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.

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.

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.