The 25% — Addressing the Doubters

I have spent a good many years…being ashamed about what I write.  I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction or poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent.  If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all. ~~ Stephen King, best-selling author

My miracle is not that you can’t knock me down; my miracle is that I know how to get up. ~~ Stephen Gaskin, nonviolent social revolutionary


I just finished a novel.  (I’ll wait for the applause to die down.)

I can tell you that I’ve never worked so hard – or long – on anything in my life.  What began as an idea in 1999 became an opening chapter in 2000, which became six months of research, which resulted in a year of writing and a 300-page draft – which sat in a drawer for eight years while I worked up the nerve to dive in and wrestle with revisions.  That process took another five years, which included an additional year of research, multiple drafts, a developmental edit, a year of queries to nearly fifty literary agents (three of whom read the manuscript and had positive feedback but ultimately declined the project), nights of lost sleep, and many, many trips to Staples for printer ink and paper.

But – if I’d listened to the woman who ran the writer’s workshop I attended in 2002, I’d never have completed the first draft.  At the beginning of the first class, we went around the room and talked about our current projects and long-term goals, so I mentioned that I’d written a full-length play and was currently working on a novel.  At the end of the session, the workshop leader pulled me aside and said, “I think you should consider working on something easier.”

I was too stunned to respond.

And I never went back.

Fortunately, my husband had a comeback of his own: “She doesn’t know who she’s dealing with.”

His words kept me going during all those years of slogging through the initial draft and later revisions.  Sometimes all you need is one person to believe in you.  You can even let them be in charge of believing in you during those times when you no longer do.  Their belief can pick you up until you regain your confidence.

But the workshop leader’s words kept me going, too – if only because I was determined to prove her wrong.  The gauntlet had been thrown down.  I was only too happy to pick it up and tuck it into my vizard.

So by now you’re wondering, what about the 25%?  Let’s just say the workshop leader is a prime example.

The 25% is an idea I picked up years ago at a piano workshop.  The clinician was working with a student who was struggling with debilitating stage fright – which is nothing if not a manifestation of other people’s negativity internalized as self-doubt.

The clinician explained it something like this:

The moment you walk onstage, before you even play a note, before you even sit down at the piano:

25% of the audience will love you instantly – you remind them of their favorite relative or their best friend from high school (or they love what you’re wearing);

25% of the audience will hate you instantly – you remind them of their ex or a despised teacher (or they hate what you’re wearing);

The remaining 50% will neither love nor hate you, but will take you as you are (and probably won’t even notice what you’re wearing).

Which means that a whopping 75% of the audience is with you before you even play a note.  This is good news for creatives of all stripes.

The 25% applies not only at concerts but when someone picks up your book, or sits down to watch your play, or looks at your painting.  Some people, for whatever reason, will dislike you or your work on sight.  They may dislike you for even making the attempt, or they feel threatened by your willingness to take risks.  Some will be failed artists themselves, bitter and jealous of your achievements.  Some will be well-meaning people who have no idea how destructive their comments are.  Some will simply be negative types who love nothing more than undermining the confidence of others.  It’s vital to rein in these doubters before their opinions take up residence in your psyche and cripple you with self-doubt.

What I’ve come to understand is that there will always be people I’m never going to reach, never going to please, and who are never going applaud me or my work.  Remember that doubters come in all shapes and sizes.  There will always be the friend who innocently offers to read your manuscript (so he can tear it apart), or the teacher who relentlessly criticizes you “to make you stronger” (and dismantles your confidence in the process), or the peer who wants to “help” (and boost their own ego), by pointing out your flaws to you.

I’ve also learned that it’s the doubters who like to take me aside when I’m at my most vulnerable (how do they do that?), and insist on giving me their immediate, unsolicited opinion.  It took me a while to recognize that the advice they so freely give is not offered in the spirit of helping me, but constitutes what they would do in a similar circumstance (if they had the guts).  They’re entitled to their opinions, as long as I remember that I neither have to agree with them, nor take their advice.

