ON GIVING AND GETTING ADVICE: Be Careful What You Wish For

Be Careful What You Wish For...
Be Careful What You Wish For…

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….”  For ten years, Luann also wrote a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines, and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.

Being listened to, and being a good listener, is powerful!

 (7 minute read)

Awhile back, I went through two unusual (not in a good way) experiences.

The first one, I asked for advice/input on social media. It was one of my most popular posts ever. (Which should tell you something about the power of appealing to other people’s expertise!)

How much of it was useful?

Almost none.

It was interesting on so many levels. So many people didn’t even read the actual post. They thought they knew what I asking for, but they got it wrong. So their answers were not helpful. Good intentions, but a waste of time.

More than half the responders didn’t read the comments. They read the post, but did not take 20 seconds to see if someone had already suggested a solution. I got the same solution many times over. (None of which applied, anyway.)

And when some people neither read the post, nor the previous comments, it made me want to scream.

Which goes to show, if people don’t even know what we’re asking for, there’s no way their advice will be useful, nor applicable.

There was one person (ironically, the person I knew had the most expertise in the first place) who read my post, and added a unique opinion. And surprisingly (or not), their response was the best one. It didn’t solve my problem, but it made me realize I’ve was barking up the wrong tree to begin with.

In the second situation, I was sharing some really hard “places” in my life with friends. That in itself was helpful. Sometimes we just need to speak our truth, with compassionate ears listening. My premise is, we almost always know what we have to do. It’s truly surprising how much insight we can gain from ourselves, when people simply listen to us, deeply.

In this case, I was met with a tsunami of advice, most of which did not land well.

I’m grateful I have people who want the best for me. But it was frustrating to look back at my notes and realize how devastating the advice was. (I won’t go into details, except that it was all about doing the exact opposite of what makes my work unique, personal, and powerful.)

I’m now in a position where a loved one literally hounds me for advice in every conversation. I try to focus on what THEY want, to support them in any way I can. But they insist they just want me to tell them what they should do.

And then they reject every single thing I say. They are frustrated that I don’t “get it”. They insist my own experiences have no relevance. Well…yes….and no.)

It’s really really hard. But I have to simply not fall into the pit of thinking I can help. No. More. Advice. (Which I offered again, fifteen minutes after typing this. WHEN WILL I LEARN?!)

Am I an idiot? (Please don’t answer that!) Yes and no. For me, it proves how desperately we want to help others, even when we can’t. Which is not evil. Just annoying for that other person.

Ironically, in my email box this morning was this Ask Polly question. Near the end of the long article (she writes more than I do!), this paragraph stuck out for me:

“I had to be humbled for years in order to recognize that I was just another human on this earth, just as bad and just as good as anyone else. I couldn’t be vulnerable with myself or anyone else until I was at peace with being ordinary. I couldn’t feel right until I was okay with being wrong. And once I was finally comfortable with being a regular mortal human, I could recognize that my needs weren’t immoral. What I wanted and needed and loved mattered, even when it seemed frivolous or shameful or it was more enormous than I could stand.”

 At peace with being ordinary….

This sounds at odds with most of the advice we seek in life, and the advice we give to others. Except that, what’s wrong with being ordinary??

Of course we want to do good work.

Of course we want to find our audience.

Of course we all hope to make money with the work of our heart.

Of course we want to be a force for good.

And of course we want others to love us for being…..well, ourselves!

We believe that if we get to a point where our work is amazing, we’ll surely feel better about our work. The truth? Sometimes I think people are just being nice. Sometimes I think I am fantastic. And then I do something that messes it all up. Respond badly to a situation or a toxic person, retreating in fear because I said something idiotic, embarrassed because a line of work I was so sure would sell, languishes in a place of honor in my studio.

We believe if we make decent money from our art/creative work, we’ll feel “more authentic.” Truth? We have more money. Deep down, we know that financial success is not the authenticity “proof” we’re looking for. How does winning an award, making more money than someone else, make us “better than” them?

We believe if our work serves a powerful purpose, we will be truly “real”. Reality? The more people praise how my work makes them feel, the more humble I feel. After all, I haven’t discovered a cure for cancer, nor have I done anything meaningful about hardship, trauma, war, famine, disease, terrorism, and all the other evil in the world. I simply make these little horses.

Am I loved for myself? I have family members who have made it clear how little they respect me and the work I do. I mean, they should know, right?

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but it’s kind of about monitoring advice, the advice we give (even mine!), and the advice we get.

