The very minute your work of art is read, or hung or built or whatever, and brought to public attention, it is no longer just your work of art. It is quickly taken over by criticism. Opinion. It may take different forms, but each person who views the work of art has an opinion.
Some criticism will be considered, with training and experience behind it. Some, not so much. And you, the artist, can control almost none of it. Fact of life: some people will like it, some won’t. Some won’t care one way or the other.
There is one more side, one that the artist can control, and that is your reaction to criticism. I have a sutra (from Deepak Chopra) that goes “Imagine that you are not affected by flattery and criticism.” Two sides of the same coin. Having contemplated the many sides of this sutra, I have concluded that there is always criticism and flattery and that they both mean about the same thing. The wise ones will tell you that you need to listen to both and reject both, but do it in a detached way. To detach means to take it away from your ego, the thing that will tell you that your whole identity is wrapped up in what people think and in the work itself. If you detach your egoic self from the actual work of art, you can use the criticism, good and bad, to make the work of art (not you!) better.
A theatre teacher I once had used to say that you need to listen to what people are really saying to make something better. She meant that if the blue-haired ladies in a matinee were not paying attention, you don’t blame that on them: too much to drink, they need a nap before coming to the theatre, etc. No. It meant that something in the performance or the play is not keeping them engaged. And that’s on you to find how to make it more engaging.
So it is with my site-specific play, which has undergone two readings and therefore two rewrites. I am writing it with the goal of getting it produced, which unfortunately for me, who is reduced to a blithering mass of jelly whenever a harsh word is hurled my way, means it must be exposed to someone outside my claustrophobic head. Outside, where it is my ego against the world!
What happens to me when I hear criticism? A darkness descends. First, it is a black blob of shame. I am greatly ashamed that I didn’t do better. That shame quickly deteriorates to something even blacker, like “I am not worthy of anything. I am a massive failure. I can’t write worth a damn and how could I expose my poor, sensitive self to all this? Why don’t I just SAY I am writing and leave it at that? Don’t show it to anyone and then no one would ever know that I am so incompetent. “
This is just the tip of the slimy blob of black goo that is oozing into something catastrophic: feelings that make me never want to write another word. Or show my unlucky face to the world ever again.
So this play and the play readings by my community theatre group, is more of an exercise in excising my inner demons. Is it working?
I heard what people had to say. Some of it was actually positive, but as usual, I dismissed those as just being kind to me, something I needed since I was actually so pathetic. Once again, the comments made me think of my incompetence. That I should not quit my day job. That I should catch up on old magazines. Forget that writing the play had been fun and engaging. Instead, just concentrate what a total failure it is, and how that failure reflects my inadequacies.
This time, though, I remembered something from a Coursera online course I took that said to be creative, you must fail creatively. If you don’t fail, you can’t make the thing better. So fail and fail often and quickly and do it with the idea that it is making your product better.
Fail creatively. I thought about this, still feeling bad, but this time, those bad feelings didn’t hang around long enough to overwhelm me. There was a new give and take. Failure and learning from it. If I listened to the comments – and none of them were nasty or mean-spirited – I had a real chance to make this play better.
So I worked on rewrites and they went so easily because this group had given me a really thoughtful road map.
Then came reinforcement to this way of thinking. There was my niece Sara’s graduation from SCAD and John Lassiter’s (of Pixar) words to the graduating class. Heck with the graduating class – his words were for me. What he said was a game-changer for me. He talked about failure and how you must fail and to do it quickly so you can get on with it. He also said something about doing something that isn’t getting approval, because you must do it, you want to do it, you see it developing, and that you like doing it. So you do it anyway, in spite or because of what people tell you.
Later, over lunch with Sara and my nephew Thomas, who is a good painter and artist, that we do it – make things – because we love the process of putting it all together, to tweaking it, to finishing it. It is our kind of fun and we love the process of making something. The product you made lives and deserves a beautiful life.
So fail and use that failure to make it better. Just do it and let the critics fall where they may. By that time you have had fun, done the best work yet, made the best thing yet, that criticism has nothing to do with you.
Off I go to the next rewrite. How good can I make this play?