Which leads me to my second revelation: it’s up to me to decide whose feedback I’m going to listen to.

Here’s my list:

1) My coach/teacher.

2) My husband (who tells me the truth in a clear, supportive way).

3) A trusted friend (one who has my best interests at heart).

Someone who has your best interests at heart will, immediately after your performance (or reading, or gallery opening), hug you and congratulate you on your efforts.  They will not feel threatened as you bask in the adulation of your admirers.  If there is anything to discuss about your work, they will have the good sense to mention it after the adrenalin rush has worn off and you’re ready to hear it.  When that time comes, they will share their thoughts and observations constructively.  They will critique, not criticize – it’s amazing how few understand the difference.

(Conversely, it’s not a good idea to trust someone who only gives you glowing reviews, especially when you know you’re not at your best.  These people can be nice to have around, and a comfort when things aren’t going well, but they won’t help you grow as an artist, either.)

There will still be moments when someone sneaks through your defenses; it’s part of the dues we creative types pay for putting it out there.  For this reason, be wary of anyone who doesn’t want you to enjoy your well-sung recital, your sensitive performance in a play, or your beautiful sculpture.  It might be the significant other who whisks you away immediately after a performance to do “what they want to do,” thereby robbing you of the joy of meeting your supporters at the reception afterwards.  It might be the “friend” who chases you offstage to tell you which notes were flat.  It might be the colleague who tears you down “for your own good.”

These people do not have your best interests at heart.  Worse, they can be toxic to your well-being as an artist.

Refuse to listen to the opinion of anyone you haven’t given permission to critique you.  Give everyone one free pass, but it if happens a second time, find a way to gently but firmly let them know that they don’t have your okay to review your work.  I’ve found this clears up a surprising amount of misunderstanding.

In the end, while it’s a challenge to ignore the doubters, setting firm boundaries goes a long way towards silencing their destructive chatter.  When they figure out they can no longer get to you, they’ll step back and leave you alone.  You’ll then have freed up the energy to cultivate supporters – friends, peers, and instructors whose feedback and encouragement help you grow.  Your supporters will be easy to recognize: they’re the people who are gratified by your progress, the ones who cheer you on, even – and especially – when the going gets rough.  Many will be fellow artists who understand all too well how rough the road can be.

But the surest way to find supporters is to be one yourself.  In the face of optimism, the doubters – that disparaging 25% – lose their power.  They have no choice but to slink away in search of new victims.  And as a bonus, you’ll have opened up space in your life so that helpful and supportive people, those who have an interest and a stake in your growth, can take their place.

Getting the Second Marshmallow: Self-discipline for Creatives

Some battles are never won except in continually fighting them. ~~ Mark Helprin, Freddy and Fredericka

There’s a classic study in which a researcher takes a 4-year-old into a room, sits her down at a table, places a marshmallow in front of her, and tells her she can have that marshmallow right now, or – if she can wait fifteen whole minutes – she can have two.  Then the researcher leaves the room and watches what happens through a one-way mirror.  As expected, most four-year-olds devour the marshmallow immediately (after all, they’re four, and it’s a marshmallow, for pity’s sake).  But a few young souls find ways to make it through that agonizing, eternal fifteen minutes.  They sing, walk around the room, count, put their hands over their eyes, anything to distract themselves – and claim the larger prize.

My guess is that a few of those kids grew up to be artists.

This is the unfortunate crux of art-making: once you’re out of school, no one (except maybe your mother), is champing at the bit anticipating your next project.  No one cares if you’re drawing, or writing, or singing every day.  Your life fills up with obligations – your day job is sucking you dry, the kids have to be driven soccer games and piano lessons, your sick dog needs to be rushed to the vet – and before you know it, art-making begins to seem like an unforgivable indulgence.  That’s if you had the time to do it in the first place, which you clearly don’t.  There are just so many other things that need your attention.

