness to look at a revision. I was more than happy to revise it, but wasn’t seeing what she was seeing. I needed some guidance. I knew it was a long shot, but I thought that if she could just be more specific with the critique, I would be able to do something with it.

To my delight, she wrote back and sent me my first sample chapter with comments! She pointed out specific paragraphs that could be “shown” rather than “told.” She said that she found one character’s dialogue style unrealistic, and mentioned that “nothing really happens in this chapter.”

Step 4: Ask yourself: what can I do to address these issues?

The agent’s comments were enormously helpful because they identified specific issues to address:

  • Less telling, more showing
  • Unrealistic dialogue
  • “Info dumps”
  • First chapter doesn’t have enough action

Step 5: Re-engage with your work–and enjoy!

So I went back to the manuscript and tried to implement what I’d learned. I cut “info dumps” and tried to introduce information more organically. I scoured the manuscript for things that could be “shown” rather than “told.” I changed that character’s dialogue to sound more believable. And I asked myself: what could be happening in this first chapter that will introduce the characters and set up the plot well? How can I make it more compelling? I had an idea, and rewrote most of the chapter accordingly.

When I was finished, I was very satisfied and pleased, because I felt the novel had improved greatly thanks to the changes I’d made.

And I must have been right, because the very first query I sent with the revised sample resulted in my first full manuscript request for that book.

(In case you’re wondering: I did send it to the helpful agent to ask if she’d like to take another look, but she didn’t respond, and shortly thereafter she stopped representing manuscripts in my genre…)

I can’t tell you how much my writing has improved thanks to comments from readers–from literary agents and editors to non-writer friends.

I know criticism is hard and painful, but trust me on this. If you learn to use it right, you might even start to love it.

Dancing with the Self-Doubt Demons

I posted once on my other blog about Impostor Syndrome, and brought an anecdote that demonstrates the severity of my case.

It happened while I was reviewing a bio which was going to accompany a poem I wrote for Veils, Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression & Empowerment of Women. The editors of the book found a publisher a few years after my poem was initially accepted, and they sent out the proof of the manuscript for us to make sure that everything was still correct and accurate. My bio started with, “Daniella Levy is a writer, poet, translator, and self defense instructor…” And my first thought when I looked at it was, “Poet…? Really? Can I call myself that? Just because I write poetry occasionally… and performed a spoken word poem once for a small audience… I dunno, does that qualify me?”

…And then it hit me that the bio in question was for a poem.

That I wrote.

That was going to be published.

In a book.

HELLO.

Of course, I have since learned that you don’t need to be published to be a poet. You don’t even have to be a good poet, by any standard. All you have to do to be a poet is write poetry.

But I have this deeply ingrained perception that continues to torture me as my career moves forward: that there is this invisible line drawn across the universe that separates the Real Artists™ from the riffraff. And the riffraff are never aware that they are riffraff. They think they are Real Artists™ who are merely misunderstood or underappreciated by The Establishment™. So they flood the “indie” industries with their mediocrity and make it that much harder to find the Real Artists™ who really are misunderstood or underappreciated or otherwise chose an alternate route to showcase their work.

And one of the major downsides of harboring such an obnoxiously arrogant worldview is that I live in fear that I am, and always will be, in the riffraff section.

Consider the following. My short story, The Olive Harvest, was published last week in Reckoning, a new literary journal for creative writing on environmental justice. This is the first time I was paid for a piece of fiction (handsomely, too), and other than Veils, Halos & Shackles, my first publication of any sort on a platform that is not specifically Jewish or Israeli. This is, objectively, an admirable accomplishment–a step higher on the ladder I’ve been steadily climbing since I published Letters to Josepand recognition from The Establishment™ that what I am writing is Real Literature™.

