“It has nothing to do with me.”
“But it must hurt you?”
“Why would it? It has nothing to do with me.”
That’s a back and forth the writer and academic Umberto Eco had when being interviewed about critics and criticism, on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs.
So, I’m John Fanning and this is the Create with John Fanning podcast.
How’s it goin out there? Hope all is well.
This is Episode 32 of my series of episodes on the Imagination, based around my book Create. Also, if this is your first time to the podcast please go back and listen to some of the earlier episodes to get an idea about where I’m coming from on process and everything else and especially as regards to the differentiation between Walls and Doors towards and away from the Imagination and creativity.
Last time I spoke about voice and vocation, but today I want to talk about feedback and community.
It’s hard to share something you’ve created. It’s personal. It’s like saying, Here, this is something from inside me, from my tripes, as they say in France, from my emotional guts. And when someone doesn’t understand, get, or like what you’ve put out in front of you, on a page, canvas, it’s hard to hear negative feedback because it’s your inner life, something important to you.
And at the end of the day it’s exactly what Eco said in that conversation I quoted, “Why would you let the criticism hurt you? It has nothing to do with you.” It’s like the Dude says in the Cohen Brother’s movie The Big Lebowski:
Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.
I could talk about criticism and negativity again, about trolls and crazy makers, but I covered that more in depth back in episode 12. Right now, I want to talk about what I think is a solution, a Door towards creation, that is, community.
Community comes from a latin word which means “shared in common”. So how do you know who your people are? They share a common need and love for the same things as you. Which means you have to find your people. Peers. Mentors. They will give you insights, encouragement, support, kindness, gentleness when you’re down. Community helps you with the inevitable wall of rejection and failure. Your creative identity and sense of purpose will be transformed because you will inspire and validate each other.
Not every creator wants to make money from what they create, but every creator enjoys being around other creators who love what they love doing. Some of your community will create without every trying or even thinking of capitalizing on it. Some will create to make money. Whichever it is, community helps, and all the more if you want to make money from your creations, because other creators in your field will help you move forward with that too.
For example, do you live in the middle of nowhere? Then create a group online and go meet them, once a month. La Muse, again, the retreat I founded with my wife Kerry nearly 20 years ago, is in the middle of nowhere. People go there from all over the world. It doesn’t matter where you are. If it’s a mountain retreat like La Muse, with walking trails all over the place and silence, then you’ll find people on the same wavelength as you because they have the same loves. They don’t want to be in an urban setting. They like trees. They like France. To find your people, sometimes you have to leave where you are.
Shakespeare had a community. They helped him make his work better in the provinces before the king ever got a chance to see one of his plays. He acted with these people, owned a business with them (The Globe Theater), took money at the door from creatives, before he ever wrote a play. He had friends to support his creations. His plays didn’t just drop down from the sky on his desk fully formed. He got experience by creating with a very supportive creative community.
The French New Wave, the American Beat Generation, the Bloomsbury Group, the American Folk music revival, the Impressionists, the Scandinavian Dogme 95. These are just a few examples of many communities that helped each other, inspired each other to create great works. These artists, creators, filmmakers, writers, didn’t come out of a vacuum. They had community that created conversation, dialogue, feedback and inspiration and enthusiasm.
Cafes, universities, cities. And now, conferences, book festivals, courses, book groups, workshops. These places can bless you with your people. And there are countless meet up groups online.
The saying, “You lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.” Here the fleas are beneficial. Whether you’re into creating business plans or novels, people on the same wavelength will help you enjoy being a creator in your field because you are surrounded by people doing the same thing. By simply hanging around with people in the same field as you you feel more comfortable, more inspired to create even more. Simply having another creator in the neighborhood, across the river from you, in the next town, makes you aware of your own creation, spurs you on to create even more, because it’s normalized, naturally encouraged.
An example: nearly very retreat at La Muse someone pulls an all-nighter writing and is exhausted for two days. They would have gotten the same work done in two days. Now they miss out on the next day’s work, and feel depressed. When they realize this, there is always another creator on retreat to help them through it. It could be something as simple as, “Oh, I did that last week.” Or, “I used to do that all the time.” It starts a dialogue, and usually both people learn something from it.
Community also helps with the process of withdrawing from the world. It doesn’t seem so bizarre when you have another ten people from all over the world across the corridor, above you, beside you, doing the same thing. It doesn’t seem weird to write every day if you meet three other writers in a coffee shop to talk about writing, agents, characters, life as a creator. It doesn’t seem weird any more when you meet other creators at car shows, business conferences, gallery openings, wool stores.