When we get advice, if someone says something that resonates in a good way, pay attention. It’s a reflection of what we’re leaning towards, yearning for. It may take a while to uncover the gold. But it’s worth waiting for, and worth working towards.

When the advice we get lands badly, let it go. Either they meant well, or they didn’t. It doesn’t have to matter either way. As long as we recognize it’s not “our thing”, we’re still good.

When someone asks for advice, and we have expertise in that area–we’ve experienced it, we recognize it, we know what worked for us—yes, share it. But don’t push it. It’s based on OUR experience, and circumstances might be similar, but are never exactly the same. “Your mileage may vary” as the car commercials go.

If someone just can’t hear you, let that go, too. “Let me know how that works out for you” is a good “release line”.

Understand that sometimes, we just need to “blort”. (My long-standing word that combines “blurt” and maybe “storm”. Can’t remember!)

Sometimes, we just need to listen. Someone just posted on social media, and when I commented, they said I had helped them hugely in dealing with a major life issue years ago. Wha…..? I didn’t remember, so I asked them what I’d said.

They replied, and ended with, “….and after I was finished sharing with all my fears and anxiety, you said, ‘So if I’m hearing you correctly, you’re saying….’ And that was so powerful!”

All I did was listen. And echo/reflect back. So simple. And yet I still forget to do that, even now!

So, as always, if everything is working out for you, don’t change anything.

And if things aren’t working out for you…..

But if you need advice, remember:

We are a human being. We are no better, and probably no worse, than millions of other people. It’s okay for us to want what we want from our sales, from our art, from your life. It’s okay to do something different, (or not), it’s okay to take a step forward (or back), it’s okay to stay the course we’ve chosen, or to choose something completely different. It’s okay to be confused about our next step, and it’s okay to be sure of where we’re going. It doesn’t matter how “big” our work is, nor how “small”.

You have a story only you can tell.

Don’t miss that opportunity to share it.

Because even the tiny, seemingly insignificant things we choose, can be powerful.

As always, if you enjoyed this article, please feel free to share it. And if someone sent you this article and you liked it, you can sign up for more at Fine Art Views or my blog at LuannUdell.wordpress.com .

I “just” make “plastic” horses. It’s more than that, isn’t it?

ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE

I’ve become one of ‘those people’–people who feel sad about their art. I hat them.

I was fussing and fuming in my head this morning, about how nobody wants my artwork anymore stupid stuff, when I realized I’d become one of “those people”.

The whiney, self-absorbed, time- and energy-consuming, nobody-can-help-me, hugely annoying artist, drowning in a sea of self-pity and ennui. The people who start off any conversation, professional or personal, by heaving a soul-weary sigh and declaring…

“I feel sad about my art.”

I’ve been in several artist support groups in my art career. I’ve learned to duck and run for cover when someone takes this stance more than once. Especially if, when you offer feedback or advice, they argue with everything you say.

I hate it because I’ve always believed this is a cheat, a cop-0ut. A way of letting yourself off the hook, to shirk responsibility for getting your art out into the world.

And now I’m one of them.  Let me take a moment to search for a cartoon on the internet to illustrate my point. Got it!

Over the years, as I learned to supress my urge to kick these people became a better listener, I realized there are really two kinds of whiners:

There are those who unconsciously use the mud they’re stuck in to excuse their own inaction. Sadly (but true), nothing will work, nothing will help, no advice or suggestions will get through, until they’re ready to change it up. They may need a new creative outlet, a new way of thinking, sometimes even a new partner/lifestyle/career. But that’s their journey to make, not ours.

Others truly are aching to get out of the mud. We just haven’t been taught or shown how to do that.

And most of us, their friends, their supporters, haven’t learned how to really help.

We haven’t learned how to listen–deeply, patiently, fully.

That’s what a great support group does. No advice. No cheering up.

Instead, we listen. And ask questions. And more questions. We poke at that person, gently, until we understand better what it is they’re really asking, and what they really need.

And usually, what they really need? They either need better information, a little moral support, and/or affirmation for their creative self.

Sometimes our sense of failure is based on misconceptions. Sometimes we’ve been knocked down by a particularly rough spot in our life. Sometimes, we’ve just never actually thought about what it is we really, really, really want, in our life or for our art.

And that’s okay. In a world awash in information, it can be hard to sort out the bits that are right for us. In a world that’s always full of uncertainty, even danger, and death, it can be hard to create a space for peace and wonder and hope. In a world that measures success by our income, our celebrity, our website hits, our Facebook likes, it can be hard to know what really makes us feel whole.

