There we were, my co-workers and I, sitting on the beach on a Saturday night—they, with their beers, and I with the one can of Coke I'd been nursing all throughout the evening.
We fell to talking about the vicissitudes of digital marketing agency life and, the discussion turned towards the pain of having one’s hard work dissed by the client (and sometimes, even by one’s own colleagues). (I confess I do whine about this a lot.)
One of my fellow writers who was, for once, actually a few years older than I was (most of my co-workers being millennials) piped up and said: ‘Being older and having worked far longer than any of you here, I can tell you, you are not your work.’
I may not have had an alcoholic drop to drink, but I might as well have had for the heat with which I retorted, ‘I have a problem with that statement’.
Now, everyone is entitled to his own opinion. And in retrospect I may have understood where that co-worker of mine was coming from. Honest. But forgive me when I repeat, I really do have a problem with that statement.
Read on and let me know if you agree with me, or at least get where I’m coming from on this.
It’s what you do that defines you.
I picked that line up from one of gazillions of superhero movies I watch; maybe because I totally agree with it—just as I wholeheartedly agree with the phrase ‘talk is cheap’.
My favourite example is of the boyfriend who tells his girl he loves her, but cheats on her and beats her up. But I guess a more pertinent example would be a dad who says he’s a terrific father, but doesn’t support his kids and is never around. Get what I mean?
At that young artist’s career thingy I went to shortly before I started my art practice some 15 years ago, one of the questions posed to us was: ‘Who’s the (real) artist? The person who wears funky clothes and schmoozes at all the openings? Or the person who actually does the work in the studio?’
Having just begun my Praxis classes, I now know the importance of ‘schmoozing at all the openings’, lol—but, I’m pretty sure I got what the mentor at that workshop meant. And (partly) because of that, I resolved to not be the person who was all schmooze and no studio. I wanted to make sure I walked whatever talk I, well, talked. ^o^;
‘What do you do?’ is one of the first things people usually ask you, usually to size you up. Because for good or ill, people often equate ‘what you do’ with ‘what you are’. So I guess it all depends on all that ‘what society thinks someone is’ stuff or what ‘value’ people place on certain ‘things people do’.
A lot of people (at least where I’m from) seem to equate ‘artist’ with ‘bum’ or ‘loser’ (at least until you sell enough of your work to buy a yacht). But even without all that ‘social science’, I still agree with what Miss Dawes told Mr Wayne, even if she was basing that statement on his ostensible party animal persona.
Say you do charity work regularly, that makes you a philanthropist. If you like shooting the rapids or yanking the ripcord at the last possible second, you’re an adventurer. If you’re there for me, you understand, and you’re still there even when things get tough or ugly, you’re a friend. You are what you do, not what you say you do.
Your feelings are valid. But—
When you have children, you become a mother. Not that I have any experience in that department, but I’ve often equated painting with ‘giving birth’ to something (in my case, monsters). Last I checked, parents generally don’t like it when people diss their kids.
And I reckon this goes for pretty much anything else that people ‘do’ that involves a lot of their Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat (BTT&S). The fruit of their labour is the fruit of their loins—whether it’s a symphony, a cake, dark matter research, or making sure your customers are happy.
I have always had the greatest respect for people’s BTT&S. So much so that whenever I’ve had to edit anything other people wrote, or I’ve been asked to critique something someone made, and I know they killed themselves for it, I’m careful (to their faces, at least). I try to, you know, ‘break it to them gently’ as much as I can.
I mean, if I kill myself for something, I think I’d appreciate a little diplomacy from others—it’s the ‘do unto others’ Golden Rule, plain and simple.
I don’t know any, baker, for instance, who, after spending hours toiling over a cake, wouldn’t give a rat’s behind if somebody just came in and trashed the cake. I don’t think anybody with even an iota of human feeling would blame that baker for freaking out.
I’m not going to go into that whole ‘respect what creatives do’ thing, because that’s another ‘beer on the beach’ topic for another time. But what did come up during the beer-on-the-beach session in question, is that you shouldn’t feel bad when someone trashes your work, because you are not your work.
My knee jerk reaction (which actually is my reaction, period) is that you can’t expect somebody who gave something everything they had, not to feel anything when someone else disses that something. But apparently, feeling bad is considered immature and unprofessional.
