Saturday, April 21, 2012

A to Z: Skin--Thick or Thin?



You a writer? How many times have you heard, "grow a thicker skin"?

Lots, huh? Me too.

Have you succeeded? Does criticism or--gasp--rejection now slide off your back like so much water off a duck? Really?

Oh, wait. You mean you've stopped caring? You gave up and now you're so uninvested in your own work that a harsh critique or a rejection letter (email, whatever) leaves you unmoved?


Highest beloved, that's not a thicker skin you've cultivated. It's dejection. And it's your worst enemy. Yeah--even worse than that horrible critic that keeps saying you use too many adjectives, or that that "plot twist" isn't a twist but a tangle (the idiot).

Why? Because that critic, as idiotic and numbskull as he/she may be, is your teacher. And by turning a deaf ear on them, you're only shooting yourself--and your story--in the foot.

Not every critique is valid. Not every suggestion has merit, not every comment is worth pursuing. But when a critic raises a point, it's always worth considering. And how are you going to consider anything if you're so busy concentrating on the perfect shrug?

So Guilie is basically saying, eschew the thick skin, slit your wrists with every bit of criticism, cry (or drink) yourself to sleep after every rejection?

No. No.

I'm all for thick skins. All I'm saying is don't confuse thick skin with not caring. Not caring will get you exactly nowhere.

What is a thick skin, then, if it's not about not caring?

A thick skin is what allows you to get that tough critique, that rejection letter, and learn from it. It's what enables you to become a better writer. Because, we all know (yes, you do know--deep down there, that little voice you keep shushing--listen to it) that, besides those 10,000 hours we need to put in at the keyboard and the zillions of books, both classics and how-to's, it's critique that makes us better.

Feedback. Discussion. Interaction. Listening.

When every bit of feedback that isn't outright dying-right-here praise sets you off into a tirade or tears, guess what? You're not listening.

A thick skin entails understanding that story comes first. Not you, not your ego, not validation of your talent. That's for your cheerleaders to provide, and while it feels great, it's not making you grow.

You want real ego validation? Try winning a Pulitzer (when they hand them out, that is). Try being a NYT bestseller. Try getting an email from your agent that says your book is going into its third printing. Or, if you choose the self-pub route, try watching your sales increase exponentially every time you check Amazon out. Try a Google search with the name of your book and finding complete strangers raving about your book on their blogs or Twitter.

Now that's validation.

Salivating yet? All that--and more--is yours for the taking. Who do you have to kill, you ask? Well...

Yourself. Or rather, your thin-skinned self.

26 comments :

  1. Love the diagrams to go with your words. Your message is so true. The creation is more important than ego. We need to chip away at our sculpture and reveal the statue inside. Blog on!

    http://francene-wordstitcher.blogspot.com

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    1. Ooooh, I *like* that imagery, Francene, and the hat-tip to Michelangelo--he always said the sculpture is already inside the block of marble; all the sculptor needs to do is discover it. Saying something like that, when you're Michelangelo, sounds like a sky-high pile of hubris, but if you think about it, it's really humility. Very true, Francene, and thanks for stopping by to join the conversation :)

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  2. Great post, and so true. If you're not getting rejected, you're not trying anymore.

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  3. My reaction to criticism and rejection is pretty much the same; learn from it, improve what you've written and set out to show them what you can do. If that's thick skinned then count me in.

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    1. Good for you, Bob! It is, indeed, thick skin, at least in my book: you're not dismissing criticism, as painful as it may be, but instead you're learning from it. Kudos!

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  4. i pretend to have thick skin, but it's crystal clear.

    gotta keep our focus. great post.

    Teresa

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    1. Glad you liked it, Teresa, and thanks for stopping by. In a way, "pretending" our skin is thicker is a first step, right? The important thing is, like you said, to keep our focus, and not let criticism get to us to the point where we shut down, or to dismiss it to the point where we miss the lesson.

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  5. I'm sort of a mix. When I get a bad review my first instinct is to say "what do they know" and then have a glass of wine while I plot ways to get even. By the end of the glass, however, I'm analyzing and reconsidering the points they made. The one thing I know I can't do, is not care.

