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Taking People at Their Word


image via freevintageillustrations.com

It’s easy to get discouraged. The truth is, creating is scary and difficult, and we’ll cling to any excuse that tells us not to create, share, or reach out, if it saves us the pain of rejection and embarrassment. Even for those of us with a powerful creative drive, this can be a near-constant struggle. One of the subtle ways we “get out of” this painful business is to pre-emptively imagine rejection where there isn’t any (yet).

For example, if someone offers to help you, follow up with them. Don’t let it slide because you’ve told yourself they were only saying it to be nice and didn’t really mean it. Similarly, if someone asks for news about your upcoming events, send it to them (add them to your email list, for example, and don’t be afraid to send messages to that list when you have something big coming up). A lot of people I know seem afraid to use their email lists, because they don’t want to bother people, but if people signed up for the list, it was because they want to hear from you. Take them at their word. As Jennifer and Julia of iCadenza explain in their great book, Awakening Your Business Brain, many artists are afraid of being "that guy" who promotes himself too much, but the reality is they often overcorrect in the other direction, despite direct requests from fans to hear more from them!

Similarly, if someone turns you down for something, take them at their word when they tell you why. If you detect a pattern over time, it means you probably need to change something; but if someone simply says they’re too busy, try to accept them at their word (and reread my blog post on rejections). Attempting to read the tea leaves to find the hidden reasons behind a simple rejection won’t result in an improvement in your work; it will only paralyze you further. Even if it is a reflection on your work, there’s too little information in the polite and vague rejection to make a meaningful reassessment; instead of trying to read your rejector’s mind, ask a trusted friend to look over your work and give you honest feedback. (This is great advice that I received from another author friend.)

Finally, if an agent or a venue or another place you want to reach out to has an open call for submissions on their website, take them at their word that they want to hear from you! That doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed success, but it does mean there’s no use sitting on your hands, asking yourself if they really want to hear from you (as long as you meet the stated guidelines of what they’re looking for).

In short, don’t say no to yourself on anyone else’s behalf. Not only will this enhance your creative career, it will also strengthen your relationship with your audience. Self-doubt and uncertainty come with the territory for many creators, but we have to find ways to work through those emotions (sometimes with professional help) so they don’t seep into our interactions with fans in a negative way. It’s okay to expose our fragility, and let our fans “see the brushstrokes”--there’s something beautifully human in admitting to your readers that you’re struggling. But there's a fine line between being beautifully honest, and outsourcing your self-care to your audience. The former can bring you closer together, while the latter can leave audience members feeling drained themselves.

This is where our creative communities become so important. They are the key to balancing our need for reassurance, our demands on our audience, our abilitly to be honest about our struggles with insecurity, and our courage to take risks. You are not weak or stupid for feeling insecure, even in the face of affirmation. You are also not weak or stupid for seeking help in overcoming those feelings. Here are a few ways to learn how to better take people at their word:

Prioritize self-care. Artists of all stripes are infamous for neglecting their emotional health and even living in a cycle of self-abuse. But you don't have to be that way to be a good artist. If you struggle severely with self-doubt and insecurity, seek professional help, be it from a therapist, counselor, life coach, or support group. It's okay. Think of it like learning how to train a muscle, or taking an exercise class to improve your form.

Appoint a few cheerleaders. I've mentioned "creativity cheerleaders" before. It's important to have a few people who can offer you praise and excitement. Sometimes we get that from our audience, too, but at our lowest moments it helps to have a small, personal community of "cheerleaders" to turn to privately when things seem dark and audience response is uncertain. Don't be afraid to ask someone, "Hey, can you read this short story and give me some encouragement?" Try it.

Live up to your own offers to others. It helps us learn to trust others more when we emulate the behavior we wish to see in them. If you're feeling down about something, instead of stewing on it see if you can go out and be the kind of person you wish to encounter more often. Offer to read a friend's manuscript or attend someone's event. Support a local artist by sharing their work, or simply offer them a few encouraging words of your own. You may discover yourself in the center of the creative community you'd been seeking all along.

My assignment to you, dear readers, is to go back into your memory bank and think of one offer that you were afraid to accept--you know there's at least one--and follow up on it this week. Don't be afraid if it's been a while. Maybe the offer has expired. But let the offerer be the one to tell you that. Be gentle and respectful, but also be brave.

Every Wednesday, I share action-oriented tips for building arts communities. View all the community-building posts here. 

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