I’ve been whining a lot lately. And fortunately, along with the silly (though thoughtfully offered) advice, there have been some wise listeners. too. They pointed out some thing that could save me from working at McDonald’s help me earn some kind of income in 2016, and would still be a way of teaching/sharing/giving back to my community.

So to all the sad-about-my-art people out there, I apologize. My friend Nicci once said, “When you point your finger at someone, three more are pointing back at you.”

I hope, if you really do want to not be sad anymore, you find the peeps who will help you do that. I hope you find people who care, who listen, who shine a light in front of you, so you can simply see your next step.

Til then, another Jessica Hagy illustration, to give you a better way to look at the mud.

TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #14: Artists Don’t Care What Other People Think

MYTH: Real artists have the courage of their convictions. They don’t care what other people think.
REALITY: Oh, it’s sad, but we care very very much what you think!

This is a myth that started out as “Real artists are loners”. Well, some are, and some aren’t. It’s that simple.

But it quickly got tangled into another myth we hold about artists, one that gets pretty jumbled. So bear with me as I untangle some of the threads.

Yes, some artists do need solitude to create. We need time to explore an idea, to follow it through to all its possibilities. Some people can’t listen to conversation or even music lyrics while they write. Me, for one.

Sometimes talking too much about what we’re doing, or our next project, feels like actually working on it. And our creative energy dissipates.

Other artists, however, work well in partnership and collaboration. They find the give-and-take of brainstorming invigorating, forcing them to go further and higher than they ever imagined.

Our own creative processes are so individual to us, it would be impossible to determine any one way any given work of art gets made.

It’s who we hang with, and why, after the work is created, that gets a little dicey.

Artists may act like we don’t care what other people think about our work. You’ve probably met some (or you are one.) You ask them about the work and you get a snotty reply or a cold shoulder. Or you talk with them at a party and they can only talk about how talented and creative they are.

But it is almost pathetic how much we care what others think.

It would be wonderful if we didn’t. A lot less pain in the world, and I probably wouldn’t have to write this series of myths.

But we do care very very much what you think.

And we are terrified you’re going to tell us.

We hope you love it. We hope it knocks your socks off. We hope you think it’s the most marvelous thing you’ve ever experienced.

And it’s so very, very hard to hear, if you don’t.

This need to have our work loved is so powerful, I hate to share it with you.

Because this knowledge is a terrible weapon in the wrong hands.

I don’t mean we’ll necessarily change it if you don’t love it. We have our artistic integrity, after all.

Wait for it…….

bwahhahahahahahahahaha!!

Again, some people will stand firm, and others don’t mind using a little less blue or a few more dots, if that will win approval. It’s your choice.

Even my fiery artist friend Lee, who fiercely created his art at all hours when the muse struck, sometimes going days without sleep, would call me up to come and see the new work. And he waited anxiously, child-like, yearning for my approval. Not my judgment–he was extremely proud of his artist title–but he wanted others to see what he saw, and appreciate what he created.

But the world is not kind to artists, especially those of us who wear our hearts on our sleeves.

After all, human beings are creatures of opinions. We all got ’em, and we have one on everything. Even the things we don’t know much about.

And of course, we all have a little mean streak in us. It is so easy to criticize what someone has made.

But some people cultivate their mean streak. It is very important to recognize and avoid those people.

Caveat: I know the role of the art critique is a hallowed tradition, especially in art schools. I’ve been to literary gatherings where writers submitted their latest piece and subjected it to a group review.

I know that not all art is beautiful, wonderful, powerful or narrative. There’s a lot of stuff out there I don’t care for.

I myself have served as a mini-consultant for artists and craftspeople, evaluating their current work and assessing whether it is appropriate for their perceived goals and venues.

But I see that function as a way of gently aligning what people say they want, and what they do.

All too often, that critical process is used as a chance to savage the work of someone whose talent threatens our own little jealous lizard brain.

If someone says they are an accomplished seamstress and they want their work to sell, they sabotage their efforts by making shoddy work quickly so they can sell to a lower end market. If someone says they’re a writer, but they don’t blog or submit manuscripts or otherwise get their writing out into the world, then I encourage them to show the rest of us that they are, indeed, a writer.

I don’t try to rip them a new one and denigrate their efforts.

Am I saying we should be namby-pamby and never offer honest feedback about the work of others? Or we are so weak in spirit that we can’t handle a little criticism?

Nope, not saying that. What I’m saying is that we must be aware of our need to have approval–and not let others, whose intentions may be less than honorable, use that as a knife to cut us to the quick.

When we make art, it will be stronger if we focus on what is inside us, what we want to say and what we want it to do.

