This article was originally published in 2017 in response to an email question.
Imagine that humans have discovered intelligent life on another planet and we have the ability to send them a small capsule of objects.
Each item in the capsule must help the aliens understand who we are.
If you had to choose one book, one film, one song, one piece of art, one poem and one object to put in that capsule, what would they be? What would you choose to summarise humanity?
Personally, I’d chose: Siddhartha, Harold & Maude, We Are Nowhere & It’s Now, Self-deceit #1 Rome Italy, The More Loving One, and a Moleskine notebook. Please do let me know what would be on your list. I’m curious.
These items encapsulate the essence of human experience, as I perceive it, at this point in time. We are creatures whose lives are defined by craving what we can’t have, getting lost, reconciling loss, tentatively finding meaning in the connections between us, and turning blank pages into masterpieces.
I use that particular thought experiment to take my own cultural pulse every so often. And because it’s wonderfully telling. The responses people give show the diversity of our perceptions of the world.
Most people won’t or can’t give a straight answer if you ask them to define what it means to be human. It’s too vague, too hard to define, too variable, sometimes too personal.
To reflect on what it means to be human is to reflect on what it means to be you, right here, right now, in your flawed, malcontented, amorphous form.
It means acknowledging that not everyone thinks like you, not every mind is your mind.
Communicating with people is hard
I am extravagantly introverted, but I can’t imagine it’s completely hassle-free for anyone. Each of us speaks a different language. We all write, speak and think from our own experience.
Our words (and the attitudes and opinions they convey) sprout from a loam of culture, upbringing, education, life experiences, and genetics. Our words are, by design, closed-minded, non-inclusive, personal. Our own.
This is the false consensus effect. Perhaps the only generalization we can make is that everyone thinks they can make generalizations. Of course, everyone is different, but how could anyone conceptualize what it means to be someone else?
Lately, I have been writing more than ever and yet publishing less than ever. Partly it’s because I am working on FINALLY setting up a separate website for my freelance work. Mostly though, it comes down to a vicious cycle of overthinking I fell into in January.
In January, I tried to take time to review my work from the prior year. My intention was to go through everything I had worked on and figure out what I could do better. Then I planned to give myself a progress report of sorts.
It didn’t work out like that. Instead, I spent several days in a miserable cycle of overthinking and self-criticism, pulling apart my old work until I ended up in a pit of self-hatred. I got way too into the weeds and stopped thinking objectively.
Why did this happen?
It wasn’t because the work was bad or contained factual errors or had been badly received. Sure, there were things I could have done differently or could have improved in light of what I have learned since. But it was nothing like the black hole of failure I saw.
More importantly, I wasn’t actually looking at the work and criticizing myself. I was looking at my work and spotting areas where a hypothetical person could potentially criticize me.
I was reading each sentence and thinking: What is the WORST possible way someone could interpret this? What is the nastiest thing anyone could say about this? What is the worst case scenario?
Thinking about worst case scenarios can be useful — on extremely sporadic occasions. Much of the time, we end up tricking ourselves into feeling as if it has already happened.
When I came up with the worst possible criticisms, I felt as though I were hearing them from someone else. I got really fucking miserable over a bunch of snarky comments made by a person who was a figment of my imagination (and happened to look and sound a lot like one of my exes.) Put like that, it sounds insane yet it’s easily done.
Language is malleable, no matter what lexicographers might think. That’s what makes it beautiful and also what can make it a pain to work with.
Part of writing is acknowledging that, yes, people will interpret your work in ways you never intended, ways which make you uncomfortable, ways which surprise you.
People will, very often, derive the message they want to hear and not the one you want to share.
Your writing will be automatically non-inclusive and off-putting to some. There will always be someone who finds it laughable or rips holes in it or finds a detail to judge you for.
You will get into arguments with friends, family, partners over what you write and they will get really pissed off (usually over something that isn’t even about them.) One day, you might be passed over for a job you really want because you wrote a controversial blog post years ago. Probably not.
Some of the criticism is constructive, some is not and you may struggle to distinguish between the two. (Especially if you are a teenager — adolescents’ brains interpret basically any negative emotion as anger, even if it’s nothing of the sort.)
Sure, you can try to avoid it. You could pad out your writing with evasive phrases like ‘in my opinion’ or ‘of course, not everyone feels this way.’ Add a liberal sprinkling of ‘I think’ and ‘it seems to me’ and ‘maybe’ and ‘perhaps.’ Saturate your work with caveats and explanations and digressions to cover your own back. Throw in a disclaimer. You might be able to sleep at night that way.
This stuff is unnecessary. By all means, include one mention of the fact that your work is based on your personal opinion. One. At most. There is no need to put it in every sentence.
I used to justify everything, until it hit me that my audience is intelligent enough to think “Hmm, well I don’t agree with that but I am a different person in a different situation so it’s not wrong, it just doesn’t apply to me.” And when I’m ghostwriting and covering an opinion which is not my own, I expect the various audiences to do the same.
Most people will be ambivalent, a few will be wildly enthusiastic, a few will get annoyed and it is rarely your fault.
Criticism is part of the job of sharing yourself with the world.
It’s an occupational hazard, even if your art is not your main occupation. It happens. It always hurts. And you cannot avoid it.
People can practically smell fear when they read or watch or listen to a piece of art. They know when the artist is trying to avoid it.
Fearing criticism, to a degree, is a good thing. It means you care.
People who don’t care about their work are not afraid of it being criticized. Paying attention to constructive criticism is a good thing (I talked about this in my TEDx talk.) Facing up to the non-constructive type and still carrying on is a good thing — if you can deal with that and keep making art, it’s a sign that it matters to you.
Let’s face it, most people don’t care that much. So it shows when you do. I recently, in conversation with a friend, started explaining my typical process for freelance work. They said they were astounded by the effort I put in and wouldn’t have expected it. So I decided to include a page on my site explaining how I work and to be completely honest about it. While I’ve always been a bit embarrassed by just how invested I am in every piece of work I do, that shouldn’t be considered a weakness.
Worrying about criticism is a strength. A sign you are not arrogant or entitled. You don’t expect everything you do to be perfect or expect everyone to love it.
In any case, the worst criticism is almost always the self-imposed kind. No one could ever say anything worse about our work than we can. And do. The times when I get panic attacks from worrying about how a stray sentence COULD be interpreted, the times when I wake up hyperventilating at 3 am because WHAT IF I’ve offended someone — these are a nightmare of my own creation. Realizing this is liberating.
All that matters is that you keep making stuff and keep making it better.
People will interpret it in ways you never intended. Because a lot of the time, those varying interpretations and the strange capacity art has to hit us in multifarious ways, are part of the point. Sometimes the interpretations are wonderful and sometimes someone spots something you didn’t realize you put there. It’s not quite an ink blot test, yet it’s close.
And who knows how the aliens would interpret Harold & Maude.