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    1. Janna, you're not alone--I think your reaction is not only natural and human, but also the start of the assimilation process. In order for us to learn from any critique, we need to let it in, let it affect us--otherwise, how will we ever know if it's got merit? Let's face it--this "business" of writing we're in is an extremely subjective one, both in the creative process itself and in the marketability of our art. So it follows that any learning we do must be of an emotional nature as well, must come from the gut. To me, it sounds like you got it right--emotional reaction, plot revenge, grape elixir to cool down, give the critique a chance to say its piece. The fact that you can't not care is a huuuuge plus :)

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  6. Dejection - I never thought of it that way, nice! (or not nice, I guess!)

    Giving critiques is hard too, especially in person. I love writing groups because the face-to-face time is a nice change from virtual time in the blogging world, but after sharing your thoughts on someone's work it's frustrating to have them justify half the things you point out. But I try to remember the days when I was like that, before I learned how to handle a critique. We need to be there for some of the newbies coming along, too.

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    1. Margo, thanks for the input! Indeed, a huge part of writer groups is to offer support, especially to newbies. Us creative types are so prone to lack of faith in ourselves, and peer support is of huge value. I do think, however, that the best support we can offer (and get) is the one that guides us into better writing. Harsh critiques--mind you, I don't mean snarky ones, or plain cruel--are the ones that stick in my mind as the moments when I've grown most as a writer.

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  7. I have the skin of a dinosaur :)

    Great post, Guilie!

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    1. Haha--love it! Thanks for stopping by, darlin' :)

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  8. Well said, Guilie. It's important to not be apathetic towards your own writing but to try to make it *better*.

    In other news, I've gotten thick skin because of job interviews; I just don't get 'em. :P

    -Barb the French Bean

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    1. Glad you liked the post, Bean, and thanks for stopping by. The job *will* come, you'll see :)

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  9. Thick skin v. not caring...now that's a vital distinction, and I've not heard it expressed like that before but it's so true.

    I think I've managed to err on the right side. A tough critique still hurts, but doesn't reduce me to a blathering wreck (or to outright denial).

    You also need a healthy measure of self-confidence in there too, to know when to listen to the criticism and when to stand firm, otherwise you might end up writing the critiquer's story rather than your own :)

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    1. So true, Botanist--self-confidence is absolute key. I've seen too many manuscripts distorted beyond recognition from a writer's very human desire to please critics. Integrity to your story has to come first, and the self-assurance to know when to listen and when not to is an art. Thanks for joining the conversation!

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  10. Thanks for a thoughtful and nuanced post Guilie. In many situations, our self-esteem can also helps us to overcome both constructive and harsh or unfair criticism.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Gary, and joining the conversation. Totally agreed--self-esteem is a huge "component" of that thick skin we keep hearing about.

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  11. No doubt, Guilie, apathy and arrogance are dangerous to a writer. You can't quit caring completely, or there'll be nothing to keep pushing you to get better. And a great writer isn't born. It's work and practice. Beautiful post, as usual. : )

    EJ

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    1. Thanks, EJ! Glad you liked it. Totally agreed with the work and practice bit. Too often we think our talent is enough, but... There's a pink post-it on the edge of my laptop screen that says, "The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without the work." Can't remember who said it, but it's what I live by (when I'm not procrastinating, that is :D). Thanks for stopping by!

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  12. rejection is the antidote to failure...

    i would never have refined anything if at some point i was told it was not good enough...

    we all fail at some point in our attempts in the creative world. it is the thing that grounds us to the reality of our world...

    not everyone will love everything...

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  13. Wise words. I feel okay about rejections when I've got a lot of stories out on the market - rejections are a natural by-product of getting your stuff circulating. As for critique, I find it's more useful for the *next* story. I tend to make things worse if I try to do extreme surgery on a piece.

    On the more amusing side of the spectrum, for anyone who's wary of rejection, you can practice toughening your skin over here:

    The Stoneslide Corrective's Rejection Generator

    This webpage allows you to send rejections to your own email inbox: "The Rejection Generator rejects writers before an editor looks at a submission. Inspired by psychological research showing that after people experience pain they are less afraid of it in the future, The Rejection Generator helps writers take the pain out of rejection."

    A-Z @ Elizabeth Twist

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