Advice from the future.

What is something you wish you knew when you first starting taking your writing seriously?

In other words, if you could go back in time to when you first started being a writer, what advice would you give yourself?

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Dealing with criticism.

Dealing with criticism is exponentially easier the longer you are a creator, but it's still tough to sit with sometimes.

Being a creator means learning how to cope with self-doubt, and for someone who hasn't developed a thick skin for it, criticism is going to exacerbate those feelings—like gasoline on a fire.

Criticism is something that everyone does, even if they might not mean to, and something everyone experiences, even if they might not want to.

It's safe to say that we creators are especially sensitive to criticism. I know for me one of my most vulnerable states in life is waiting for someone, most often my wife, to finish reading something I wrote. Even though I should be reminding myself that, from experience, she'll likely enjoy it, there's still that looming shadow behind me, that question in the back of my mind, that keeps saying, "What am I doing… Is she going to hate this… Is she going to think I am an awful writer now… Why are you doing this... You're not a good writer..." And so on, and so on.

I guess you could say that even with the people closest to us—including ourselves—we can still feel this impulse toward self-doubt. Why do you think that is?

I think it’s because of the responses we are expecting to get; I think it's because most people never learn how to offer constructive feedback.

When offering criticism, people talk about what they like and don't like. That's largely to be expected, especially if you're creating entertainment—which by its nature is designed to entertain, and if it doesn't, people will react negatively to it. This is sometimes painful because no one wants to hear that the thing they've spent so much time and energy on is garbage—and that's a lot of pressure we're putting on whoever close to us we've shared our work with, even if they are creators themselves.

But it's not just creators who are sensitive to negative criticism—everyone is. That's because there is a human component to all this: we are biologically designed to react to negative situations with anxiety.

Before we explore that, though, let's step back and talk about what's going on behind the scenes when someone offers criticism.

Deconstructing criticism.

“The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.”

—Normal Vincent Peale

Criticism is a form of feedback that itself tries to deconstruct the why and how of what you’re doing. In a way, any form of feedback on your work is some type of valuation of its contribution to the culture of a society.

However, feedback from one person will usually be highly individual. Sometimes feedback will have societal implications, sure, but unless your reviewer is an academic, ninety-nine percent of feedback will be grounded in the individual tastes of that one person.

Recall that the value of our work can only be set by other people; you can’t provide a valuation of a social artifact that you created—but remember, all valuations are highly individualistic—and since these valuations are highly individual, it would be appropriate to assume that the general reception of your work will be evenly distributed at the very least.

Of course, when you’re first starting out it can feel like you’re only getting one end of that spectrum. Where are the reviews? Where are the people speaking fondly of your work? They’re out there, don’t worry. You just have to be patient. This is the age of the internet; as long as you are putting your work out there, someone somewhere will find it. (You could always work on marketing your work to a larger audience, too. Capitalism instills impatience in us when it comes to our art, and we have to consciously keep the impulse to move faster and faster at bay).

This isn't always the case in the beginning when we're starting out. Some people get lucky and run into the half of the world who loves their work before they get bombarded with the people who don't.

That's definitely not me. I have always had a slew of negativity in the beginnings of my projects. It's to the point now where I just expect that the initial feedback I’ll get on a project will be negative. At this point, I am so used to rude comments and downvotes and baseless criticism that when it doesn't happen, I get suspicious. It's almost like if I don't encounter a bunch of roadblocks and people who are overly critical of my work, I think I'm doing something wrong.

One could argue that this has helped me along the way. I have an easy signpost to follow when I am unsure about myself or my work, even if those signposts are, ironically, people telling or implying to me that my work is garbage.

The important thing to remember here is that everyone's experience will be different. I always hear that luck is a factor; I guess I am just an unlucky person.

So a good way to look at it, at least for me, is that all of the years and years of people not liking my work for whatever reason has given me years and years of learning how to let the really bad comments roll off me and how to pick apart the other ones so that I at least have a takeaway or two. And remember that some criticism won't teach you anything about you or your work, but it will teach you about the person doing the criticizing.

Another way to look at this is through the lens of video game design. In a video game, how do you know you’re going in the right direction? You encounter obstacles, and more importantly, you interact with people who don’t want you to continue.

In games we might call them enemies, but in the reality of your world as a creator, the people who want to see you fail are not so concerned with what or that you’re creating, they’re concerned with the fact that they just encountered someone who is one level ahead of them in the arcade of life.

You are the creator—you are creating something from nothing—and, well, they resent you for doing that.

Do you know how I know this? Because no one who is a creator themselves would negatively criticize another creator’s work—unless, of course, they’re projecting their insecurities onto someone else (which is an entirely human thing to do).

