The curse of sensitivity
Do you remember the first bad review you received?
I mean review very loosely. Your art probably started getting reviewed in primary school. I remember doing a colouring sheet in Year 3. I was filling in the picture with an orange pencil, and I realised that, if I pushed very hard, the colour was the most vibrant shade of vermillion I had ever seen. As I was buzzing from the thrill of creating my masterpiece, my teacher came round and looked sternly down on my page.
"Stop colouring over the lines."
I couldn't figure why the lines were so important to her. I still can't. If everyone coloured between the lines, and everyone used the same colours for the sky and the ground and the birds, then what exactly was the point? Fine motor control? Colour comprehension? Killing an afternoon with a worksheet? Even then I knew the rule was a silly one, but following it meant I wouldn’t get yelled at, so I followed it.
From then onwards, making art became both something I needed to do, and something that always caused at least some pain. Having my drafts torn apart by multiple teachers was just part of the process. It’s something you must get used to. If you don’t toughen up, develop that thick skin, then you won’t be able to make art anymore, they say. Even if having to listen to other people’s opinions feels a bit like slicing off little pieces of your soul and hanging them on a washing line for all to gawp at, as an artist, it’s your job to stop being so sensitive and see that criticism is never a personal attack.
But that word – sensitive– is insulting. Right? The only times I’ve ever been called sensitive was when I was deemed to be too upset by something deemed to be menial. To be sensitive is not a useful trait. Sensitivity, to most people, is to play golf during a thunderstorm- it is a state of useless harm, of seeking out a riteous bolt from Heaven. When someone calls you sensitive, they are saying that because they think you should try not being so.
Being sensitive also feels deeply egotistical. An extreme emotional reaction looks very similar to an obsession with one’s own perception of the world. If you could just stopped thinking about yourself so much, maybe every little thing wouldn’t feel so personal. Stop looking inside, the world seems to cry out. Stop making it all about you.
I'm be teaching university theatre and writing students again this year, so I’ve been thinking about ways to make feedback and criticism useful. I don’t want to be a teacher who tells you to colour inside the lines for no reason. So let me share one more anecdote-
When I was a student, I was asked by a tutor to help out with a student production they were directing. I didn’t know the performers, but I did know the assistant director, who was in my year. The assistant director was also a writer on the project. So to clarify- this play had three writers, including me, and two of those writers, not including me, were also directing.
It felt unbalanced and strange from the start, but I didn’t mind.
We each wrote several scenes for this play based on the ideas generated by the student performers. In all I wrote a few monologues and scenes that were fine, and one great scene that I was very proud of. After that, my job was done. I left the other writers/directors and the performers to it, and saw them all again on opening night.
Sitting in the audience, I felt sick with anxiety. I was just a student, and wasn’t calling myself a playwright yet. It was one of the first times my work was performed in front of an audience. We watched on as the play started. It was good. I waited for my scenes. I waited a long time, until one of them finally showed up.
I like writing things that are meant to be performed quickly. Dialogue that flows over itself like rushing water. My writing is quick and precise. It’s sometimes a bit funny, sure, but I don’t write laugh-a-minute comedies. But my scene, my one and only scene still left in the play, the one I was proudest of, had instead been slowed down. When I say slow, I mean slow- the characters were smoking bongs, talking in slow motion, high as kites slow.
The scene was broken. I was mortified. Every beat was off, every glimmer of humour was stamped out, every insight wrecked by the goofy directing. The audience was stony. It was easily the worst scene in the play. And it was my only contribution. Every other thing I had written had ended up on the cutting room floor.
When the play was over, I didn’t even wait to see the cast or creatives. I was crying too much. My partner and I walked as quick as we could to his car, and I bawled all the way home.
Days later, I was talking to my tutor. When they asked what I thought of the play, I told them most of the truth- that it was good, and I was surprised by what they ended up doing with my writing. Their face twitched, and I realised that they knew how weird my scene had turned out. My tutor explained that they had intended to have the actors perform the scene as quickly as possible, but because they didn’t learn their lines fast enough, the assistant director suggested they just change the scenario to bong smoking to slow it down so the actors could keep up.
Something shifted in me that day, sitting in my tutor’s grey office. It was not that the writing was bad. My work hadn’t mattered enough to the students to learn. My scenes were all cut and changed and suddenly, strangely, I didn’t care anymore. What had reduced me to tears days earlier now had me politely smiling and joking with my tutor about the time management skills of teenagers.
If I thought about it, there was only one thing I could have done to the scene to make it easier for the performers to learn and act- made the scene shorter and less structurally interesting. For the first time, the consequences of following the rules and fitting with other people’s expectations became scarier than any yelling I could have incurred for not colouring in the lines. I realised that my art will always end up misunderstood or devalued or mocked by someone somewhere, maybe even the people staging it. But I also realised that I could never prevent that from happening without hiding my work from the world forever. And that was not an option.
I felt my heart loosening its grip on my art.
Feedback and criticism might hurt, but humans usually feel pain because something is wrong. I was not wrong for crying that night in the theatre carpark. There was something wrong, but it wasn’t with me.
So here is what I have learnt from the curse of sensitivity – you should listen to your pain, but not to every bit of criticism. You should not suck in every word of advice without thinking. Do not start colouring inside the lines until the importance of the line feels real to you. Do not allow every opinion to inform your practice.
When your art is in the world, it will end up mangled and hated and ruined. Isn’t that a beautiful thing?