And yet. A couple days before publication the editor sent out the proof for contributors to look over. And you wouldn’t believe the ridiculous things my self-doubt demons started screaming at me. Your picture looks dumb! Your bio is too long! Your story isn’t all that great! It looks pathetic next to the other stories! And your bio looks pitiful next to the bios of these other highly acclaimed/generally superior writers! Or alternately–maybe this is a second-rate magazine and all the pieces in it are meh and so is yours! Your message doesn’t fit the theme of the magazine perfectly! The editor is clearly insane to have included you! Not good enough not good enough not good enough who do you think you are blah blah blah blah blah

(I sincerely apologize on behalf of my self-doubt demons, Mr. DeLuca. They are unspeakably rude and have extremely poor judgement.)

Seriously, it’s amazing. I could win the godd**n Nobel Prize for Literature and they’d be like “Clearly the committee had a terrible selection this year.” “Yeah, but they gave the same prize to Bob Dylan. And um hello Yasser Arafat. The Nobel Prize committee obviously has no idea what it’s doing.” “BUT I STILL DON’T HAVE AN ACADEMIC DEGREE SO WHAT DOES ANYTHING MATTER?”

*headdesk*

The only way to navigate this is to recognize that those demons are not speaking Truth, they are speaking Fear. They are trying to protect me, from disappointment, from external criticism, and to some degree–ironically–from shame. Self-doubt and self-criticism are part of a mechanism for inoculating oneself against making mistakes and taking unnecessary risks. This is not always bad; a little self-doubt makes you cautious and humble. A lot of self-doubt, however, can be crippling, because HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO EVER GET ANYTHING DONE WITH ALL THIS NOISE IN MY HEAD?

It occurred to me recently that I have a reward system in place for my failures, and that serves me very well… but I don’t have a system for acknowledging and recognizing my accomplishments. I mean, back when I developed my “rejection chocolate system” I guess it hadn’t even occurred to me that I’d need a reward system for acceptance letters or contract signings. Getting an acceptance is its own reward, isn’t it? I imagined getting The Call from an agent or publisher, squealing and jumping up and down with excitement, crying for joy, and shouting from the rooftops!

In reality, when I got the phone call from my publisher at Kasva Press informing me that they’d like to publish An Ancient Whisper, I was in total shock. Like, staring-blankly-at-the-wall I-cannot-digest-the-concept-that-this-is-happening-in-actual-reality shock. And the emotion I felt most strongly was not joy–it was fear, of all things. The demons were saying: What if this isn’t real? What if this is like that time I was offered a contract by an “agent” who turned out to be a fraud? (This happened very early on, when I was a naive teenager, and thankfully my parents were suspicious when the “agent” asked for $250 up front. It was the worst let-down ever.) I knew that this was different, but I was afraid to let myself celebrate. I was terrified to believe it was true.

My husband, God bless him, took one look at my face and fixed me a stiff drink.

So then I told myself that I’d feel better once we had it on paper. But after we signed the contract, my primary emotion was, once again, anxiety. What if we missed something? What if this is all a terrible idea? What if the publisher invests a ton of money and time in this book and people hate it and it doesn’t sell? What if people write nasty reviews? What if what if what if

It. Never. Ends.

And I think that, paradoxically, is the key to dealing with these critical and fearful voices. Recognizing that it doesn’t end. They will always find something to say.

So… you can do what I do, and externalize them as “self-doubt demons,” who you can write letters to, dialogue with, and laugh at. But if you do this, don’t forget–they are still a part of you, a part of you that is trying to protect you. So don’t be too harsh on them. Be the responsible adult. Let them have their say and then, when they’ve calmed down, do the brave thing anyway.

And as for the riffraff section: it’s like I wrote in my previous post. “Not being great doesn’t make me unworthy. It doesn’t mean my work shouldn’t be shared and enjoyed by other people.” You don’t have to be a Great Artist™ for your work to be worth sharing. Some people are going to love it. Some people are going to hate it. Whether it complies with some stuffy academic standard of excellence is not what’s important. What’s important is that you are genuine about who you are and what you’re doing, and that you keep seeking the audience that connects with your work, because it changes their lives for the better and makes them feel less alone.

That is what matters.

Striving for Greatness While Embracing Good-Enough

A few short weeks before I self-published Letters to Josep, I received some really stinging criticism. “It’s nothing special,” I was told. And it wasn’t just anybody who said this: it was an author and educator I had contacted in hopes of getting an endorsement, who, months earlier, had called my work “impressive” and referred me to a potential publisher. I think he may have forgotten who I was in the meantime; I don’t know what else would account for the sharp discrepancy between his reactions.

