Sunday, October 12, 2014

Thoughts on Being Gracious

I did something crazy this last weekend.

I love shoes.

I love dancing.

I LOVE dancing shoes.

So I thought it might be awesome to go to Boogie By the Bay. If you ever have the opportunity, go. Just getting to watch the other dancers is well worth the price of admission, and the pros who compete there make it easily some of the best dancing I've ever seen. EVER. And I've been to a number of impressive ballets live, so that's actually saying something.

I watched competitions, and they were incredible. The dancing, the costumes, the music (though there really was a propensity to dance to Bastille's Pompeii), it was unbelievably good. But when I ran into one of the dancer's after her competition and said "That was great! You danced beautifully!" she blinked at me, tears in her eyes and hugged me.

She said "Thank you so much. I didn't dance as well as I could have."

It shocked me. She'd done things I couldn't even dream of doing. She was magnificent. She was better than I will ever be. Her 'didn't dance as well as I could have' was so many leagues above where I'll ever dance, that it sort of hurt.

Literally, there are not enough years left for me to dedicate to family, job, writing, and dancing to ever get to where she was on a bad day. EVER.

It caught me up a little short. Not because I saw a moment of my mortality in her incredible dance that was "not as well as I could have," but because it was possibly the worst thing to say. Her dance touched me. It gave new meaning to the song she danced it to, and I'll never forget the place she took the dance and the song and me in that moment.

But to hear that it wasn't her best sort of--okay, I'll fess up, it Hurt.

She gave me her art. It had an impact on me. And then--after I screwed up my courage to approach this beautiful, vivacious dancer, a woman put on this Earth to Dance--she told me it wasn't her best.

I understood something else in that moment: just because you are the artist does not mean you have a clue how your art will touch people.

Without a doubt, I could have lived my whole life without knowing that her routine that brought me to tears (yeah, I'm a crier, maybe people shouldn't be proud of the waterworks I give them) wasn't her absolute top performance.

But that was just one more gift she gave me. She showed me how I should always treat people who see something beautiful in the art I create.

Her response should have been: Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I love to dance.

At the end of that exchange, there could be a brief exchange about an upcoming piece. In writing, it would be to direct the reader to the sequel, or other work by the writer (or other work that was similar by another writer).

That wasn't the moment to confess that the performance of something was shaky. She'd already touched my heart. There was no greater place she could have taken me by confessing that it could have been better. In fact, the admission that it wasn't her best cheapened the moment, as if by being touched by the lesser performance, it was some sort of degradation of my ability to discern good dancing from bad.

Yes, this is all in my head. Yes, it is quite possible that she could have danced better. Yes, my dance experience is small enough to be suspicious as a judge. But I know what I like, and I know when something speaks to my soul and not the bean counter that can tell if the steps were all in perfect alignment.

Her performance was more than enough to take me to somewhere else. I didn't need to hear about her insecurities. I understand that she had them. I understand that it was amazingly hard work to put the routine together. Trust me, I get that part.

But what I didn't need to know was that she was dissapointed in the performance that I found so much meaning in.

It's okay to have insecurities. It's okay to talk about how hard you worked on something. It's okay to be disappointed, but it's not okay to greet someone who is praising your words with regret and insecurity.

I get that writing and dancing are different. I understand that on a visceral level. But the thing to do is to swallow your pride and realize that the performance that is given, be it novel or dance or painting or anything where the goal is to touch someone else's heart, is the best that you could make at that moment. Maybe the floor was slippery--we get that. Maybe your editor wasn't what you'd hoped--we get that. What your fans are trying to say was that your work was amazing to them and they don't care how amazing it could have been. The people who come to you after they've experienced your art are saying they loved the art Just The Way It Is.

Accept that.

Own that.

And after they've taken their deep breaths and screwed up their courage to even make eye contact with you (Yes, I mean you, because everyone who reads this blog, whether you mean to or not, intimidates the crap out of someone else), they deserve the respect that you can give to the moment they have had. Once they tell you about how you touched their heart, it's no longer about you the creator: it's about those who have interacted with your art.

Be gracious. Your art has just done the thing you've always hoped it would: you have touched someone's life. Be thankful, not everyone manages to achieve the One Thing they have always tried to do with your art. Be sure to say thank you. 


  1. Huh. I've never thought about it like this.
    I would just assume that she was trying to be humble, and maybe flubbed it a bit.
    Of course, I live in MN, everyone is passive here, so i'm super used to people brushing off praise by doing stuff like this.

  2. It's that problem with perfectionism...we see flaws in ourselves that seem HUGE, but that in the grand scheme of things don't matter...and when someone is willing to reach out and tell you how much your art means to them, you have to learn how to look past your flaws and see what they see...and that's a freakin' BEAST of a thing to try to do...when your whole being/self-talk/past has been engineered to be hyper-critical.

  3. Ummm...apologies for that complete run-on sentence of a comment there!

  4. Awesome. I totally get this. As a vocal performer, it took a number of years to get to the point where I could graciously just say, "Thank you" when someone complimented me after a performance. Oh my goodness, did I know my flaws. Still, with time I realized that's what people needed to hear, and I've let that spill over to writing. It's a hard lesson to learn, but I think any true artist has to learn it.

  5. Wow. I admit, I'm shocked by your reaction.

    I read what you wrote about hers and I read something that's happened to many people, someone who was having a bad day, probably felt she'd flubbed it up, and YOUR words brought her to tears and she hugged you. What does that say? You picked someone up who seriously needed it at that moment, who was indeed insecure and just got validated when she least expected it. Maybe she just dealt with some serious trauma and had to dance anyway. Maybe not.

    But the point was, by the story you told, she accepted an unexpected gift when she was down and really needing it from someone who had unwittingly touched HER with their praise.

    Your moving someone to tears and feeling they cheapened their performance by expressing in rather understated words why you moved them to tears strikes a rather awful note for me. You say to be gracious. Please do.

  6. That's an interesting point, ScribbleMyName.

    My point was to never dismiss the art you've created. Even when you've had a bad day. Even when you've had the WORST day. You made art. Accept that. Own that part of it. It's hard to smile when you're being praised and you don't think you deserve it. That's hard.

    Did I kick her to the curb in her moment of vulnerability? Of course not (despite rumors to contrary, I have a heart). I received her bad day or her self humbling (whichever it was) with a smile. This post was about how to make sure we don't put our burdens on those who are just trying to tell us they enjoyed our art.

    Your words and actions will be mistaken at every turn (this post and comment being the case and point), so try not to humble yourself in front of people, because sometimes it humbles them as well.

  7. Well said, and I think this is something a lot of artists don't think about. We can't see our art the way others do, and they're going to find meanings we don't intend, they're going to see things we didn't put there, along with everything else you said. And we have to learn to be okay with that, since it's not really all right to flat-out tell someone their interpretation or reaction is wrong. If they get a fact about our writing wrong, that's different, but all the rest is kind of up in the air. It's not an easy thing to accept, I think.


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