In a perfect world, we then let go. We know it’s done, that it’s out in the world. And we have to truly not care what other people think. That’s hard, but we can at least try.

In the meantime, be very particular who you show your work to, especially during the creative process. We all know people who, for who-knows-what reasons, cannot celebrate our success with us. They will sabotage your efforts in refined and subtle ways.

Instead, create your own artist community.

These workshops by Deborah Kruger, fiber artist extraordinaire, are excellent. Similar to Julia Cameron’s work and The Artist’s Way. (Just don’t do what so many artists do, and focus on all the meetings and exercises instead of making your art!)

Yes, we all need honest feedback. And sometimes criticism spurs us on to do our most truly powerful work.

But it’s a harsh diet to live on all the time. Someone who tries to destroy your spirit with criticism is not your friend, and not your supporter.

Choose your friends carefully when it comes to you and your art.

25 RANDOM THINGS: Action Steps for Your Artist Statement #5

Our stories are already inside us, waiting to come out. All we need is a truly sympathetic listener who will allow that to happen.

Fifth in a series of how to use that 25 Random Things list to write your artist statement.

“They have ears, but hear not….” Psalms 115:6

I marvel every day how we listen–and don’t listen–to each other.

We may think we are listening. But how often do we jump in with, “Oh, that happened to my cousin!”. Or, “I know just how you feel…” Or, “Speaking of cancer, did you know the ancient Greeks thought cancer was caused by eating too many crabs, and that’s why the astrological sign of the crab is also called cancer?” I made that last bit up, by the way, but we all know friends who do that. We do that, too.

We can’t even bear to simply let someone cry. We jump in to soothe and comfort–“It’s okay. It’s all right”–even though it obviously isn’t. Sometimes a hug is appropriate, of course. But sometimes, we’ve cut the person short because their pain is more than we can bear.

Allowing someone to tell their story, giving someone the time and support to really think about what is in their heart, and letting that come out, without comment or interruption, is a powerful gift.

I learned about this technique of really, really listening to someone, from Deborah Kruger. I took a workshop from her called “Empowerment for Women in the Arts”, where we learned how to form small support groups for each other, groups where we could freely share, in safety and kindness, our highest vision for our art.

Interestingly, it looks like we’ll be practicing the same skill in my hospice training.

Why should we learn to be good listeners today? So you can get to the bottom of why you make the stuff you do.

It can be a little tricky of you’ve never done this before, but it’s a great technique if you’ve tamped down your passion for so long, even you don’t know what it is. It might take a few tries, but if you are willing to do the hard work of really saying what is in your heart, you will find what lies there.

This exercise works well with 2-3 people. You can take turns listening to each other. All you you need to be on the same page. You need to be a good listener, and you need to find a good listener. That’s why I move back and forth between “you” and “them” in this article.

Find someone who loves you and/or loves what you do. Someone who truly wants you to succeed with your art, who wants only good things for you.

Find someone who has not a shred of jealousy or back-stabbing or passive aggression. Someone who, if you say, “I once threw up on someone” they’d say, “Yeah, hey, that was me but I know it was an accident and I still love you” and not “Um…yeah…look, I just remembered another appointment, can we do this later?”

Explain what your working on. They are going to hold your feet to the fire until you confess what it is you deeply, truly care about.

And they are going to do it with perfect kindness and perfect support.

Make sure they understand they are NOT to tell you “what you should do” or what they think. There will be no giving of advice today. They can only ask questions that force you to step up to the plate, questions that probe deeper until you hit your inner truth.

Oh! If you have another trusted friend who can take notes, that would help. But in a pinch, you can either tape this conversation or let your friend write your responses down. But it has to be quick–the PROCESS, the conversation is more important than getting it down perfectly. Although, sometimes asking for more clarity, or repeating what you think you’ve heard before you write it down, is a good listening tactic, too. (see Rule #2 below)

THE RULES: (and these are important)

1) The only response the listener can make is signs of loving acceptance.

We often stood up and held hands, but the important thing is eye contact and a smiling face or a calm face. (I tend to frown when I’m listening really hard, and I have to consciously control that when it’s my turn to listen.) No hugs til the end. Tears are okay.

2) No dialog!

The only questions you can ask are to ask for more information about something the speaker has said. And do that minimally. Just use it to clarify, or to move the narrative along, or help the speaker refocus if they get off course.

The scribe/recorder can only ask a question, with the speaker’s permission, and with the same guidelines, and only if everyone really seems stuck.

But…(and this is really important):

3) Give them time to answer.