So, if you want to get inspired, find other creators on the same inspirational path, because a pilgrimage can become boring and uninspiring without other pilgrims. Find your people. Get feedback before you send a creation out into the world. Find your beta readers. Find your mentors. They’ll make you look better by helping to make your creations better.
I just talked about retreats, and I also talked about it more in Episode 24. However, if you can’t get enough done on a retreat then maybe find community in a course or program near where you live. You don’t have to abandon your family, but you will need their support.
For example, in writing it could be a low-residency MFA. That way you can still do your 40 hour a week job but advance your creative passion by going away twice a year for a week or so to be around mentors and people, other writers on the same wavelength trying to do the same thing. As friends have told me, an MFA is not for business, or making connections, unless you go to a very established program, and even then it’s not always a given. Contacts, connections in those programs is to meet people, a community who will inspire you to write, to create, people who will be there when that nasty Walls eventually rise in front of you, as they always do, the negative voice that says: You’re no good at this, and you never will be. Stop. Now.
The important thing is one, that you learn from your mistakes, but two, you also learn from other people’s mistakes. Much of the same problems in one person’s creation can be seen in another’s too. With community we learn to grow, together. At the very least you learn to eradicate the most common mistakes from your work, things it may have taken you years to discover on your own. I am a classic example of this. As I said in an earlier episode I never went to an MFA. I didn’t even know what they were back in Ireland, because they didn’t exist there. So, it’s been a long two decades of making many of the same mistakes over and over to get to the realization of, Oh, ok, right, I’m not going to do that again. And it’s not just the mistakes either. With community we can see the positive aspects of other people’s creations. We can go, Why the hell didn’t I think of that? Why can’t I do that with a book of mine? Rejection, criticism is no longer an enemy then. It becomes a learning tool. We all make the same mistakes, but not always at the same time, so it’s important to see someone else make mistakes so you don’t, or for them to see you make mistakes for them to learn.
Another thing: Look for feedback, but only from people you trust. It’s not personal. If you get feedback it means someone is taking your creation seriously. You’re inspiring them to respond, or react.
You feed your community — other creators and creatives — your work, so that they can give you back constructive criticism. Not criticism. Constructive criticism. You don’t want creative negators in your community. You want people you can trust. When they give you feedback, let it be what a Norwegian writer on retreat at La Muse once called a “critical sandwich”. If you’re going to give negative criticism, at the very least point out all the positive things first, then get to the meat, the center of the sandwich, the actual point you want to get across. And when you end, remind them again about all the positive things you got from their work. If they’re a mansplainer it won’t matter what kind of a sandwich you give them, they’ll only see your effort to help, as negative.
As I said, you can’t function in a vacuum. You have to see how you’re doing. Ask your peers. Creators, after a retreat at La Muse, often create a creative community to talk about their music, writing, surfing, cooking, from anywhere to a cafe to a kitchen or book group. As John Donne once wrote, no man is an island. As opposed to being a creator, you become a co-creator. A lot of writers on retreat end up reading each others work — beta readers. They’ll go back to Maine or Dublin or Melbourne and create a writers group that meets once a month, to listen, read and give feedback.
Stephen King, one of the last people you would think needs beta readers, has his wife Tabitha and many others. He knows they will find flaws in what he thinks is perfect, because none of us are perfect.
Tolstoy rewrote the beginning of “War and Peace” fifteen times, over the period of a year, until he got it where he wanted it. Of course, his wife, Sofya, who re-copied out everything for him, was there as his first beta reader.
Community is one thing, but people you spend nearly every day with is completely different. You “commune” with them in a different way. And oftentimes it is these people who empower you to embrace your creative community. When I said in an earlier episode that I go on retreats to write I don’t do it on my own. My wife encourages me, literally “gives me the heart”, to go. She tells me I need to leave, now. She does this out of love because she can, as they say in Ireland, see it on me, the need to create.
She’s supported me so much that I can voice these words, these ideas. Who do you think is minding our kids right now as I speak this? When I went to my office to write my Create book she was with our kids, homeschooling all three of them. She sees life as a whole, as a co-creative venture, and our children as the most creative thing she’s ever done. She was a magazine editor in New York and wrote for “The New York Times”. She used to write poetry. Now she creates wonderful meals, rooms, renovates with me, crochets, gardens, and nurtures our children. She says she will return to her writing and I know she will. As she puts it, right now she’s writing in her head.
