Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Writers: Are You Your Own Worst Enemy?

We writers are a creative lot. We like it that way. But if you talk to non-creative types, you'll often hear the word "creative" used as a euphamism for "emotional", "idiosyncratic", "erratic", or even (occasionally) "unreasonable".

I know this because I used to work with a guru in advertising who explained to me what he'd learned after thirty years dealing with "talent":

"Aimee," he said, "soothing the artist is something you have to work into everything - your timeline, your budget, your deliverables. Because artists need to have their ruffled feathers unruffled. A lot. And if it's your project, it's your job to make sure they have what they need."

At first I thought he just meant performing artists - you know, actors, models, celebrities. But when I said that, he laughed.

"I have to spend time talking the designers through the client feedback. I have to find a way to tell the photographer he didn't quite catch what I was looking for. I have to go through edits with the scriptwriter..." And he continued.

Then he really dropped a bomb on me:

"...And sometimes I have to talk you down from shooting yourself in the foot."

He took a quiet sip of his coffee while I coughed and spluttered on mine.

"Me?!"

He nodded. His smile was gentle, but serious.

"You're an artist at heart," he said, which in the context, flattered and offended me in the same breath.

He then went on to, very gently and diplomatically, give me a few examples of how I tended to show my dramatic side and get in the way of my own success. Things like:

- Getting defensive in the face of critique or criticism.
- Telling myself I could dismiss feedback from any client (or co-worker) if they didn't communicate it nicely.
- Calling, emailing or otherwise reacting while I was emotional rather than letting myself cool off first.
- Getting precious about my ideas or projects, rather than considering whether someone else's idea might improve on, or even exceed my own.
- Spending more time coming up with ideas than I spent delivering on them (which included being reluctant to commit to an idea - often coming up with new ideas after we'd already settled on an approach).

He told me how these things made other people reluctant to discuss my work - which meant my work wasn't as good as it could be. Because the adage is true: two heads really are better than one. And I was knocking any skull that came within cooee of mine.

Given my artistic sensitivity, you can imagine the internal struggle I had during that conversation. Discussing my flaws kicked my head and heart into exactly the tendencies he was describing! How did I argue the point without sounding defensive, or precious? How did I explain the extenuating circumstances without seeming to dismiss his kindly-intended advice?

In the end I just kind of spluttered and frowned and simmered. Because how was I supposed to answer the accusations without being seen to "react emotionally"?

And the worst part? He kept smiling at me like he knew exactly what was going on in my head. It was infuriating!

At the end, he patted my arm and gave me a bunch of compliments which I thought were just lip service, intended to make me feel better. I was so wound up, I just gave a kind of "Yeah, yeah" response.

He frowned for the first time and said "See? You artists are so busy getting upset about the problems, you don't let yourself take the good when it comes."

My first thought: "Seriously? You're dissing my ability to take a compliment too?"

My boss told me he wanted to have coffee at the same time the next week, and he didn't want me to approach him to discuss the conversation before then.

I almost swallowed my tongue.

But here's what happened:

After a couple days not talking about it, I was able to admit to myself that he was right about a lot of it. There were a couple points that still tanned my hide though, and man, was I going to give him an earful about those when we talked...

A couple days after that I felt calmer. Maybe I'd just point out the errors carefully...

By the time we spoke again I'd realized just how right he was. I'd recalled situations throughout my life that demonstrated the very patterns he'd described. And I realized those "extenuating circumstances" were really just my emotions. When I didn't feel good about something, I saw that as an excuse to react or dismiss.

In short, I knew he was right, and I told him so.

He smiled, then reminded me about the compliments he'd offered. "I was right about those too," he said.

For the first time in my life I asked a person's advice without waiting for their opinion to match my own. I really listened while he shared coping mechanisms, mitigation strategies and the pearl of wisdom "sometimes you just have to suck it up and let someone else think they're right when they aren't."

And he was right.

I'm sharing this with you because I've recently watched two or three situations where writers have hurt each other because of these exact kinds of problems. I wish I could transport them to that cafe, and to my old boss, and let them see the truth.

