by Jessica Martinez
“Writers have to have thick skin.”
How many times have we heard this? And how annoying is it? To me it feels like, “Hey you creative people, we want you to spend years bleeding stories from your souls, and then offer them to the world to chew up, spit out, and pronounce repulsive. And you’re not allowed to feel bad about it. In fact you need to take it smiling while bleeding the next story. Remember, you asked for this when you started thinking you were all high and mighty enough to write a novel in the first place.”
Am I wrong?
Telling me to grow a thicker skin because I’m a writer doesn’t acknowledge that creativity and sensitivity are linked. They are for me, anyway. It suggests that the very thing that makes me a good writer is bad for my writing. Every time I hear about writers and that oh-so-vital thick skin they need to grow, I have to stop myself from going on a rant about creativity and the problem with placing unrealistic personality restrictions on the people who produce art for us. (It’s playing in my head right now. I’ll spare you all.)
The problem is, whether it’s fair or not, as writers we face criticism constantly. It doesn’t matter how many books you’ve written or how many adoring Twitter followers you have, there will always be people who hate what you’re doing. Sometimes those people will be strangers, sometimes they’ll be loved ones, sometimes they’ll be ignorant and/or insane, and sometimes they’ll be thoughtful and intelligent. It all hurts. And it can stifle our creativity if we let it. I know firsthand, because there’ve been periods in my life where I’ve let criticism hold back my writing. Years, actually. So while we as writers don’t have to have a thick skin, I admit that I’m a lot happier and more productive since I’ve toughened up. Not that I’m the hardened callous I should be. Hardly. But I’m working on it.
When I was ten I wrote a story about a group of girls with a club (think Babysitters Club without the babysitting—it was awesome). I let my mom read it, and her comment was, “Next time you write a story, maybe you could try to have the characters be a little less negative.” In her defense, that was probably preceded by lots of praise, but the praise isn’t what I remember. I remember that she saw something about me in that story that she didn’t like. I understand now that as a mother (not a creative writing mentor), she thought this was a good teaching opportunity. She wanted me to know that the snotty preteens I’d created were not cool and I’d better not think I could get away with acting like that. But I think I learned the wrong thing from her teaching moment. I learned people will read my stories and judge me. I learned to be embarrassed by my writing.
Isn’t that the big fear for all of us? That people will read what we’ve written and not like it and extend that feeling to us? It’s one thing to say we shouldn’t take criticism personally, but writing is personal. And if it’s not, it’s probably not very good.
So if, like me, you’re not born with a thick skin, here’s the trick to growing one: fake like it doesn’t hurt when you get hit by the bus, and then keep throwing yourself back into oncoming traffic. Sounds fun, doesn’t it? The good news is it does work—I’m much better at deflecting the stuff that would’ve crushed me earlier on in my career. The bad news is that it’s painful. And scary. And painful.
Years ago I made my husband read my WIP, and he told me he thought I was selling out. Ouch. But he was kind of right. And now, years later, he could say something like that to me and only have to sleep on the couch for a night or two as opposed to an entire month. See? That’s progress! After Virtuosity was published, the next time I saw my grandma she took me aside and let me know she was disappointed that I had used the word “ass” in my book. That was not a fun conversation. But I’m sure it will be slightly less painful each time I have a book come out and each time she has to take me aside and let me know my potty mouth offends her. (If you’ve read any of my books, this is laughable. They’re pretty clean, but not clean enough for Grandma.)
If there’s one trick or piece of advice that I could give, aside from to keep throwing yourself into oncoming traffic, it’s this: hold on tight to the little bits of praise you get. They aren’t sprinkled evenly. You don’t get them when you need them most, or at least it hasn’t worked that way in my career, which is why you’ve got to remember them and squeeze the life out of them if you need to. When I was in college, it was that creative writing teacher who told me he thought I had talent, as opposed to the one who tore apart the first page of my short story on an overhead projector in front of the entire class. While I was trying to get an agent, it was the personalized rejection, as opposed to the many form rejections or the no response at all. And now it’s the thoughtful reviews from people who were moved by something I’ve written, as opposed to the ones by people who are pissed off about the cover art or my protagonist’s sense of entitlement or whatever. Hold on to those little joys to remind yourself that even when it seems like the rest of the world doesn’t understand what you’re trying to do, some people do. Because the only way more people will understand, is if you keep on writing.