Ira Glass has this great line in the video you mentioned about how most people get into an art form because they have good taste, but don't necessarily have the skill set at the beginning. With your drawing project, how did you approach becoming a beginner again, and how did you ensure that you made progress?
I documented the entire thing via Instagram. A lot of people find that silly - here you are, this thirty-something guy, who is drawing things that look like a kindergartner would draw. It was really important to be okay with knowing that most of what I drew wasn't going to be very good, and then to publicly share it.
I am also a prolific writer, so I understand how to embrace the blank page. My writing process mirrors this in a lot of ways, I just take a blank page and start writing. I don't really think about what I'm doing, and a lot of it starts out as nonsense.
There's this line in the movie “With Honors,” where Joe Pesci tells Brendan Frazer his senior thesis is “really coming out the wrong end." I feel like that often when I write, but that's just part of the process. The number of iterations that have led to the work we are doing now is in the hundreds. I started multiple blogs that nobody ever saw when Blogger first came out, YouTube videos that never saw the light of day, and all sorts of stupid things to play with the tools and technology we had. I never stopped making things.
In your book, you talk about how you have received both glowing praise and severe criticism for your work. When you put one of your creations out for the world to see, how do you separate the good criticism from the bad?
As artists and creators, we are all going to experience criticism. The nature of our work is incredibly subjective. We can keep watering down are work until it caters to the lowest common denominator and is for everybody, or we can say we're not going to be for everybody - we're for a small subset of people. Amazingly enough a small subset can be several thousand who happen to like what we do.
I happen to really enjoy Dave Matthews' music, but I have a friend who doesn't like Dave Matthews at all. It's funny because here's a guy who has 20,000 people in a concert venue going nuts, and yet, you can find a person who hates his work.
There are people who are going to hate what you do, and you have to learn to decipher between constructive criticism and criticism that's just designed to be spiteful. There are people, especially on the open platform that is the internet, who are just going to go out and be trolls because they have nothing better to do with their time.
In terms of constructive criticism, I think you have to ask if the criticism is valid. One of our listeners wrote in and said, "I'm a really big fan. I love what you do, and I am telling you this in honor of your work." He prefaced his email with praise, but continued to write, "You say ‘let me ask you this’ way too much in an interview, and it's annoying.”
I actually went back to one of my interviews, and I counted how many times I said “let me ask you this,” and oh my god, this guy was absolutely right. That one little critique made me a much better interviewer, because I was willing to listen. I emailed him back, and said "you know when I first saw this I rolled my eyes, and then I went back and listened to an interview, and you're right. Thank you for pointing it out, I will work on it."
It's funny how our first instinct is usually to put up our defenses. Criticism is so much easier to swallow after distancing ourselves from our own work.
Right, I look back at the book I self-published on Amazon and think to myself, “this is immature and needs a lot of work.” The book demonstrates the level I was at two years ago, and I have worked and worked and worked on my craft every day since. There's one woman who wrote a two-star review that said, "I hope this guy is a better surfer than he is a writer."
If you're going to reach a significant volume of people, you have to accept that some of them are going to hate what you do.