This is a photo of John Henry eating a peach that he swiped in the grocery store and not caring. At all. I want to be more like John Henry.
It’s not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood. — Theodore Roosevelt
Most of us know this brilliant quote, this IDEA, by the first President Roosevelt. It is a big thought, and one that is indispensable for those of us who do a lot, for those of us who make things and then send them out into the world to be judged.
I don’t enjoy being criticized. I especially don’t enjoy it when the criticism isn’t constructive. This character trait makes me different from almost no one on the planet.
Early in my career, I read every review and haunted the message board on my own website, craving feedback, grabbing for approval. It was a bad idea to be wrapped up in what people said about me, whether they were professional critics, people in the industry, consumers, or people I knew personally. The business of entertainment is full of us, those who didn’t get enough of either feedback or approval, or both, in their childhoods — one of my theories about why certain people become performers in the first place is to get those things they didn’t get enough of — let’s just all agree that the stage doesn’t draw the most well-adjusted people. But I digress, as I usually do in this space. Let me pull it back on track… I did adopt, really quickly, the idea that if I was going to attach any worth to a positive review or appraisal that I had to do the same for lukewarm or negative ones, but detaching from critiques of one’s work is a nearly impossible thing to do. There’s a reason why we can hear ninety-nine great things and one bad one and we remember the bad one — we’re insecure, and we’re looking for confirmations to bolster that comfortable spot of self-loathing because if we changed it who would we be and how would we operate? Yikes.
Detaching from critiques of one’s character is just as hard. Last year I put a photograph and celebratory/appreciative Father’s Day post of H. and John Henry on Instagram. It was an adorable photo, and one I thought demonstrated their relationship perfectly — they’re comfortable and easy and they dig each other. I often say that John Henry likes H. better than he likes me and that may very well be true. But anyway, someone just couldn’t keep himself from posting something quite shitty in the comments — something about John Henry’s father/my ex-husband, etc. — something the comment vomiting person knows absolutely shit point zero about, mind you. I fought that war. I have the scars. The commenter had no idea what he was speaking of and it made me mad. I got over it, as I do, but I still wonder why people feel the need to be nasty, especially when they have no relationship to the person they’re being nasty to and generally have no knowledge of the subject they’re going on about. Why do we feel the need to be so harsh and critical of others? I know now that it’s because we generally hate ourselves, and that if we’re being mean to someone else then it’s probably at least ten times worse when we talk to our own hearts. I’m guilty. I hate it.
Now, only four-and-a-half months out from the release of my first memoir and accompanying EP, I can’t help but think about what people are going to think and say about my work. I feel like it’s twenty-almost-one years ago and Alabama Song is getting ready to hit the streets. Will they think I’m a hack writer who should stick to music and will they say that? Will they think I’m too sentimental about my family? Will they think I’m too forgiving or worse, that I’m not forgiving enough?
Will I care?
The thing is, I know I did my best work. I did the best work I could do at the time that I did it and now (I finished it almost two years ago) it seems far away. It’s time to go back into it though, to talk about it, to embody it in some way. And some part of me is scared to do that. Not only is the subject matter tough to talk about, it strips me bare. I feel a special kind of vulnerability showing the world my story in this way. Yet, I had to do it. It is my job to tell these stories. Writing it all down was as essential as breathing. And as an artist, it is my job, after I’ve made a thing, to let it go into the world and do what it will do — to hold up a mirror for anyone who wants to look into one. I think I stopped making art because I wanted anything in return a while ago. I do it now because it just isn’t optional. But I’m still human — I still feel it like a corkscrew to the heart (yep, been listening to that one… he knows a thing or two about criticism).
I try to remember that I’m in the arena. Maybe I’ll leave it one day, but today I’m not ready to go. I’ve had countless conversations about the risky business of hanging your own ass out to dry in the form of a song, film, book, play, painting, drawing, or pot of soup. It’s a lot easier, I suppose, to do nothing and wait on others to produce something to suck on a pencil over. But I didn’t sign up for easy. Not this time.
I try to remember I’m in the arena. Every day.
Peace and love and happy Wednesday,