Criticism, then, is not the type of negative scorn that you might have come to expect from years of experiencing it that way. Instead, it is honest feedback that you can learn something from. If you can’t learn anything from the feedback, then it’s not criticism—it’s just someone’s opinion. Simple as that.

You must teach yourself to differentiate between criticism—real, useful feedback—and someone projecting their own insecurities onto you—real, useless feedback. Projecting insecurities is something both creators and non-creators will do, and unfortunately, you’re going to encounter this a lot. Maybe you’re encountering it right now, today. It’s a function of being human and it’s especially prevalent among people who have never worked really hard on their emotional intelligence.

Learning from any criticism—the good and the bad.

“Be an encourager. The world has plenty of critics already.”

—Dave Willis

If you are receiving criticism or when you do (because you will, I promise) it can be frustrating how strongly it can affect your emotions and infect your thoughts. But while not being affected by criticism is impossible, we can learn to stop being so affected by it, and we can do this by encountering it head-on.

Get your work finished.

Get it out there.

Get it in front of people.

Get those negative experiences out of the way so you can make room for the positive ones.

Once we encounter criticism head-on we can start to focus on the human components of criticism—and master the art of dealing with it effectively.

Thanks to the way we have evolved, our minds have an increased capacity to recognize and be aware of harmful things due to a phenomenon called the negativity bias. We are hardwired to place greater emphasis on situations and conditions that resulted in negative feelings than ones that produced positive ones.

Our minds are hardwired for survival—and avoiding negative situations and conditions was essential to survival for our ancestors.

Remind yourself that of course we respond with anxiety and fear when someone is negative or mean or rude about our work—our brains are hard-wired to put a big red stamp on that experience so that we can more quickly classify future experiences as threatening or nonthreatening.

It’s just a tool—a primal response mechanism that we will never be able to change.

And since this visceral reaction is just a tool, we must begin to think about it as something we can learn to control and even use in our favor.

How can we do that?

The first step is to determine where the criticism is coming from. Is this a fellow creator? Or is this just a random person on the internet? Who is offering the criticism should greatly impact how much you care about it. If it's just a random person online, they might be one of the many people in this life who define their worth by their judgment and review of things that other people—like you—have the courage to create and share. On the contrary, if this is someone who also creates things, are they really trying to help you, or are they projecting insecurities about their own work?

Determining where the criticism is coming from will help with the next step, which is to determine what the criticism is for. Is someone criticizing something you made? Or are they criticizing you directly? If your first response is to feel hurt by what they said, it may be because they themselves are hurting inside, and they're projecting their insecurities about themselves, their own work, and their lives onto you and your work. If someone is criticizing you personally because of a creation that you shared with them, the only response they deserve is this: "I'm sorry you don't like yourself."

You may also have some room to grow if you feel like people are attacking you directly but they are actually only talking about your work. The tricky part about this is that there are two perpendicular forces that will sometimes clash with each other:

  • On the one hand, we have people who have never learned how to give good, constructive criticism without attacking someone personally or offending them

  • On the other hand, we have creators who are sensitive people by nature and who have yet to practice the art of separating criticism of one’s work from criticism of oneself

Since we can only control ourselves in this world, our only hope is to 1) practice recognizing when someone is projecting, and 2) focus on divorcing our sense of self from our creations.

It will take practice, but over time, this will become second nature to you. Once you can determine whether or not someone thrives on negativity in this life by defining their worth in this world by their reactions to other people’s creations, you can save a lot of time and energy by not engaging with them.

The final step in learning how to control our reaction to criticism is to constantly remind ourselves that there is more to you than your creations. You are an incredibly complex human being, and your work is only a small glimpse into a very thin sliver of who you are. I’ve said before that our work is our way of expressing ourselves—but that doesn't mean our creations can express all of ourselves. No, our creations are just little envelopes of self-expression, pieces of us that we have chosen to share with the world.

And so when it comes to people in life who constantly have to have an opinion about everything, who are constantly shooting down the hard work of others, now you can see just how sad those people are. The thing they choose to share about themselves with the world is their sad, lonely, and self-loathing perception of themselves, and that’s disappointing.

If you really want to emphasize this point, take a step back and look at how much more courage and strength you have shown by choosing to express yourself through your creations instead of negative comments about other people and their creations.

Be proud of yourself for transcending that simple worldview—that something is bad just because you don't like it.

Remember also that some people are just jealous that you have done this thing and they cannot. The price of success is to bear the criticism of envy. Remember that.

Ideally, you'll follow these steps and find someone who has been in your shoes that offers constructive criticism on something you made. That's what I would like to see happen but I can tell you, having been creating different things for many years, usually what I get is negative criticism and sometimes it's targeted directly at me.