When my novels were getting rejected by editors, she encouraged me to keep writing. When I don’t want to write, she encourages me to go to the office. She was the first person to tell me: “John, you don’t need to be published to be a writer. You write. You keep doing it. You’re a writer. Why do you need the world to tell you what you know you are already?”
You will need someone to share it all with. Why? Because life, especially a creative life can get lonely. And you want someone there to talk to about your loneliness, hopefully as much as you listen to them talk about theirs. I’m not saying it’s easy to find someone, and I’ve seen a lot of people choose the wrong partner and swim around in misery but if not a partner then friends, a community, your people.
For the most part, it is women who suffer the burden of not being able to create. I met women every retreat who had finally created space-time to get back to creating, writing again, painting again. Why is this? Because like my wife they see the twenty years it takes to create a human being, “to get them up on their feet” as one woman once told me, as the most important creation there is. Only when their kids are gone to college do they feel comfortable, free to leave. Cleaning, teaching, feeding, counseling, encouraging, driving, and loving: that’s full-time creation.
Sometimes a woman in her thirties with small kids will go to La Muse. How is that possible? Because the father has encouraged her to go. So, there are encouraging husbands, but no way as many as there are encouraging wives. I know. I saw who went to La Muse for the last twenty years.
Don’t believe me? What about Marie Curie, Cleopatra, Simone de Beauvoir, Eleanor Roosevelt, Coretta Scott King, Rachel Robinson, Yoko Ono, June Carter Cash? There are so many. These women are wonderful creators in their own rights. But they were not just wives. They were also great creators who encouraged and supported their lovers and spouses to create. Indeed, would those men have been as “great” without them?
Encouragement is one thing, humor is another. If you find the person or people who encourage you most, then they’ll probably make you laugh the most too, especially when things are very difficult, when it all seems like a farce. Everything today has gotten super serious, from gender to climate change to nuclear proliferation to pandemics. It’s hard right now.
And what’s the thing that can keep us from going crazy? Having a good laugh. By laughing at how ridiculous it all is, this world, at how ridiculous we are in the privacy of our brains, then we release stress and anxiety. When we laugh with others, and laugh at ourself then we relieve tension. Everyone talks about how important it is to cry, to allow feelings and emotions to come up and out of us. It’s also important to cry with laughter. I find that there’s a lot of seriousness when I get out of Ireland. I think the Irish are famous for craic, not because they drink so much, but because they know how to laugh at themselves and with others. For the most part they don’t take themselves too seriously. They had a colonizer for nearly 800 years being serious with them. How are they supposed to take things so serious after that?
Mediocrity and malice can’t fight humor. When we laugh at the stupidity of political or cultural pretentiousness then we release ourselves from it. We free ourselves from the seriousness of it all but at the same time comment on it, without someone killing us for it, as Shaw put it. If we don’t laugh at political fools then how will we ever get them out of office. If we don’t laugh at the fools we encounter in whatever creative world we work in then we won’t be able to deal with them, or continue our work because it will all be too serious and morose.
Even here away from La Muse I have friends who encourage me by email to continue doing this podcast. They are few, but a Longfellow once said somewhere, Friends are like books, I’d rather have one or two great ones than a library of bad ones!
So who are your creator friends and mentors. Who encourages you? Who makes you laugh? Who allows you to play? Hang around with them more. Create a community.
So thanks for listening. I started with what I think is a quote from an Irish writer, but as always I’m going to end the episode with an Irish proverb. This one means:
There is no strength without unity.
Ní neart go cur le chéile.
This podcast is supported by you the listener via my Patreon page. It aint no radio show. There’s no advertisers etc. paying for this, which is great because nobody’s telling me what I should and shouldn’t say or think. Independent. If ya want to support the podcast and help me get paid for doing it then please head over to patreon.com/johnfanning where you can get early and ad free access as well as extra episodes when ya sign up. Ifya can afford it then give me the cost of a price of a cup of tea or pint once a month. Ifya can’t afford it that’s grand too, ya can listen for free, but please subscribe to it on iTunes or wherever you listen to it and leave a review on itunes too or wherever ya listen to it and let your friends know about it so the listenership grows. Thank you! And thanks for listening. If you’re looking for more episodes you can find them on all the usual places like iTunes – or on my website at johnfanning.me under “podcast” where I’ve put up overview transcripts with links to all the people and ideas I mention. If you’re into social stuff and you’re looking to engage with me one-on-one, check me out on twitter @fanning_j and instagram @ johnfanning_. It’s been great sharing stuff with you today so until next time take care out there and do the work but above all be benevolent when you can!
Slán libh agus go n-éirí an bóthar libh.