Warning: this post contains some raw honesty and some bad jokes. I have committed to the honesty, and the jokes are an attempt to cover it up. I hope they fail.
We’re at that point in the term where my students suddenly run for the hills. Not because they can’t stand me (I hope) but because it’s WORKSHOP time. They’ve written their first draft scripts and now we’re at the point where they need to start editing – and that means sharing, asking for other people’s opinions, and taking on board the feedback they get.
Lots of them would rather find any number of outlandish excuses to miss these sessions, and class numbers diminish appallingly at this time of year. They would rather hand in an unedited, rough first draft that they’ve cobbled together at the last minute, than have their work put under the spotlight. And I don’t blame them one bit.
Creativity is exposing. You make something – a painting, poem, short story, screenplay, novel, song … and in your head, it’s not bad. It expresses something that you want to say, that feels interesting and new – perhaps it’s entertaining, or emotive, or thought-provoking – and you hope that it will chime with someone else. Perhaps. Maybe. But you’ve really only created it for you, to start with. And that’s fine.
But then you have to ‘share’ it. Because, let’s face it, hardly any of us are going to create something and stick it in a drawer, dusting off our hands and saying ‘Well, I’m glad I got THAT out of my system! Now I’d better do something sensible.’ We want to take it somewhere – get some opinions, maybe some suggestions for improving it, and you never know, someone might really love it.
That’s what we tell ourselves, anyway. Secretly, though, we’re hoping someone will more than love it – that they’ll properly ‘get’ it, and tell us we’ve done a good job, and maybe ask where the next project is. Validation. Encouragement. A nod, a smile, a positive comment. (Deep down, we’re also hoping someone might, one day, love it enough to pay us money for more of it. But that’s jumping ahead – let’s get some good comments first.)
And this is where we so often fall at the first fence, because the fear of the negative comments can be so overwhelming that it’s easier to leave that project in a drawer or cupboard – protecting it and ourselves from possible damage. ‘Why the fuck would I put my ‘thing’ – the product of all those hours of thought and work – out there to be knocked down, laughed at, misunderstood, CRUSHED?’
Criticism can come in many forms: an actual bad review, out there for everyone to see (your worst nightmare, basically); an email from the competition you submitted to saying ‘Sorry, you didn’t make it through this time.’ How many times have we heard the hollow reassurance that ‘the standard was very high and we had thousands of submissions’? An agent saying ‘I love your stuff, but my books are full at the moment – keep in touch.’ (Encouraging, but actually not, really.) A list of reasons why it’s not very good. Sometimes, a few helpful suggestions as to what could be changed or worked on.
Basically, everything that’s not a resounding ‘OMG, this is the best thing I’ve ever seen, it’s going to change the world forever, come and collect your Oscar/Bafta/Booker/Turner Prize and enormous cheque RIGHT NOW’ is going to be a disappointment.
And of course that’s crazy, and wildly exaggerated, but there’s a grain of truth in it – for me, anyway. I promised this post would be vulnerable, and here it is: I dream of that success, I want it NOW, and anything less than that is going to hurt. Except that of course I am realistic, and able to be more practical and sensible. I aim for targets I think I can reach and use a lot of mindset and coping mechanisms to keep pushing towards them. But that doesn’t mean the dream isn’t there.
In order to strive for success, recognition, understanding, validation … we have to be vulnerable and visible. Show up, sweaty-palmed, and show what we’ve got. Pretend to be brave and laugh off the negative comments, if they come. Just like we did in the playground or classroom when we were kids, and the piece of work we’d done suddenly became the butt of everyone’s jokes.
My personal experience? A felt horse that I made in a sewing class at junior school. (They’d probably call it ‘craft’ now, but this was an all girls school and we learned sewing. I can sew on a button now but that’s about it.) It was a hot summer afternoon. The windows were open and there was a breeze nudging the trees outside. I was in my summer uniform dress, jumper tied around my waist. My hair was in bunches and one sock was permanently falling down because the elastic had snapped.
My horse wasn’t very good. I am seriously the first person to admit that. But the teacher thought it was so bad, she’d make an example of it, so she held it up in front of the rest of the class, mocked all of its faults – its legs were wonky, the eyes a bit uneven and there were a few holes where the stuffing was coming out – made the class laugh at it with her and then asked me to come up and collect it. Talk about the walk of shame.
I was nine.
I hadn’t even asked for her opinion! She’d picked it out of the box and decided to make an example of it. Or me. I didn’t know if it was personal or not, but that was the end of my sewing career. And while that didn’t really matter (see ‘buttons are all you need’, above) that feeling of raw exposure, mockery and spite made me want to hide, and cry those hot, thick tears that make your head pound. Made me both frightened and reluctant to put anything out there, in case I felt like that again. Why would anyone want to put themselves in the line of fire, ever, if that was one of the potential responses? A ‘creative monster’ stamps on our ideas, probably when we’re still young and definitely vulnerable, and thus begins the journey of self-doubt and fear or exposure.
I’ve been thinking a lot about being vulnerable, recently. I’ve been taking a few amazing courses and working with some incredible people on how to tackle some of these fears, and the layers that we build up over them in order to justify staying stuck – but safe – where we are. Over the years I’ve built up a good line in humour, using a clever joke to make people laugh but keep the barriers in place. I’ve become adept at putting myself down first, before someone else can get their shot in. I’m afraid to show my raw side because it pulls a string that takes me straight back to that classroom, and honestly those tears of shame aren’t far off. So I’m working through these memories and fears, and using the power of forgiveness to move on, and upwards, and stepping into my vulnerability to CELEBRATE it.
Because the inescapable fact that keeps revealing itself to me is that when we are vulnerable, honest, raw, brave … that’s where the gold is. The best ideas, the strongest creative spark, and the truth. The building blocks for work that truly is going to resonate with other people, because it comes from a place of honesty, authenticity and, probably, some pain. That’s what others will connect with.
Of course, this is the real world and we’re not always going to get positive feedback. Sometimes criticism will be harsh, difficult to take and might set us back. Again, vulnerability: I got a rejection last year that stopped me writing anything AT ALL for six months. Not because it was cruel, or unwarranted, but its tone was dismissive and patronising, and it contained nothing constructive to work on. I found it incredibly damaging and it took a while to recover from – and part of that was telling myself I was a pathetic snowflake and I needed to grow a tougher skin. But insulting myself wasn’t the answer, either (no shit!) Again, I needed to work through my fears, reassure my fearful nine-year-old and find that core of honesty and self-belief that would allow me to get back on the metaphorical horse (wonky legs, squint and all). I’m saddling up now …
So I would urge you – as I do with my students – to stay in the room. To be brave, place some faith in human nature and trust that the process is moving us forward. If we’re lucky, we’ll get some helpful, constructive feedback. I work very hard at doing that, with my students and writing clients: doing everything I can to understand where the idea is coming from, what the writer intends, and helping them to move closer to achieving that. In a respectful, loving AND constructive way. And my writing courses are solidly based around helping and encouraging the writer holistically – not just with practical tools but with emotional, mindset support too.
As a small, starter exercise in sharing, I’d love to hear who your early creative monster was. Call them out! Name them! Tell the story. It’s a big step forward. If you’re not there already, join my Facebook group here and use the hashtag #creativemonster. It might feel exposing but I promise you – as I promise my shy writing students – you’ll feel a whole lot better for doing it.
Really. And Truly. No kidding.
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