We’re so used to giving pat answers, or short answers, because we’re not used to someone listening so carefully, to being so fully present. Silence is okay. You’ll be surprised how many speakers will pick up the thread on their own, once they realize the listener is not going to jump in and take it for themselves.

4) All of this is done in safety.

What goes on here is private. The speaker must know and believe that what they say will not be repeated, nor even referred to again, without their express permission. We all know about attorney-client privilege and doctor-patient privilege. That’s how you’re going to think about this process, okay?

5) Give enough time to answer, but timed so you have to focus.

The first time is rough, because the process is so different than any way we’ve ever talked with each other before. But half an hour should be enough time to some part of our story out.

6) Practice.

This exercise gets easier with practice. If you can’t quite “get there” with your first try, then try again another time.

In the workshops I took with Deborah, we asked four questions that led to a plan of action. For the purpose of finding the heart of your artist statement, we’re just going for one really great question:

Why do you make the art you make?

Yep, it’s that “why? why? why?” thing again. Why? Because it works.

We are looking for your artist statement, your mission statement. Literally, your reason d’etre, your “reason to be”. Why you are here, on this planet, why you are here at this point in time, why you are living this life of yours, to make this art.

(Relax. It sounds hard, and it is, but it’s exhilarating, too.)

A good warm-up question is: “Tell me what’s special about your art” (Note to questioner: Almost every artist will answer this question with an explanation of their techniques. Take good notes here, because this is a way of waffling. But it CAN lead to some good, honest answers later.

Other questions you can explore:

How to people respond to your art? Why do you think they respond that way?

What kind of people love your work enough to buy it? Why do you think THEY respond that way?

When did you start making this work? (Questioner: If something traumatic started this, take notes and follow this thread. Because something changed in order for this to happen, and that’s important.)

Why did you start making it? Was it required for a class? Did you do it with someone else, say a relative who showed you how?

Why do you make that? Why do you use those materials, those techniques?

Any time you get some adademic-bs or artist-speak (“I love to explore the interstices that occur between the full saturation of colored edge and line…”) or a cliche (“I just love color!”) start applying pressure.

This is where it gets hard.

I can’t give your questioner hard-and-fast rules about where to press and where to back off. But a sensitive person will know where you are bull-shitting about your answers, fobbing them off with a glib answer or a smart answer instead of a deep, rich answer.

You may feel angry at the person for pressing you–that’s a good sign! You may be scared at first and get defensive. The questioner can decide whether to keep pressing or “move sideways”, anything to get you past those defenses.

Because what you are defending yourself against is expressing the thing that really means something to you, and you are afraid to say it because people might laugh at you.

Social scientists say we fear humiliation more than almost anything else in life. Sometimes we fear it more than we crave success.

I believe the reason we fudge our artist statements, and why we find it hard to talk about this stuff, is we are afraid of looking like an idiot.

What you must understand is…that’s okay.

It’s part of the human experience. And we are human.

So at this point, where you are fudging and avoiding and getting defensive and hostile, your listener needs to go for the big guns.

And bring out that WHY word, over and over and over til you give it up:

The real reason you feel compelled to make the work you do.

They’ll know it when they see it, and hear it. And you will, too.

Because you-the-artist will act differently, and speak differently.

You may stand straighter (if you do this exercise standing up). I’ve seen some people literally “step up” and take a step forward.

Your voice may deepen. You may talk faster if you’re a slow talker, or slow down if you’re normally articulate.

But the clincher is when you, or your listener feel a shiver run down your spine, or a thrill in your heart.

You will have spoken your truth.

And when you speak your truth, from your heart, people hear that. They FEEL that.

Congratulations! You now have the heart of your artist statement.

I’ve done workshops using this technique to get at the heart of artists’ stories. I could always tell when we’d struck gold:

“I had a baby, I nearly died, and everything changed.”

“My grandmother took care of me because my parents couldn’t, and grandma taught me how to do this. And when I make this work, I still feel her love and kindness in my heart.”

“I lost my husband, my job, and my house. I had nothing left, except this… And it saved my life.”

These are the moments in life where something important happened, whether we knew it at the time, or not. But these moments are part of who we are, as human beings. They may be moments of love, or joy. They may be moments of yearning. They may be moments of self-discovery and survival. Whatever they are, your art is a response, or an outcome, of these moments.

Other human beings will respond to that, and respect it. Other people will connect with that–“Me, too!”–and be inspired. Or consoled. Or empowered.

Telling your story helps others to discover their story. And the connection continues.

We’ll talk more about how you can edit this and round it out with other random, interesting things about you to make a powerful statement about you and your work.