Because in the end, the emotional energy we expend on being precious, or angry, or dismissive would be so much better spent in the writing... Wouldn't it? And since most people don't understand "Artists" as completely as my old boss, sometimes the most important lesson of all is the last one.

Suck it up, my friends. Suck it up.

Your Turn: Have you ever been your own worst enemy? What do you do to try and avoid it again in future?

20 comments:

  1. Yes, I relate to the calling, emailing, reacting while emotional comment. Even as I'm writing an email with tears streaming down my face, a little voice in my head says, "you shouldn't be sending this". But I send. Then I regret. :-) I AM recognizing this in myself, though, and am trying to write in my private journal or do something physical that gets me out of my head for awhile before I allow myself to communicate with another. Email is my enemy. LOL You're right. We creative types run hot beneath our cool, calm exteriors.

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    1. I know what you mean about that little voice. I've got a post on here somewhere that talks about my personal rule when responding to critique. It's basically: nothing but "Thank you" until a week has passed....

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  2. Reigning in the insecurities and the responses they bring is probably one of the hardest things about putting yourself (your art) out there. Constant struggle for me.

    Loved how you articulated it, and also thought the person who told you all of that was pretty brave! :)

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    1. He was brave, but also wise. He was also more diplomatic in his phrasing than I laid out. We had the kind of relationship where we trusted each other. It was hard to hear though.

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  3. Good post. We can't let our egos get in the way of writing the best stories we can put out.

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  4. YES YES YES!! I am so my worst enemy. Especially lately - I have had no energy. No energy at all and that is my downfall. It's like I want to write, but I don't have the energy to give. I know it's discipline and that is a muscle I have to get used to working, but it can be such a pain.

    Your reaction to his statement is my same reaction to critiques on writing. You are definitely not alone! :)

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  5. Great post, Aimee!

    I've got a few holes in my foot too.

    Why is it so dang hard to admit we actually may be wrong? I'm working on these exact same emotions...

    Sharon

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    1. Thanks, Sharon. I don't know, but we are really good at getting our pantries twisted... so to speak!

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    2. Panties, even..... *facepalm*

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  6. I'm not sure I agree with you that two heads are better than one. A lot of the current research shows that the greatest achievements have mostly come from some single person working in isolation.

    And the artist stuff isn't "artist" stuff; it's introvert stuff. It's just that artists are, by and large, introverts. And introverts tend to feel more deeply than extroverts. Since most people are extroverts, they don't really get the whole "emotional" thing.
    I'm sure there must be some extroverts out there that are artists, but -I've- never met one.

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    1. I guess we'll have to agree to disagree, Andrew. Thanks for stopping in!

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    2. I'm an extroverted artist, Andrew. Pleased to be the first one you've met! :-D Have you met many actors? Most of the ones I've met are extroverted.

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  7. Wait, what are we disagreeing about? Other than the 2 heads thing, I wasn't disagreeing with you. And -I'm- not disagreeing with you about that. I'm just quoting current research.

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  8. When I've seen writer friends having hissy fits over something (bad review, bad crit, crappy sales, etc.), it often seems that the person is spending way too high a percentage of his/her time writing (to include tweeting about writing, blogging about writing, talking to other writers, etc.).

    If this is your whole entire life, it's easy to lose perspective and get to a point where your ego and sense of self worth are tied up in perceived successes and failures. Not healthy. (Yeah, I've been there.)

    I say find hobbies, try sports, hang out with friends who couldn't care less that you've written a book, etc. ;)

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    1. What excellent advice! So you're life-balance Yoda too, then? ;)

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  9. Totally true. I was nodding my head throughout all of this post, especially the part about asking advice but only wanting to hear your own opinion repeated.

    Managing your emotions is one of the most powerful lessons you can learn, I believe, and I'm trying to work on this at the moment. As you can probably imagine, some days are more successful than others. :-)

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  10. Hey I just had to link to this post in my latest blog post! Check it out here: http://theworldofmyimagination.blogspot.com/2012/03/your-shoelaces-are-untied.html

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  11. Great post and so true. Your boss sounds like a good person. I don't do too badly with most of that list, but I'm definitely very guilty of the last one!... room for improvement!

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