Objectively, it was a really crappy thing to happen so close to the book’s release. It was the only response I’d gotten out of all the requests I’d put out asking for endorsements. Approaching people for blurbs and reviews is about the scariest thing I’ve ever had to do, and to have this be the only thing I got back for my efforts was really, really discouraging.

But as the existence of this entire blog attests… I’m stubborn as all hell. When I decide to do something, I do it, come hell or high water. So I nursed my wounds, had some chocolate, and went ahead with my plans to publish the book.

Half a year later, however, I’ve found that the incident still reverberates and makes me afraid to approach people for their comments on my work.

For example: I gave a copy of Letters to Josep to a well-known rabbi a couple months ago, and though I know he is very accessible, I have been too chicken to follow up with him. Josep has also sent the book to a few public figures in Catalonia, only one of whom acknowledged receipt so far. I’ve had an e-mail sitting in my inbox for more than a week, addressed to another author and public figure who I know likes me and enjoys my writing and would probably be more than happy to help… but I still haven’t worked up the courage to hit “send.” While I am really hoping to get some kind of positive response from any or all of them, I’m completely terrified that they’ll respond negatively. What if they hate it? Or, more realistically, what if they think it’s “nothing special”–like that critic mentioned at the top of the post?

Nothing special.

This phrase brought to mind something I remembered from the writing of researcher Brené Brown. She calls it “fear of mediocrity.” People today are terrified to be mediocre, to be average. I don’t want my stuff to be “decent,” I want it to be exceptional. I want to be exceptional. I want to be a great writer.

This desire to be exceptional at everything is a form of perfectionism. We want to be the best at everything we do. But we can’t be. We can only be the best at what we are.

I may one day be a great writer. More likely, I will continue to improve at what I am now: a good writer.

A good-enough writer.

As a good-enough writer, I’m probably not going to go down in the history books. I’m probably not going to win any prizes, nor are my books going to become bestsellers. I’m going to get some scathing reviews on Amazon. I’m going to get some criticism from people of all walks of life. (That happens to great writers, too.) It’s going to hurt. I’ll give myself chocolate when it happens, I’ll take what constructive criticism I can use, and I’ll move on to bigger and better things.

Not being great doesn’t make me unworthy. It doesn’t mean my work shouldn’t be shared and enjoyed by other people.

What if what that guy said is true, and my work is mediocre?

So what?

I know the true value of what I’ve done. And the artistic/literary quality is just the tip of the iceberg. Letters to Josep was more than collection of letters about Judaism. It was even more than a tribute to an important friendship in my life. It was the sweet fruit of a bitter struggle, a very troubled and turbulent period in our lives. Starting the blog was a sort of crazy, wildly creative coping mechanism. And then, the decision to turn it into a book and publish it myself was a great act of courage–a decision to stop sitting back and waiting for someone else to determine whether my work was “good enough.”

What I achieved with LtJ was far more than its value as a piece of writing. And I deserve to be proud of it, even if somebody thinks it’s “nothing special.”

…I know all that. In my head.

As I moaned about all this to my long-suffering husband last night, I asked him if he thinks it will always be like this. Will I always be terrified of criticism? Will the soul-crushing anxiety about the future always overwhelm the sweet satisfaction of success? I think the answer is yes and no. It’s like rejections. They always hurt, but after a while, it becomes easier to shrug them off, especially when you get enough praise and encouragement to hold as a shield against the criticism.

So… I decided that I need to give more space to the positive feedback. Negative feedback has this way of swallowing up all the good things people have said. So I made this graphic; gathered from quotes from some of my favorite bits of feedback in the last few years. As I gathered them, I noticed that at the center of everything, there were five words that resonated the most, that felt like the main reason my writing matters. So I put those words dead center.

I hope to be adding to this in the future, and I plan on making an effort to keep a record of all the lovely things people say to me about my writing, so I can take it out and read it carefully when I need it.

why-my-writing-matters