There’s a strange but well-documented phenomenon that happens to many artists. It’s the unhelpful artist’s math that says if one gets 99 positive vs. 1 negative review, we know which one will stick, at least for most of us. (Why, oh why, does the math work that way?)
Artists know that not everyone will like our work. It’s a fool’s errand to try to please everyone. This is why some actors and writers don’t read reviews. All we can do is produce our best work and keep moving forward.
Yet despite good advice and our best efforts, negativity can still creep in. It can still hurt. As one writer friend told me, it’s “puzzlingly hard” that we can be discouraged even when we know we shouldn’t be. Do I think about the overwhelmingly positive reviews of my books, or do I torment myself over the one or two that sneaked past my defenses and lodged in me like a kidney stone, to the point where my spouse filters them for me?
And it’s not just artists. Whether we’re chefs, nurses, managers, business owners, teachers—anyone who can be personally reviewed online—we know better than to let the negativity in. My terrific doctor told me about a review that devastated her. She cares deeply for her patients and tries so hard to do right by them, but medicine isn’t going to work in every case. Out of the many reviews she’s gotten—most of which are amazing—guess which one she remembers verbatim?
Yes, we should all follow the great advice about stopping ourselves from giving criticism power it doesn’t deserve. It’s just that sometimes, our best intentions to remain unaffected fail.
But I want to look at this more broadly, because criticism is a drop in the ocean in terms of things that can get to us. We can feel down for numerous reasons, and sometimes for seemingly no reason.
My question: what happens then? Where can we go when we’re feeling down, besides the wine rack?
Let’s face it. On a personal front, we contact friends via text message or online nowadays. We rarely pick up the phone anymore, and we’re certainly not mailing letters. On a professional front, artists are expected to have a social media presence. Thus, collectively, a “natural” outlet for our feeling blue—regardless of cause—is social media.
This means we immediately run up against the unspoken rule in social media that we’re supposed to stay (or pretend we’re) upbeat. For many, that means depicting interesting jobs, charming families, and ideal spouses. For artists, it means this is a business and we should be cultivating a certain image. Even if we’re feeling out of sorts, we’re supposed to post pictures of our pets or something clever.
That feels terribly inauthentic to me. My gosh, if we were all so very happy, would we be spending so much time on Facebook in the first place? Do friends, fans, and readers really require us to be some sunny, always-on, perversely positive caricature of ourselves? At some point, are we crossing a line in our desire to present ourselves in an always-positive light? In our attempts to be forever perky and funny, do we ultimately end up instilling hopelessness in people because they’ll never be the Wonder Women we’re (falsely) presenting to them?
How can we be authentic in a world that’s so often about crafted self-presentation and self-promotion? When we’re always supposed to put on a smiley face? (Yes, this one :-)
Jessica Spaulding, the lead character in my latest romance, For Money or Love, is a woman who, for various reasons, presents herself as something she’s not. We come to understand why she’s doing it, but we also see what it’s costing her. Ultimately, when Jess is put to the test, she chooses against a false presentation of herself. She chooses authenticity.
I think it’s okay to admit not everything is perfect 100% of the time. No one likes a constant complainer either, but can’t we give each other license to acknowledge when things aren’t hunky dory? How many articles on functional depression and loneliness do we have to read before we strive for a more balanced approach to self-presentation than the highlight reels of our lives?
Artists push through the difficult times—when their Muses abandon them, when they feel disconnected from their art, when negative comments are the only ones they absorb. They aren’t easy times.
But it’s not just artists. All of us go through ups and downs. We’re human. We get laid off, fired, divorced, evicted, etc. We feel joy and sorrow, happiness and discouragement.
I don’t have all the answers. I can’t promise I won’t post pics of cute animals or wise quotes—hell, sometimes a Corgi or sea otter pup photo will actually lift my spirits in a way that I need just then.
What I can tell you is that when you’re down, you’re not alone.
If you’ve been figuratively knocked down or have fallen recently, please know it’s okay to admit it. And if you need some time before you’re yourself again, take it.
When this happens, how about we give each other a hand instead of a :-) ? Pull each other up?