As writers, we dread judgment. It can be enormously painful to hear something very negative about work you’ve slaved over, work you love, maybe even work you think is your very best. Shutting out those voices in the modern world can be quite challenging.
How to manage?
On a recent trip to Santa Fe, I spent the better part of an afternoon immersed in the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, at the museum devoted to her work. It’s a little gem of a place, well-funded and popular. It was uncrowded that day, making it easy to linger.
I love her paintings, of course. The big, curvaceous flowers. The abstracts with their touches of teal; that color is so particular, and so delicious, and the part of me that likes to paint wonders how she blended it. The museum lets you wander through eras of her work, moving from the curves and circles and petals into the later angles, bones and mesas and hillsides and walls. Some of her most famous works are on display, notably Ram’s Head with Blue Morning Glory. Stunning, but never one of my favorites.
Next to it was a painting I’d never seen, an adobe wall and angle of sky with a single green leaf floating down. The simplicity mesmerized me, the colors, the play of shapes, the utter peace of it.
The museum also displays some of her cloud paintings. When she was in her 60s, she suddenly began to travel the world, going to Japan and Macchu Pichu and many other places. On those long plane rides, she was enchanted by the shape of the clouds from above, and the horizon. Who among us has not meditated on the clouds from the window of an airplane? I’d never seen those paintings either, and I spent a lot of time with them, admiring the way she captured the calm of that view, the simple, stunning quiet of it.
Inspired by all the work, I picked up a biography of her life. I already knew a lot of the early story, so I flipped to the later years. The biographer commented that O’Keeffe lost the passion of her youth as she aged and her work suffered the lack. She cited a few paintings, and I recognized that she meant those paintings I’d lingered over at the museum—the leaf against the wall, the clouds, the rivers from the air.
Don’t get me wrong—I love the poppies and petunias. I’m a gardener, and I’ve spent decades peering into the hearts of flowers, shooting stamens and petals and the star shape of stigmas. All those swoops and sexy curves of O’Keeffe’s flowers are delicious in a way the later paintings are not.
The later work is quieter, simpler in some ways. Does that mean it lacks emotion? Not to my eye. They are not soaked with passion, but with curiosity, and a sense of the eternal. Those horizons in the cloud paintings are endless and meditative, offering intriguing possibilities of what might lie beyond.
And that single leaf, floating out of the sky, hanging for all of time against the perfection of a smooth adobe wall? That might be my new favorite O’Keeffe.
Was that biographer nuts?
Of course not. It’s just that art is subjective. When O’Keeffe painted those later works, she was in her sixties and seventies. She was looking at the world through different eyes than she had when she was twenty and thirty and forty, but does that mean one is better than the other?
Maybe instead the biographer simply values passion over peace, sexy over sublime. Maybe she’s not at a stage of her life when such a simple, perfect painting could stir her.
She made a judgment. She’s allowed.
That doesn’t mean she’s right.
In phrasing my opinion about Patio Door With Green Leaf, I’m also making a judgment. As a viewer, I’m fully allowed that freedom, just as all of our readers are allowed to make judgments about our books. Each and every one of them is granted the freedom of an opinion.
There are probably people who don’t like O’Keeffe’s paintings at all. They don’t understand the fuss. They’re also not wrong.
I know intimately that there are readers who do not love my books. I’ve had some very painful reviews. It’s terrible how they become carved onto your soul no matter how hard you try to keep them at bay. (“The point? Apparently none.”) For many books in a row, I had brutal reviews from Kirkus, on books that were often very highly reviewed, even starred by other publications.
For my own peace of mind, I had to find a way to cope. The whimsy and romance and upbeat endings other reviewers loved were like bad coffee to this guy, so I made up a visual of him. (I’m sure it was a guy.) I decided he was a middle-aged intellectual in a tiny dark Manhattan apartment, a prissy man with a sneer for any earnest writer.
He isn’t my reader.
If I go through and read my reviews from readers at Goodreads or Amazon or any of those places, it is inevitable that one reader will say, “This is her best book ever,” and someone else will say, “This book is not up to her usual standard.”
Judgment. Opinion, really. Just an opinion. Sometimes lots of opinions.
What if O’Keeffe had worried that the subjects of her New Mexico paintings were too different from the flowers and abstracts of her earlier work? What if she’d started fretting about the opinions of critics, or listened to someone saying she wasn’t painting with enough passion these days?
All those angular walls and voluptuous red hills and stark bones would be lost to us now. I would never have been able to fall in love with that single leaf, floating, or contemplate the horizon of her cloud paintings.
The only opinion that truly matters in the creation of your work is your own, and whoever your most trusted reader is. Our work shifts and changes and erupts in all sorts of ways over the course of time. Our job is to let it.
Have you ever had a painful review or feedback on your work that felt wrong? Are there painters or writers others hate and you love? How does it feel when others judge your work?
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!
(Interested in hearing more about how my trip to Santa Fe filled the well? Find me at Patreon.)