And to be honest, sometimes people call out my work for having something that really is bad. Some of the reviews on my first fiction novel, Burrow, pointed out that there were some typos and grammatical mistakes in the first few pages. Imagine how I felt, here with a Master's in English and as someone who is trying to be proud of my developing skills as a writer, learning that I published a book with a bunch of typos. It's embarrassing. It’s hurtful.

It’s a shot of energy for those negative thoughts about myself and my work that I have worked so hard to restrain.

But mistakes like that, even if they are shown to me through negative criticism, only give me opportunities to improve. I love when people tell me how I am doing something wrong—as long as I can ask them questions about what they think "doing it right" looks like. Obviously for typos and grammar mistakes, those are just things I had to go back, find, fix, and republish (it's a Kindle book, thankfully, and I have the only print copy).

And yes, that hard-copy is full of typos. And you know what? I make sure to keep it in a prominent spot on my desk at home to remind me that it's okay to be proud of something that is or was flawed to you at some point in time. Maybe it still is. Whatever. The important thing to remember is that it’s okay to be proud of your hard work—no matter what the outcome was.

The journey is always more important, especially when you’re still finding your voice and developing your craft.

In my case, the negative comments were basically a road-map for me to follow, a checklist of what I needed to do to get my creations from good to great. It is my hope that when you encounter criticism, you'll keep these things in mind so that the energy you spend on it is productive and healthy.

Keep creating. Keep going forward. You can cross the river even if the current feels overly strong, even if you have to spend a little time learning how to build a bridge first.

So to recap:

  • Negative criticism is to be expected. It means you're going in the right direction.

  • Is the person criticizing you or your work? If it's you, brush them off—they're trying to make you feel like they feel (which is insecure). If it's your work, ask questions and see if you can find something to put in your toolbox.

  • Remind yourself that you're strong and courageous for sharing pieces of yourself with the world through your creations.


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Relapse and control.

When relapse happens, what can we learn from it?

It’s snowing in Chico, CA, something that has never happened for as long as I have lived here.

Sometimes I think the universe is telling me things.

Relapse and control.

I have been working on my story for a while and for the whole month of January I had a good thing going. I have a notepad that I keep all my evolving ideas on; I have a nightly routine where I sit in one of the kids’ rooms at night while they’re falling asleep (after stories and tucking them in) and work on my story. Generally I was getting about 300-1500 words every night.

Then it happened.

I relapsed.

I’m not talking about alcohol; I haven’t had a drink in about 2 years. No, this is something much worse for me. This is the relapse of control, of something that has plagued me for all of my adult life.

Projecting hopping and hyperfocus.

I am not diagnosed with ADD nor am I diagnosed with ASD but my wife swears that I have both. The more I read about the symptoms of both together in my brain the more I find myself getting really upset with myself. Not in a bad way, just in a—I don’t know, disappointed way? Disappointed that I could be so susceptible to impulses out of my control?

Judith Kolberg wrote on additude.com that because the ADHD is “motivated by the search for optimal stimulation,” it’s common for those affected to oscillate from a project you’re working on right now into another one—sometimes without you even realizing you’re doing it until you’re too exhausted to go back.

Why?

Generating ideas and seeing the potential of things produces dopamine, a neurotransmitter that can keep you mentally engaged when you might otherwise be unmotivated.”

It is the hallmark of an idealist that we will obsess about the future and what could be, rather than focusing on the now and what is.

This must be why I am constantly drawn away from my writing and toward things that are new, that cause me to think about new things in a new way and are refreshingly un-thought about.

Knowing that this is caused by some chemical dependency in my brain is bittersweet. On the one had I am disappointed in myself because a) I am beholden to drives that I cannot control, and b) I relapsed after all the hard work I have done.

But on the other hand, I have all the puzzles pieces in front of me to start feeling proud of myself.

It’s not about me relapsing, it’s about the fact that I recognized what I was doing and stopped myself from continuing.

It’s not about switching projects or project hopping, it’s that before I got too hyperfocused on the new thing and disengaged from the old thing I managed to stop and break the cycle.

Pain is progress.

At the risk of regurgitating the old saying we had back in the Marines—that pain is weakness leaving the body—there is growth in this pain. I am disappointed that I relapsed but proud of myself that I have caught it.

There is a fundamental truth to this life that everything exists with its opposite. In other words, the yin and yang of all things coexists to create the human experience. Maybe I had to get to a point where I became disappointed in myself to show me that I am ready to be proud of myself.

In this relapse I have discovered a capacity to stay focused on my writing—something that I didn’t know I had, that I didn’t trust I was able to exercise until now. In a way, this relapse was a good thing for me.

I am learning to trust that the value I want others to put on my writing is a value that I have to have on it myself.

I have permission to be proud of myself.

