When you are a creative person pursuing your writing, art, or craft, not as a hobby, but as a vocation that you are passionate about, and which gives your life that all important meaning and motivation, there are times when you will be forced to have conversations with members of the public or acquaintances about your creative work that can make you wince, cringe, quail, quiver and squirm with ‘beam me up Scottie’ pleadings for release.
But there is no disappearing act you can do, especially if you are pinned in a workshop, or you’re at a gallery event, or you’re sitting at your post behind your craft table at a fair (and I’ve done all three). So you have to answer awkward questions as best you can, and you frequently find yourself making a hash of it, at least in your own eyes. Not being an egotistical type, you’re too self-effacing, or you’re too aware of what they might think of you, or how you might sound coming out with your ‘drivel’, or you’re too hesitant. Being too careful not to sound full of yourself you come across sounding quite the opposite. And I’ve found there is usually a pattern to this with the same kinds of questions asked about the writing, the art, or the craft respectively, so I thought I’d look at each in turn as dialogue scenarios.
Conversation you don’t want on Writing
Scenario: You’ve written a novel and you have told people because you felt you needed them to understand what you’ve been doing with your time and because you’ve already told them you were writing one, because it is now part of who you are and what you do, and you wanted to share that with them. You were able to previously tell them what it is about by using your strapline or memorising your blurb. And now, you naturally want to tell them you’ve finished to forever stop the question ‘Have you finished it, yet?’ being asked. Perfectly reasonable, but then what? This is what can happen:
Them: You’ve just told them you’ve finished it. They don’t react much. Instead they say very quickly, Have you got a publisher?
You: You cringe and swear inwardly – then bite the bullet and start explaining I have tried, (cringe again) but it’s very difficult, there are so many writers out there, I am trying to get an agent (cringe again), while I do the final editing, but we’ll see, I’ll self publish if necessary…gabble gabble…digging big hole while they look confused, or they glaze over, or even worse, they look embarrassed. Maybe there’re thinking what’s the point of writing a book if you can’t get a publisher – why would you? The result of this vibe is that you can wonder the same, letting it diminish you.
Them: How long will it all take? As I’ve addressed in a previous post, people can be very driven by how long things take to do. Watch out for this!
You: Oh well, I’ll spend this year trying to get an agent or a publisher –
Them, interrupting: A year!! Delivered with high-pitched incredulity.
You: Yes, and even if I manage to get a publisher, it’ll take at least another year before it gets out there in print.
Them: They shake their head, God!
You: Feeling deflated and defeated you change the subject, hopefully feeling not quite desperate enough to turn to the weather.
How you could tackle it instead
Remind yourself that the only people who know the real struggle and market forces at work are other writers. Don’t expect the general public, acquaintances, or even relatives (maybe especially relatives!) to have much of a clue. Don’t set yourself up to have to explain. Keep it short, keep it simple.
Them: Have you got a publisher?
You: I’m working on that, but I may self publish.
Them: Oh, can you do that?
You: Yes, it’s quite common these days. Actually, I think it might be quite exciting.
(So we have a positive tone, and an upbeat ending, with the chance to expand on self publishing knowledge if you wish. If you don’t want to do this, then try to take the tone of your voice down in pitch to close off further enquiry. Sometimes, they may realise someone they know must have published their book this way, and somehow that suddenly makes it acceptable to them, not that it has to matter to you.)
Conversation you don’t want on Art/Painting
Scenario: You’re at a gallery open evening with a friend who wanted you to come despite your reluctance, or you’re at a workshop or a training day of some kind and you have to say who you are and what you do. You try to keep it simple but it always seems to go wrong.
Them: What kind of art do you do?
You: You think, here we go again, perfectly valid question, but why do I find it so difficult to answer this? You have a go. I do nature, and illustration…plants, animals, that kind of thing, but more decorative.. but it doesn’t sound right in your own hearing, and you don’t think they are getting an accurate idea of what you do, and this is very important to you because, after all, you are an artist, so you expand – I do watercolour –
Them, interrupting: Oh, watercolour! I love watercolour! I do that sometimes myself. I just love the freedom of it, but my colours always end up muddy, I can never get it how I like it.
You: You know exactly the kind of painting they are talking about. Wet into wet, and probably landscape, which is what watercolour is for most people…but you know it can be used in so many ways and controlled and layered for botanical detail, as per its original historical use, and for many other subjects, so you balk…one of your buttons is triggered and you have to explain…Yes, well I use it for detail, decorative detail, using nature for stimuli (you cannot stand the overworked and overused word ‘inspiration’ any longer in your lifetime.)
Them: Oh. Silent puzzlement, then a new tack, Do you sell much?
