DD Q&A: Creation, self-esteem, and running your own work down

by Diane Duane


(via anartificialaspidistra🙂

Hi Diane, I’ve been a fan for a long time. Read the YW books, Wounded Sky, and eventually the Door Into… books staring when I was a kid back in the 80s. Someday I’ll take a picture of the Hello Kitty notebook I owned circa 1984 where I wrote both Ed the shark’s name and Sherlock Holmes’ name surrounded by hearts. I was totally willing to marry either one of them. ;D

Anyway, when I started looking for more Sherlock stories after the BBC show premiered I got into reading fanfic, and eventually the amazing art on Tumblr. It was great to see someone whose books I’d always loved was right in there as a fan too.

Reading someone’s tags today, I noticed the latest example of something that makes my heart hurt a little every time I see it. The art (it was a short Sherlock comic strip) was great! Well laid out, engagingly drawn, funny, entertaining, etc. But the artist’s tags were all about how terrible it was. How she couldn’t write, how she couldn’t draw, etc. I know how hard it is to put your work (of any kind) out there and just let it speak for itself, but the prevalence of young girls making something amazing and then sharing it by saying “here’s this thing I did. It’s probably terrible,” just kills me. I can’t count how many posts I’ve seen people tag or comment that their art or they themselves are “trash”. I mean, I get that they’re self deprecating for comic effect, but…

I don’t know. Maybe learning to not put down your work before someone else gets a chance to is just something that has to be grown out of, but I also wonder if more of us older women should be saying something. I’d love to see girls say “here’s this thing I made [full stop]” if it still seems too hard to say “here’s this thing I made; I’m proud of it.” Just not tearing themselves down would make a world of difference, I think.

I guess I’m just curious if you have any thoughts to add. Thanks again for writing such enjoyable stories and building such cool worlds! May you live long and prosper.

 First of all: thanks for the nice words. It’s always nice to know I’m getting the job done.

Re the self-esteem problem as regards talking about one’s work: I see a lot of this from girl creators too. (Yet also from the boys, until they gradually knuckle under or get pushed under the surface of the whole patriarchal never-say-anything-that-might-make-you-seem-weak crap, and get it institutionalized out of them.)

Part of the problem is that the creation of art (or indeed anything else useful) is unnerving business, because you’re essentially making the invisible visible: making something out of nothing — and even that phrase is culturally loaded. (“Don’t make something out of nothing!”: a classic putdown for overreaction.) Yet making Something out of Nothing is also, as it happens, what Gods do. (The classic western-culture version of this: Deity moves over the surface of the empty void, says, “Hmm. Light…” and bang! Light.)

So creation routinely frightens those who who do it — because the actual process of mastery of art takes a long time, and in the meanwhile you may frequently feel like you’re riding the tiger, only half in control, while your grip on the tiger’s ears is always threatening to slip. And creation frightens more badly those who don’t do it (not that you’ll ever easily get them to admit that), because they see you making Something out of Nothing and that’s not normal. Everybody gets a little freaked as a result, and it’s probably no surprise that the responses to the act of creation by both creators and spectators can get skewed — reactions based on fear not routinely being the healthiest ones.

(Adding a cut here, since more discussion and a brief how-to course in auctorial esteem lies below. Also, “pieces of shit”…)

One of the classic reactions, when you’re afraid that something is going to cause you pain, is to cause yourself the pain first — the rationale most likely being that at least that way you’re in control of something in the process: the amount of pain, if nothing else. And you see this in the damndest places.

It was in Hollywood (while I still lived near there) that I first heard, from a well-placed and fairly-well-known writer, the usage that William Goldman mentions in his famous Adventures in the Screen Trade: “POS.*” As in “Hey, wanna read this POS spec [script] I wrote?” …POS standing for Piece Of Shit.  This usage is so commonly used out there that it’s genuinely shocking. Seriously, I thought Goldman had been exaggerating: I should have known better. But again and again you hear it, in what is (theoretically) a hotbed of smart, sharp, self-assured people: the quickest way to defuse criticism or deflect pain — dissing your own work in front of others. Do it before they do it to you. Do it first so if they do it, they’ll only be the second to say it and therefore the sting will be less.