The co-worker who posited this interesting statement to begin with, insisted that you can’t equate yourself with your work, because if you do, you get ‘used up’—spent, diminished, squandered, if you will. To which I reiterated my knee jerk reaction (which I still feel very strongly about, even in cold blood).
To which in turn, the co-worker replied that ‘my feelings were valid’. But? I don’t remember saying it or whether that co-worker did, but we were thinking it.
Whether that co-worker really was thinking it or not, I think it was then when someone else ventured to say that if you do give something everything you’ve got, that something is you.
And then someone else says, ‘Speaking as a graphic designer, if someone doesn’t like what I came up with, too bad.’ (I have a problem with this statement too, as regards commissioned work, because I think a client has the right to ‘like’ what they are paying you to do. But again, I digress.) To which everyone else seemed to concur.
Even if it is our passion.
That first co-worker, the writer, also added that the statement ‘you are not your work’ only applies relative to one’s passion. In other words, if you did something for a living that wasn’t your passion, that statement didn’t apply.
Okay, I said, this latest statement might apply to someone who had a job, let’s say, like taking out the trash. I mean, taking on odd x other jobs to make ends meet is something a lot of artists, including myself, can relate to.
Even so, what if that someone absolutely dedicated his life to finding or developing the best way to take out the trash? Was that a bad thing? Personally, I maintain that even if you had, say, a waitressing or a janitorial position, you are still what you do as regards your attitude or your professionalism on the job.
No matter how ‘humble’ what you do for a living may be, if you do your job conscientiously and you respect your stakeholders (your boss, your customers or your suppliers), then you are a professional, i.e. you are your work. For me, there’s just no getting around that, nor is there anything wrong in taking pride in what you do.
Besides, said I, writing is my passion. It’s true I’m an artist by calling and a writer by profession, but I wouldn’t have been writing for a living for over 20 years if I didn’t truly and thoroughly enjoy it. All right, says that co-worker, in what I took to be a challenge, write something that doesn’t make money.
All right, let me get this straight. If you make money off your passion, this is somehow a bad thing / wrong / ‘not really your passion’ or something? It’s true, Van Gogh and Mozart died paupers, but Picasso and Handel sure didn’t. So are Picasso and Handel some sort of fakes, then, who aren’t true to themselves somehow?
I pressed my point by asking whether it was wrong to want people to appreciate your work, especially if you worked really hard on it. Maybe public appreciation shouldn’t be your primary objective in doing what you do, but personally I see no harm in making it one of your goals, nor do I think it wrong to make money off of it.
Lots of people make money doing what they love, even if it isn’t ‘creative’ per se. And since—if you wanted to get down to brass tacks—art does involve training and expertise as well as material expenses, I think it’s only fair artists should be able to make money the same way. Even if it is ‘our passion’.
You go your way, I'll go mine.
At any rate, I stuck to my guns, at which point the graphic designer ended by saying something to the effect of ‘to each, his own’. We were about to get thrown off the beach anyway, because they had a strict ‘no one on the beach past midnight’ rule.
So the evening ended there, for me, at least (I later found out they went off to find more beer outside of the resort, lol). But I guess for me that evening really ends here with this post.
I remember getting worked up during that discussion, during which time I brought up this famous author who I remember said something like, once you bring something out into the world, it’s no longer yours. That makes it ‘okay’ for people to do whatever they like with it—put their own spin on it and make it theirs—or trash it, too, I guess.
But personally, I find it hard to disassociate myself from my work. The writer who brought all this up to begin with said that was not what the original statement was, i.e. you are not your work. To me, if you are not your work, that means you work on something, then separate, i.e. disassociate yourself from it.
It’s true there are mothers out there who are able to give their children up (for whatever reason), but I’m afraid that I, in spite of never having been a mother in the literal sense, am not one of them.
Oh it’s true, I have some paintings and drawings I wish I hadn’t made x I think could’ve made better, or never finished, and therefore I care less about them than I do the others. (So, like some mothers x parents, I do have my favourites, so sorry.)
But I do care a lot about my work, and consequently, about what people say about my work. To be sure, not all of what they say turn out to be rave reviews. But that makes me that much more grateful and appreciative of any kind words said about it, especially when they’re said by strangers or people who know.