You: You curse inwardly, but you don’t lie, you’re not the type. Well, sometimes I get illustration commissions, they’re nice, they’re the best. And I do cards and prints…and sometimes I sell in a gallery or two…
Them: They are frowning now, looking dubiously at you. But do you make a living at it?
You: No, its more part time (and you know that’s putting it in the best possible light) You now change the subject, no longer caring about them getting an accurate picture of what you do at all.
Them: If you’re really unlucky, they will go on to tell you about a friend who makes a good living as a children’s book illustrator or an artist near them who ‘does very well’.
Cue dejection, despair, wringing of hands.
How you could tackle it instead
Realise that unless they can view your work right then and there, it will be practically impossible for you to describe it accurately, so you’ve not got to care, and you keep it brief. Plus, it really doesn’t matter whether you make much money or not, it’s the doing of it that counts and if you can make it work, while living within your means, then that is all that really matters. Finally, you have no real idea whether it is true or not that the illustrator they’ve mentioned makes a good living, or that the other artist does very well. Unlike you, many other people often don’t own up to their truths and they can be in the habit of putting on a heavy gloss to their level of success, which is passed around to impress others. But if it is true, then so what? Good for them, they’ve been lucky. Your own art and your own life is all that counts and for your own sake and well being, you have to accept the vagaries and fashions of the art world and not make the mistake of comparing yourself or your work to others.
So go for this instead:
Them: What kind of art do you do?
You: Decide in advance on a simple description, not easy to do, but well worth it. Anything from nature really. I Like detail and use watercolour or acrylics.
Them: Oh, I thought watercolour was always used loosely?
You: No, it’s great, you can use it in so many different ways.
Them: Oh, right. Pause. Do you make a living at it?
You: I get by. Short and snappy and could easily end the conversation.
Conversation you don’t want around you on Craft
This is more about conversations that you overhear while minding a craft shop you have stock in, or maybe you’re manning your own stand at a fair. Craft can be seen as more do-able by the public, as opposed to art and writing, so whenever I manned my prints and cards table, I never had any problems, other than feeling like a fish in a tank, with no escape. If possible, I recommend working on your craft or art while you man the table to reduce this being stared at feeling, and it can be more relaxing for the public to see you bent over your work, not scrutinising them and everything they pick up to look at. As an artist I got off lightly, but what I’ve gleaned from other crafters manning their tables, concerning the nature of actions and comments they have to frequently stomach has made my jaw drop.
Here are some of those difficult actions:
They take your business cards, but never get in touch
They let their kids handle your precious work, leaving sticky fingers marks, or they drop your work on the floor
They clutch a very reasonably priced artefact for ages, discuss it with their loved one or you, the maker. They nod and smile, then put it back down and walk off.
They say they’ll be back later, but they don’t return.
Now I can let them off most of this, because we don’t like upsetting people, and I’m guilty of doing a few of these things myself, but the comments are not so forgivable. These are the comments which are made well within the hearing of the crafter behind the table, as if there is a thick layer of soundproof glass between them and the shoppers and the crafter is immune.
Them: They pick something up, maybe it’s a knitted hat, and say to a friend, I could do this myself!
You: Inner retort – Well go on and do it, then!
Them: They are handling something, maybe it’s a ceramic mug, they turn it upside down to see the price and exclaim to their friend Look at the price he wants for that!
You: You know they have no idea what goes into the making, no idea of the processes involved, you know that they would be buying hand made craft as opposed to machine mass produced crockery and that they are comparing your beautiful hand-thrown mug to a mug from the local supermarket. You know all this, but you cannot convey all this to them, unless you drag our a soap box and start a lecture. So you fume inwardly, saying nothing.
How you could tackle it instead
If you get the chance, you can explain the processes to them, to help them appreciate what goes into the craft, but they have to show some interest in the first place for this to work.
Regarding overhearing the negative comments – I don’t think you can say much without antagonising yourself or them. It’s more inner work you have to do. Know your own worth, and know that craft can be devalued by stupidly low prices, which would be unfair to the crafting industry as a whole. Know that your work is good, the quality is good and the price for your hand made work is fair – fair to the customer and fair to your own tribe of fellow crafters.
So, to finish, it seems clear that we writers, artists and crafters must be resilient when it comes to what others think of us and our work. We have to be our own advocates and respect the work we do. We have to do a little bit of cognitive behavioural work on ourselves, because we can’t control what others think and feel, we can only control what we think and feel. That is the self-work we must do, and the reward is being able to do our creative work with enthusiasm, passion, and a peaceful mind, and maybe support each other along the artist’s way :>)