So plainly this isn’t just a problem for young girls. Nobody likes pain, be they young, mature, old, or any damn thing in between. And getting into this kind of habit to attempt to prevent it is way too easy.

(Let me briefly add for clarity’s sake that I’m perfectly aware of how educational and creative milieus in general, especially in the US, are skewed against girls and young women getting an equal chance to express themselves and their abilities, and these situations need to be dealt with, urgently. The point I’m dealing with here, though, is that the creator-negative-self-esteem situation’s endemic in human experience.)

Every person who makes art (verbal or visual), regardless of the shape of their physicality or the state of their gender, can benefit from learning how to assert the value of their work as it stands: the work (written or drawn or painted or danced or photoshopped or carved or whatever) as its own fact, as a self-proving statement that has the right to be evaluated on its own merits — just left alone to tell its own story. This is hard to learn how to do by yourself.

If I was going to attempt a short how-to guide, it would look like:

(a) Before you start: if you feel the urge to diss your own work, set it aside. Any artistic work that you take the time to do demands that you respect it first. Otherwise no one else will. But — more to the point — you are channeling one of the greatest and most ancient human urges: to make, and to be through your making. You are, in the archetypal sense at least, standing on holy ground. So act like it. Treat what you make with honor.

(b) Having done the work, get it out there.

(c) About the work itself, to its intended audience, say merely, “Here it is: I hope you like it.” And nothing else. It is neither your job to praise your own work in its presentation or to run it down when initially presenting it. Quiet self-confidence is the tone to take. Not feeling quietly self-confident / have never felt that way in your life? Fake it. We all do at one point or another. Just indicate the work and step back: let it do the job for which you created it, which is to communicate on its own.

(d) Wait for feedback. And while you wait, be quiet. Don’t be dumping your excitement or your nervousness where the audience can see it.

(e) When the cruel and nonconstructive feedback arrives — because it will — recognize it for just that and do not respond except with something very neutral like “I hear you. Thanks for taking the time to comment.” (No matter how much you want to rant and rave, no matter how much you hate even thanking them. Be the grownup about this, since they’re plainly not going to.) Do, however, examine the feedback for signs of anything that’s genuinely useful to you. If there’s nothing: kick it to the curb. But when evaluating, trust your instincts. Sometimes even a nasty asshole will put their finger on something that needs handling, and your duty to your art requires that you take that on board. But you don’t have to take the nastiness with it.

(f) When the positive feedback arrives — because it will (and hilariously, sometimes way more of it than usual will arrive about a piece of work that you’re none too sure about) — say “Thank you, I’m really glad you liked it!”, or something along those lines — and as little more as will go along with that stance of quiet confidence. Do not meet gushing with gushing. The squee (if any) belongs on the other side of the transaction. If it arrives, accept it gracefully. If the reader pauses to discuss at length something they really liked, you’re allowed a few more words about that to say (if you like) a little about where it came from or what was in your mind. Then step back again.

…And then (with the next piece of work) repeat. Repeat, repeat, repeat again and again until the process starts feeling more comfortable. It will never feel entirely comfortable. You are a creator, and creating in a universe where entropy is running will always be a challenging business.  But it’s worth it.

…This entire issue is probably the core of a writing workshop, online or elsewhere. I need to think about this for a bit.

In any case, thanks for giving me an excuse to hold forth on this. 🙂

*The full quote: “(Piece of shit by the way is the standard terminology in Hollywood for a project. If you ask a producer what he’s working on, more than likely he will say, ‘Well, I’ve got this Western piece of shit I’m working on’ or ‘this piece-of-shit comedy.’)” You can see it in context in chapter 4 of the book, here. 

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