Beneath the Skin

Have you ever been told that you need to get a thicker skin?

The gospel according to “those in the know” is that all artists must learn to take criticism,  rejections, and bad reviews in stride. The military model of this rule appears to be  especially popular right now. Toughen up soldier, or you won’t make it. The publishing  battlefield is littered with the corpses of weenies like you. Treat rejection like a marine  treats . . . well, you get the idea.

The problem is that it’s extremely easy to turn this kind of self-protection into a mantra that stifles your artistic growth.

Here’s an analogy from my own life. My grandmother had very thick skin. In fact, she had a real rhino hide.  You could bounce a quarter off her hand and she wouldn’t feel it.  According to the experts, she should have been the next Nora Roberts, or Dean Koontz, right?  Of course the experts mean this figuratively, but I’ve seen the literal results of growing a thicker skin. My grandmother’s thick skin resulted from scleroderma, an autoimmune disease that hardens your skin and makes you stiff, inflexible and in pain. Her thick skin became an iron cage around her lungs that choked her to death. Perhaps that’s why I find the admonition to grow a thicker skin so frighteningly off base.

I think writers need to be as thin-skinned as possible. We must be permeable membranes that allow the world to flow in and out of us without resistance. We must cultivate flexibility, curiosity, and an insatiable appetite for the human experience.  A thick skin makes that impossible because we are putting most of our energy into defending ourselves from real or perceived threats.  A thick skin stunts us, hurts us far more than feeling the sting of criticism or absorbing another “thanks, but not for us” rejection on what you think is the best thing you’ve ever written.

What barriers stand between you and the world?  Are they healthy?  Necessary?  Let me know what you think.

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