Making art is a very personal act. Visual arts, music, the written word—all of it requires the creator to briefly let down personal shields and imbue the work with a tiny piece of the self.
Sometimes, that makes creating art really difficult. Sometimes, it is so difficult it actually paralyzes the artist with fear. I mean, opening up a bit of your soul to others is a big deal. It is an exercise in faith in humanity.
Faith that your opinions are not completely crazy. Faith that your eccentricities are not unique. Faith that the darkest corners of your mind can actually be restored to light because someone else already has the candle.
The extra-sensitive artists, like myself, have an almost insurmountably difficult obstacle to get around.
Okay, I’m going to lower the forward shields for a minute and tell you a secret: I am super sensitive. I have built a quasi-functional wall around myself to ensure that I can accept criticism of my writing with grace and open-mindedness, because that is that only way I’ll improve. This wall also helps keep out irrelevant exterior criticisms, say about my fashion choices or what kind of movies I like to watch.
The problem is that all the strength is in the forward, exterior-facing wall. The inward wall, the one that faces friends and family, has not been fortified. So, if a friend or family member lobs an off-hand comment about…oh, maybe how they hate the shoes I’m wearing in my direction, it’s bad news.
Critical hit. Red alert. MAYDAY MAYDAY MAYDAY WE’RE GOING DOWN.
Seriously, it gets to me. It shouldn’t at all, but it does. This makes it hard for me to write sometimes. Why? Because my friends and family will be the first people to see my writing. They get the first round of beta-reads; they are the “Is this total horse shit or should I keep going?” litmus test.
Sometimes, my little wall works—criticism is ingested with an open mind and helps me make the project better. Other times, it doesn’t. And then I think about all the exterior people who could possible hate my writing and I wilt. What’s the point? Why write anything? Hell, why leave the house? It’s a sneaky doom spiral and it sinks its poisonous claws into me more often than I’d like to admit.
The mantra of the ever-terrifying and totally awesome Chuck Wendig is to “harden the fuck up, Care Bear,” and he’s right. But how do you balance the adamantium exoskeleton with the slow leak of soul-juice into your project?
How do you fortify that which you have put forward with a gooey center?
You can’t, not really. You sort of have to accept on faith, that someone, somewhere, is going to defend your work, and by extension, that tiny bit of your soul.
You have to have faith in other people. Other artists. Other soul-chips bouncing around in the ether.
My personal and current beacon of hope is Brandon Stanton, creator of Humans of New York. He is a street portrait photographer and if you haven’t seen his site, you’re missing out.
Mr. Stanton roams the streets of New York City (and Tehran, and most recently, Boston) and finds interesting people to photograph. The portraits are everything from hilarious to despairing, and every last one of them is beautiful. He asks each subject a few questions and puts the most revealing answers as captions for his photos. Some people merit full-on stories and the audience discovers how different people are, and some times, how judgmental we all can be.
Stanton’s project is interesting in that each portrait carries two soul-chips. The one that is captured from the subject by the camera, and one of his own. The people he chooses to photograph reveal something about the photographer. Namely, that he is open-minded, courageous and selfless.
Open-minded because he approaches people society would revile.
Courageous because he approaches subjects that scare him, or may put him in danger.
Selfless in that he wants to tell the stories of the people he photographs and in doing so, teaches the rest of us not to judge a book by it’s cover.
I don’t know how he balances the exoskeleton with the slow-leak of soul, but I’m glad he’s got a handle on the technique.
It helps me remember to write even though I am afraid, and sometimes because I am afraid.