But the fact remains: you’re still an artist, even if you’re not engaged in your art.  So what happens then?  You tell yourself it doesn’t matter.  You drink more, eat more, or sleep more to push down your mounting feelings of resentment.  Failure.  Regret.  Discontent.  Life starts to weigh you down.  You begin to doubt you were ever artistic, let alone any good.  You’ve been devouring that first marshmallow the moment it shows up, whether in the form of obligation or entertainment, and now a big piece of your life is missing.  Tina Packer, founder of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, expresses it well: If you don’t do whatever your art form is, you’re unhappy and your life doesn’t make sense to you.  You want to get that part of your life back, but how?

In a culture that glorifies instant gratification, we don’t get much practice waiting for the second marshmallow.  But that’s what creatives must do, whether they make art for a living, or after-hours.  (Let me go on record here: I disagree that hobbyists don’t qualify as artists. Art-making is art-making, whether you do it eight hours a day or one hour a week. As long as you’re committed to doing the best work you can do, you’re in the club as far as I’m concerned.  One unfortunate aspect of our culture is that as a we’ve given art-making over to the “professionals.”  We’ve stopped claiming our individual creative powers for ourselves.)

This is where self-discipline comes in — now stay with me, because it’s not as dreary as it sounds.  Self-discipline is simply finding ways to distract yourself from the immediate reward (or demand) so you can get to that second marshmallow.  You have to distract yourself from the distractions, because they will always be there.  You have to do the work, even when you’re tired, or stressed, or have a million other concerns nipping at your heels.  It’s about carving out time – even if it’s only ten minutes a day – to do whatever it is that feeds your soul.  Honing your artistic chops requires attention and repetition, lots of it.  There’s no app that can do it for you.  You – and only you – can put in the time.

I can already hear you saying, yes, but I don’t have an entire afternoon to draw!  Fine, tuck a small sketch book and pencil into your pocket or purse and make a quick drawing while you’re on your break.  No time to work on your book?  Keep a journal handy to jot down your thoughts while waiting for your kids to get out of Tae Kwando (and don’t be surprised if you end up writing your entire book that way).  No place to practice your singing?  Grab a handful of Music Minus One CDs to sing along with during your commute.  Use that creative noggin of yours.  People may think you’re crazy, but who cares?  Your kids, your spouse, your coworkers will get used to it.  And I guarantee they’ll appreciate your improved mood.

Like that second group of kids, you have to trick your mind, teach it to wait, especially when it starts yelling about why you need that first marshmallow right now.  Here’s what I do: I make a bargain with my mind: “All right,” I say, “I understand that you don’t know where the hell I’m going with this damn book, or blog post, or whatever.  I get it that you’d rather do anything right now but write.  I know the yard work and the errands and the laundry piling up suddenly seem of national importance.  But I’m on top of that, I am.  Just let me work on this draft for a few minutes, and I promise that afterwards I’ll treat us to a fresh cup of coffee and a killer crossword.”  (For those who know me at all, that’s my second marshmallow.  And when I’ve collected enough second marshmallows there’s an even bigger prize, the Big Kahuna, if you will: a finished book.)

I admit, it’s not easy.  I love writing, but some days it’s excruciating to stay in the chair.  My back hurts.  My clothes itch.  The room is too hot.  The room is too cold.  I had to train myself, starting with a few minutes each day.  And as my sessions slowly got longer, I began to look forward to my time in the chair.  Now I get so absorbed in the work that I forget the physical world exists.  But it didn’t happen overnight.  It took a lot of baby steps to get to the point where I can look up at the clock and see that three hours have gone by.  First I had to commit to getting in my writing time, no matter what.  I call it the BITCH method: Butt In The Chair, Honey.

So carve out time for your art, or whatever it is that you love and that feeds your soul.  Trick your mind.  Distract it.  Bargain with it.

And you’ll soon be enjoying your second marshmallow.