And like a mama dog who has to part with her puppies, I am happy whenever my work is able to find a good home.
I get it. But I don’t. I mean I do. But I don’t.
For the life of me, I have never understood the sentence, ‘Don’t take it personally’. It’s like telling someone who gets their foot stepped on by somebody, not to say ‘Ouch’. Maybe you don’t go out and declare a vendetta against that somebody. But your foot still hurts.
Is it wrong to express your pain? Are your feelings not ‘valid’?
It’s true, there are ‘mature’ and ‘professional’ ways to handle criticism and haters. I’m not going to go into ‘constructive criticism’ here—I think we all know the difference between criticism that really is meant to be helpful because the critic truly cares about your personal development, and criticism that isn’t.
I like to think that I really and truly do get the well-intentioned declarations of my fellow creatives on the team. And honestly, I admire them for being able to distance—not disassociate—themselves from their work, which allows them to act ‘professionally’ and take everything at our fast-paced workplace in stride.
To them, we shouldn’t get riled up at every little thing clients have to say about our work, and that hey, as long as you like your work, that’s all that counts. (Provided, of course, your clients are delighted with your work in the end.)
Because if you don’t like your own work, then who will, lol. Heck even my own mother doesn’t like everything I paint. So the ‘not getting affected by every little thing someone says about your work’ thing, I do agree with.
Besides, said that writer once during our day-to-day, we just don’t have the energy to waste on nit-picky clients. I admired that writer for that, and wished I had just as much control over the expenditure of my own energy.
Hatty was right.
But the fact remains that I believe in doing your best in whatever you happen to be doing—whether it’s a painting, an article, playing the harmonica, weaving a tapestry, or chopping bricks with your bare hands. If you’re going to do something, you might as well do it well, right?
Doing something well involves some sort of investment on your part—your time, your brain juice, your BTT&S. I may be wrong, but sue me if I can’t help feeling a little sore when someone says they don’t like it, or chops it up with the result of it being worse (not better) than it was.
Well, to paraphrase Hatty Doran-Hay Moulton in Conan Doyle’s Noble Bachelor, we can’t command our feelings, but we can our actions. So yes, there are ‘better’ ways to respond to criticism. We can receive it graciously and with thanks, because hey, at least they took the time to check out our work, right? (At least, hopefully they did.)
Because the fact is we can’t please everybody, and as artists, we’ve got to be true to ourselves. So this means that there’ll always be someone who doesn’t think your magnum opus is the greatest thing ever, even if you think it is ^o^;
I guess what my well-meaning co-workers meant to say is that if someone doesn’t like your work, it’s the work they don’t like, and not you, personally. I guess what I’m trying to say that is the line between you and your work becomes super-duper-uber-ultraelectromagnetically blurred when you put that much of yourself into it.
I’ll drink to that.
So what’s to be done? Does this mean that you shouldn’t give things your best, so as to avoid getting hurt? I remember bringing that point up because after all, people who don’t care about what they’re doing can afford to be not affected.
Of course not. At least, not where my art is concerned, anyway.
For my part, I plan to keep trying to do the best I can with every watercolour, acrylic, oil painting or drawing I produce. I know that not everybody will like it, but as long as I like it (and God likes it, hopefully), then that’s good enough for me.
And all I can do is to keep trying my best to accept what people say about my work, good or bad, the way God would like me to. (But if it’s bad, don’t expect me to throw a party or anything ^O^***)
I know, of course, that I am not physically my work—my work is canvas, or paper, and paint, ink or pastels, and I’m, well, BTT&S ^o^ And I guess it’s a romantic (or downright silly) thing to suppose that, like us, who are made in the image and likeness of God, paintings, concertos, tapestries and velvet flowers have a soul as well as a body.
But I, for one, find it difficult, when I see something like Hayez’ Crucifixion with Mary Magdalene, or read Shakespeare and think that I’m seeing nothing but oils and printed text. Or that when you hear a violin concerto, you’re just hearing horsehair rubbing on sheep’s guts. I don’t know. That’s just me.
Am I wrong? Am I taking this ‘too personally’? Why should I even care? Let me know, and allow me to thank you in advance for whatever you might say ^_^
I don't purport to know everything. Yet if the little I do know can be of any help, you are more than welcome to it.