On Having a Thick Skin

“Have a thick skin.” If you’re a writer, whether you’re a hobbyist or a pro, you’re probably given this piece of advice dozens of times throughout your creative lifetime. The gist of the sentiment is: “Don’t take criticism too personally.” And while this is a lovely aphorism, it’s also easier said than done.

“Get tough, writer!” Image courtesy derausdo.

To follow the metaphor, having a thick skin makes my professional persona armored like an elephant or a rhinoceros. But here’s the thing–those noble beasts are born thick-skinned, whereas a creative person is nearly always the opposite.

We wouldn’t need a battlecry to “toughen up” if it came naturally. We’re told to desensitize ourselves to criticism because it’s the opposite of our instinctual reaction. When someone judges a writer’s work harshly, this tends to feel like a judgement of the author on a personal level. How can it not? You pour yourself onto the page, whether it be genre writing or memoir, and dedicate months or years to perfecting the product.

Okay, so what inspired this newest bout of self-reflection (and/or pity)? A negative review, of course.

A thoughtful, honest, and thorough skewering of MURDERED appeared on Amazon yesterday in the form of a 3-star review and it’s been eating at me (read the review here). And before you say, “3-stars isn’t negative,” allow me to direct your attention here:

Exhibit A: See the titles? "Most Helpful Critical Review". The defense rests its case.
Exhibit A: See the titles? “Most Helpful Critical Review.” The defense rests its case.

While the reviewer has some lovely things to say about the book and its author (he said in third-person), there’s quite a bit in there that I can only describe as “scathing.”

But I digress. The point of this blog post is for me to expand on how it is that I’m able to have a thick skin. How I “take a licking and keep on ticking.” Sure, I allow myself a moment of self-pity (and by “allow” I mean I accept the fact that I will experience these emotions and resign myself to it). But then I move on. What’s my secret?

My thick skin doesn’t come naturally, it’s formed from callouses.

That is to say, it’s built up as a defense against injury and assault. Each affront, no matter how small, toughens me up. Now, I’m able to look past the surface review and ask myself, “Okay, what did the reviewer really not like?”

The reviewer in my personal example compares MURDERED to a Rubik’s Cube, in a negative way. Their impression is that the book is nothing more than a simple curiosity; fun for a few minutes until the novelty wears off. And yet when I was writing the book, I actually told several friends I felt like I was creating a “literary Rubik’s Cube!” I naturally meant this as a positive–as a challenge. As a game that is fun to pick up and play with from time to time, but actually difficult and time-consuming to solve in full.

Not everyone loves a Rubik’s Cube. Then again, there are whole clubs and competitions formed by those who do. Not everyone will love my books, and some of those people will review them, but there are others who enjoy what I do and I’ll keep writing for that audience. The negative reviews still sting, but with my callouses I’m able to move past them more quickly.

Soon, I’ll be charging forward and there’ll be no stopping me.

James Schannep
9 June 2014

Artwork by Judith Powers, Ragged Edge Studio.

 

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