Being proud of something I have created has always been something hard for me to do. My wife once told me that it might be natural since I don’t consciously set out to make something sub-par; when someone says, “Hey this is really good,” instead of smiling and feeling good about myself, I get suspicious of myself and think, “Of course it’s good—it’s not like I was trying to make garbage over here.”

My desire to pivot to other projects can be seen at the biological level as a constant yearning for dopamine. It’s an impulsivity that has taken hold of my conscious desires and meddled with how I want to spend my time creating. Taking a step back, it’s clear to me now that my relapse is a symptom of the real problems:

  • My brain has been wired to consider anything I do worthless

  • My feelings have been wired to consider writing a fun thing which means it can’t be hard work

That it took a relapse to come to terms with this is the bittersweet realization that I needed. I’m not sure what I am going to do with it yet; maybe I’m not supposed to know.

The first step to managing a problem is being able to mention it. A counselor friend of mine once said, “If you can mention it, you can manage it.” Maybe this really is the first step on a new mountain of personal growth. I certainly hope so.

It makes sense to me that my constant project hopping is a function of my need for attention. Not attention like how one might see a social media personality living day and night by their follower and subscriber counts—nothing like that.

What I’m talking about is root psychological training that began in my childhood.

Rezzan Hussey wrote on artofwellbeing.com that when children are raised by narcissists there is a laundry list of things that will have to be unlearned.

She mentions three things that we have to teach ourselves how to do:

  • Grieving for the loss of the parent figure you never had

  • Developing and accepting your own identity

  • Asking for what you need and saying ‘no’ to what you don’t

  • Avoiding overcompensating

  • Selecting secure romantic partners

It’s okay for me to recognize that I never had the parents that other, happy kids grew up with.

It’s okay for me to give myself permission to be a writer—to let that be my identity, no matter what that means. (The important part is that I am honest with myself and how I see myself).

It’s okay for me to communicate openly with what I want. I am very good at this; I believe communication is the key to good relationships. Where I need to focus my energy is in learning to say ‘no.’ I have gotten a little better in my professional life, though I can still feel the urge to jump in and save everyone whenever their projects go awry. It is in my personal relationships that I have the hardest time pushing back.

It’s okay for me to not be good at something. I don’t know why I always have to be amazing at everything. I tell myself that it’s because the human experience is so rich and wonderful that it would behoove everyone to try every form of self-expression, but the truth is I don’t think I can stomach not being the most amazing person in a room. I don’t know why.

It’s okay for me to be happy and secure with someone, and I don’t need dramatic outbursts and unmanageable emotional turmoil in my personal relationships just to replicate the conditions of my childhood. I found that in my wife; she is everything I could have ever asked for in a friend and partner, and I make sure to tell her how much I appreciate her every day.

There are many ways that I can see growth in my life. Since I stopped drinking alcohol there has been a lot of cleaning out the proverbial closet. Today is a time where I finally got a chance to look back and see just how much of this closet I’ve cleaned out.

Just because my parents were never proud of me doesn’t mean I can’t learn to be proud of myself.

Embracing my relapse as proof of growth.

It sounds counter-intuitive without context, I know, but I think considering my relapse as a test is helpful. I almost slipped painfully back into my old cyclical behavior of hyperfocusing on a project, distracting myself from what I’m currently working on, and eventually dragging myself back to my writing after being so exhausted from a dopamine-fueled multi-week bender that I have to reconsider my life and all the choices I made up to the point where I lost focus.

I’m not like that anymore. That’s what I have learned with this relapse and subsequent retaking of control.

It is a sign that I am becoming comfortable admitting to myself that writing is hard work, that by being a writer I am a hard worker—and most importantly, I write well.

I have spent so much time trying to get other people to recognize this, and just now coming to terms with this fact for myself is a new feeling for me. I have to unlearn what I learned about myself in my childhood—that I’ll never be good enough, I’ll never do something that will make my parents proud, that I don’t even know what the concept of supportive and loving parents even means.

In other words, I am giving myself permission to finally admit that my writing is hard work, that my writing is good work, and that I and I alone have the capacity to be a writer full-time.

Closing on a series finale.

I want to end this by talking about a great series finale I watched last night. The show is called Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, a lighthearted comedy centered around a woman who was kidnapped and lived in a bunker for a long time, then has to rebuild herself in the world—whatever that “self” may be. Throughout the show she ends up writing a book and, during the series finale, her search for her sense of self culminates in the form of a boy who approaches her as she welcomes families onto a theme park ride based around her book. The kid says, “Your books make me feel safe,” and at that moment you can see in it ‘click’ for Kimmy.

That’s who she is. All this time it was right there. She is a writer, and writers can make a difference.

That’s who I am. All this time it has been right there. I am a writer, and writers can make a difference.

-Jesse

People and things I talked about.

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