Love of the Writing Craft

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Love of the Craft Q & A

Dealing with Critical Blockheads

How to internally process external criticism.

By Writing Coach David Duggins | Posted March 6, 2007 | Updated August 3, 2019

Q. How do you block out the critical people who say things against your creative passions? How do you ignore them and not let them discourage you into not doing anything creative? For example:

  1. After you've explored emotions inside you with an abstract painting, the first person to see it points out a realistic landscape you've done and says: "when will you get back to painting real stuff?"

  2. I write because I have to let it out of me, but sometimes it's too discouraging to hear words like: "why do you bother? You're not making money at it."

A. We are upset by negative comments about our work, or by people who do not understand our work, for one simple reason: either consciously or unconsciously, we are invested in what they think of it. We have a stake in it. It means something to us emotionally. Usually, it means validation.

This is perfectly understandable. Only small children have absolutely no investment at all in the opinions of others. It is "taught" out of us when we start school, and begin having our every move "graded" and rated as either success or failure by our teachers. Our peers model that behavior. By the time we get to high school, it feels as if there are hundreds of people surrounding us, evaluating us, judging every move. We feel that our teachers and parents want us to be good students. We feel pressured by our peers to be cool.

The voice inside us — the one which simply says I am — is drowned out by the cacophony of outside voices saying "you should."

Unlike Asian cultures, Western society is only now beginning to teach respect for artists and creativity. Such pursuits have long been regarded as frivolous, not to be taken seriously, fine for weekend hobbies but ridiculous to consider as a career.

So this is our challenge: to thrive and grow creatively in a world that is either passive and apathetic or, in many cases, actively hostile, toward our passions.

You are wounded by the attitudes of people around you, so what you'll be doing is healing. Fortunately, this is something for which art is ideally suited. The process is soothing; it's a very natural method of "releasing" bad feelings and emotions; and the resulting work is tangible, physical, and has value (even if it's only valuable to you). These are all positive results, and they come as part of your work — prizes in the Cracker Jack box.

I think of our work as artists as our will to power. This term originally comes from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's concept, which describes humanity's desire to rise above pure survival and grow, finding power and expanding. Many interpretations of this concept have incorporated a desire to dominate (largely due to its associations with the Nazi party), but there's a lot of debate.

I talked about my chosen interpretation in Taking Command of the Greatest Power in Your Life, as an artist, your job is to identify the greatest power you command and use it to your advantage. To power your life. To help you grow. To help you heal. To speak the truth about things as you observe it.

So of course the last thing you should do is stop working. This will both validate your critics (who really have no idea what they are doing to you) and take away the greatest power you have.

For you, not writing or painting would be like Superman lining the walls of the Fortress of Solitude with Kryptonite.

Here are a couple of practical suggestions for making yourself well again.

1). If issues of acceptance and understanding are primary in your life, make them primary in your art. Use your art to help cleanse yourself of doubt, resentment, anger. If someone looks at your abstract and asks when you will get back to painting real stuff, tell him the abstract is real stuff.

Do you paint portraits? Have that person sit for one. Do an abstract of that person and then show it to them. It may help them understand that art is a lens. Art is subjective. Paint what I see? All right. Fine. This is how I see you.

2). If you are frustrated by your inability to communicate your vision to the people around you, release your frustration and understand that it is not necessary for you to communicate your vision to the people around you. What is necessary is that you surround yourself with people who understand your vision. Find a group of like-minded folk (like us, here at Creativity Portal) and share your work with them. Cultivate relationships with people who "get it." These relationships may lead to productive collaborations. They may just deliver you cool people to hang out with. Both are good.

I didn't really find a peer group until I went to college. I grew up in a very small town. There was only one other artistic person in my entire school. We got together, collaborated on projects or just appreciated each other's work. We helped support each other. We helped fight off those negative opinions.

At college, there were 12,000 students instead of 400. I bumped into a guy in the science fiction section of the campus bookstore who introduced me to a person who became my best friend for over 25 years. There was a whole group of us — crazy, creative, open, friendly and supporting. We loved each other's work. We were constantly "on." We respected and loved each other and we flourished.

That is what you need. It's what all humans need, but artists probably need it more than the average person. Because we're open. We're "on." We're tuned into something that a lot of people have reduced to barely discernible background because they don't find it useful.

For good or ill, we find that thing not only useful but essential. We can't survive without it. I think of it as the voice of the Universe, but you can pick any term you like. God. The Infinite. Universal Truth. The Collective Unconscious.

When you're writing or painting, you're talking things over with God. Isn't that communication more valuable, more insightful, than talking to the guy who asks you why you keep doing it if it doesn't make you any money?

These people around you, saying negative things — most of them probably don't mean any real harm by it. They just don't understand what you're doing, and they're attempting to ground it in their own terms, by their rules. Their lives are ruled by money, practicality, limitations, and fear. Art is about releasing all that and living its opposite — freedom, boundlessness, and joy.

You asked how you could prevent people from discouraging you into a lack of creativity. This is a misconception. It is impossible for other people to discourage you from being creative. The natural state of the universe is creativity. Your natural state is creativity. If I walked up to you and said, "You know, I really think you should stop breathing. You're not making any money at it," would you actually stop? Could you?

You may stop yourself from being creative because you begin to think what they're saying is true. If you think it might be true, you define the issue (should I paint? Is it worth anything? Should I write? Do I have anything to say?) in terms of that person's limitations, not your own boundless, limitless creative state.

It's like trying to put on a suit two sizes too small. Very uncomfortable.

I wish I could tell you that attending to these things will ensure that you are never bothered by naysayers again. But you will continue to run across them. You will hear that question again — why you do this if it isn't making you any money.

When you hear it, laugh. It's funny. They may not understand, but it is funny. Then, you say, "yet." As in: I'm not making any money yet. I truly believe that if you are "on," if you are one hundred percent plugged into your will to power and you want to make money from your work, you will. That's a whole different article, but I believe it. I've seen it at work in my own life.

Do what you love. The money will come.

Never worry about the feelings, emotions, doubts and fears of others. What you do is literally beyond all that. It exists wholly outside of opinions — including your own! I'm sure you've experienced that sense of some other consciousness at work through you when the work is going really well. It feels automatic.

You are in possession of a gift that allows you to transform reality. It's not about making money, although you can certainly make money doing it. You, as an artist — and I speak here to all of you — are capable of amazing things. You can touch brush to canvas and create feeling in another human being. You can bring pen to paper and unfurl worlds, universes, multiverses. You can make those places real for your readers.

What other people think or say about it cannot change it. It is your vision. It is immutable. Inviolate. Magical.

No one will stand in judgment of it. Now or ever.

©2007 David Duggins. All rights reserved.

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