Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Grow Thinner Skin

"Grow a thick skin" is the most common piece of advice I have been given/seen given to others, as a writer. Moreso after my book sold. It makes sense. No matter who you are or what you wrote, you will get bad reviews, and you can't let those reviews get to you. Not just because they could hamper your creativity, but because you must understand that just like you can never be everyone's friend, your book can't be well-liked everywhere. So grow a thick skin.

Even before I became an author, I got this advice, and not just about writing. So what I want to talk about today is why I personally do not intend to take it. Not exactly, anyway.

I am a sensitive person, and I have been since I was a child. I worried constantly even then (mostly about getting cancer. Not sure why). I think I've mentioned before the time I mistakenly watched the episode of 90210 where someone gets raped, and I freaked out about it. I knew she was a fictional character, but I also knew that things like that happen to real people and it kept me up at night.

To better illustrate the severity of this situation, however: what I haven't mentioned before, because it's much more embarrassing (yes, more embarrassing than admitting to watching 90210) is that I spent several days deeply disturbed after watching The Man In the Iron Mask because the idea of locking someone in an iron mask really bothered me. And that movie was kind of ridiculous.*

Basically, I mourned for people I had never met, and for people who didn't exist. In case it's not obvious, it's really hard to go through life as a walking scrape. For one thing, everyone always wants to slap a bandage on you. Okay, this metaphor might be going too far. But for all the trouble my sensitivity gave me, it gave me something else, and that is empathy, something for which I am always grateful. (That is not to say that you can't have empathy if you're not a hypersensitive person, but this is just how it worked for me.)

A lot of people used to worry, and probably still do, about kids becoming desensitized to violence because our culture is so saturated by it. This, they fear, will cause kids to be more violent in their behavior. I seriously doubt that Power Rangers and Grand Theft Auto will make your kid more likely to beat other kids up (perhaps this is what they call "correlation, not causation"), but that's not the point. I worry about anyone becoming desensitized to violence, not because I believe it will make them more violent, but because I worry it will compromise their ability to ache for other people.

Obviously being insensitive to criticism and insensitive to violence are two completely different things, and do not necessarily go together, but they are similar in that they require numbness. And perhaps it is unwise of me, and someday I will eat my words, but I don't want to be numb about anything. I don't think that not caring should ever be something to which we ascribe value, no matter how helpful it is.

I am a sensitive person. I have thin skin. And while that makes me have to stop watching perfectly good television shows (Sons of Anarchy, Season 2, I'm looking at you), and makes me worry about things I can't control, and makes other people think I'm a little ridiculous, it also allows me to cry with other people when they tell me about the bad things that happen to them, and to understand, at least a little, what it feels like to be in situations I've never actually been in, and to have my emotions swayed by fiction, just like they were when I was a child. My thin skin is integral to who I am, and I think it makes me a better writer than I would be without it.

So yes, bad reviews hurt. And yes, it's a good idea to get over that. But not necessarily by growing a thicker skin. Instead, I go with this:

Do not chastise yourself for feeling too much.

Don't become harder. The world has too many hard people in it already.

Instead, try to actually believe that you are not your work, that your value does not reside there.

And keep your skin the way it is.

*For the record, I can watch The Man in the Iron Mask without getting upset now. I just don't, because, well...it's not a very good movie.

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