I have thick skin. I’d like to say it’s my natural personality, but I don’t really think it is. I suspect if I’d been born in any other family I might have ended up a very different person, and probably a sensitive one at that. My parents did a great job of teaching me how to let negativity and criticism roll of my back. I remember lessons on how to evaluate someone’s opinion of me in light of:
- My respect for the person.
- That person’s position in my life.
- How that person’s opinion lines up with Scripture.
The point was that if I didn’t have respect for the person giving the opinion, why did I care what they thought of me? If that person held no authority over me, I was free to disregard if I decided I didn’t agree with the assessment. And, they stressed that God’s opinion was the only one that truly counted.
I went through my school years always being the new kid, always being the outsider. I went to private schools with wealthy kids. They mocked our ’63 pea green Ford Ranchero (in 1979). We got a new car in 1980–a brand spankin’ new (or so I thought) Ford Pinto. I showed up for the first day of school of the new year in our “new” car and the kids who all arrived in Lincolns, Cadillacs, Mercedes, and BMWs laughed. “Look–she’s got a Pinto.” I shrugged it off. If people judged my worth by the car our family could afford, then I didn’t care what they thought. I truly didn’t care. I was ten.
Those lessons and all that practice shrugging off worthless opinions eventually paid off. Eighth grade came, and at the new school, kids liked me. I was shocked. One girl, Kathleen, wrote in my “Autograph Book” (a notion I got from reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn),
The best thing about you is that you are always the same.
My self-confidence plummeted. To an eighth grade, thirteen-year-old girl, that’s the equivalent of saying, “You’re boring.” But my mom saw it differently. She read all the little notes that my friends–yes friends–wrote and pointed to Kathleen’s. “That’s the best compliment you could ever get right there.”
I didn’t appreciate it then like I do now. I wish I knew where Kathleen Lunde is now. I’d like to thank her.
So why does a gal who really couldn’t care less what people think of her consider herself “vulnera-phobic”?
When you learn the lessons my parents taught me, you also learn how to turn off “reception” to things that otherwise might dig. You keep conversations with acerbic people to a superficial level. You learn to remind yourself that “It’s okay if people are wrong,” and you develop a bit of a shell–that “thick skin” people talk about.
But I’m an author.
Authors can’t stay hidden, private, guarded. We’re forced to make ourselves vulnerable to the world. How? We put our work out there for people to enjoy–or not. And that’s where vulnerability strikes.
Look, when I say I don’t expect everyone to like my books, I mean it. It’s not possible. I don’t like every book my favorite authors write! I quit reading my top favorite Christian author, Michael Phillips, for years because he had a series that I felt he took too far for my tastes. I understood why he did, but because of my own–dare I say it?–vulnerabilities, I couldn’t stomach it.
But despite knowing, feeling, and living that truth, putting your work out for criticism still requires a lot of fortitude. Why? Because whether you like it or not, whether you mean to or not, you put part of the most private parts of yourself on display when you share your fiction with the world.
The interesting thing is, it’s never the parts people think.
Reviews that say, “It wasn’t my cup of tea. I didn’t like the main character. I found the plot boring” and things like that– love them. They’re genuine and I support that. When it’s an implausible book such as Prairie or Justified Means, I absolutely understand when people say, “It was too impossible to believe.”
But when you step out of your comfort zone and explore new ideas, you open yourself up not just to criticism, but to attack.
Look, I get dozens, sometimes hundreds of emails a week. I answer every one (although not always as quickly as I’d like). But the hardest ones are the ones where I’m accused of something I didn’t say or mean to convey. Because in those, as an author, I doubt myself. Is it a valid criticism if you weren’t clear enough? Or is it impossible to be clear to every single reader on every single point? I know the answer, but I don’t like it.
So what is the point? I’m an author, so it shouldn’t surprise you that it took me 821 words to get there. When you criticize someone’s work, imagine yourself on the other side of that screen. Imagine how you’d want someone to convey their problem with what you wrote. Imagine how your words will help him to do better. Be kind. Be straight-forward. You don’t have to do the whole “compliment sandwich” thing. Just don’t fire the criticism at her in a Tomahawk missile. And please, if you’re just venting your own frustrations on the world and projecting them into that author’s work… hit the delete key. You’d want her to do the same for you.
But most of all, be kind to yourself too. Some criticism has to be made. Don’t beat yourself up for having to do it.