By Shawn StJean
Many people of artistic temperament are born into the world with a mixture of native ability and an egomania that insulates them from the criticisms that come the way of everyone who dares appear in public. The suffering that produces actual artists—painters who regularly paint, musicians who dutifully practice and play, and writers who really write—is not their portion, and they often end by retreating into the safe cocoon of their unrealized potential: “I could have if I wanted to. . .”
In American Beauty, middle-aged Kevin Spacey is asked, by a bodybuilding trainer, which muscle groups he’s trying to target. His reply—“I just want to look good naked”—is only human. But inasmuch as other artists all must run their gauntlets, it falls to writers to strip themselves naked and stand on the rocks and in the sun, where all gazes, deserving and otherwise, may fall. They know they’ve done the reps, reformed their diets, put in the sweat and the time, and done their best. And yet, they also know that the extra pounds from drink or age, the stretch marks, the tattoos and scars of youth, the genetic abnormalities, or simple, forgivable imperfections may still glare out. And any writer sensitive to the human condition cannot hide behind the mirror forever: the plain fact is, some folks will not only not praise what they see, they’ll be positively repelled by it for their own reasons, and they will spit toxin.
This is why, above all things, writers must trust. Trust themselves, of course, but trust someone close, another set of eyes—the sharper and more secure the better—belonging to one who has stood on that same shore, shivering in the wind, and yet whose scrutiny of one’s limitations is unaccompanied by the instinct to point and laugh, and gain a cheap personal warmth at the expense of the exposed initiate. Why must this other person(s) be sought for help? Can’t it be done alone? No. Your partner lives, not without those same scars, but with them—and such healing from them as the Fates allow. She has survived all-too-easy-to-meet rejection, and refused to run from the stage, to wrap herself tightly in the cloak of invisibility of the failure-turned-critic, “mind tainted,” as Hamlet’s ghost warns, and hurl that bile back at those who have met some measure of public acceptance, or might.
Writers who write stand not only looked at, but looking back. Search, seek, and you will find the others. There are those on shore admiring, though their voices may not always carry well on the wind, what they behold– however flawed–among the rough cacaphony of the crowd.