Guest Post: Jessica Lee Anderson on the Creative Skin We’re In

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By Jessica Lee Anderson

One of my favorite quotes comes from Katherine Paterson, author of the Newbery-winning novel Bridge to Terebithia (HarperCollins):

“I have often noted that it takes the thinnest skin in the world to be a writer, it takes the thickest to seek out publication. But both are needed—the extreme sensitivity and the hippo hide against criticism.”

How can we cultivate the perfect skin as creative souls, the right balance of thin and thick? The thin skin to produce outstanding, unique manuscripts, and the thick skin to endure the seemingly endless waiting as well as rejection and criticism?

As Signe, a character in Kathi Appelt’s novel Keeper (Atheneum), would say, “This is a question for the universe.”

I wish I had the answer. In the ten years I’ve been writing professionally, I’ve had hippo hide moments and laughed in the face of rejection. I’ve had other moments when I practically needed stitches to sew the pieces of me together, moments when the disappointments of writing added to the mounting stresses I faced in other aspects of my life.

No, I don’t have the answer, but these ups and downs have provided some insights.

Insight #1: Avoid Harmful Exposure

Excerpt of Calli (Milkweed, 2011)

Our skin is an incredible sensory organ that holds things in place and protects us from losing water while preventing bacteria from entering at the same time. It requires care, and this is especially true for our “creative skin”.

Like wearing oven mitts when taking a hot casserole out of the oven or slathering on sunscreen, we must do what we can to avoid painful burns.

When you’re feeling especially vulnerable, try to surround yourself with people who encourage rather than those who trivialize or antagonize. Also, we need to be reminded that while writing is important, it isn’t the sum of who we are.

Examine the things that work for you and the things that don’t. Depending on where you’re at, will obsessing over book deals or reading into rejections replenish your creativity or scar it?

What about book reviews—can a few glowing comments extinguish the scorch of the negative? Will haunting book rankings or other statistics inspire or intimidate? Modify accordingly and reexamine as needed.

Many great minds have suffered greatly given the polarity of this field—don’t hesitate to seek professional help if you need it.

Insight #2: Skin Care Regimen

Regardless of skin types, any good, basic skin care regiment consists of cleansing, exfoliating, and moisturizing. If you’re not already in the habit, rinse away dirt, doubt, grime, and insecurity. Scrub away the clogging effects of distractions—television, the Internet, and anything else that blocks you from doing the work that you were called to do. Care for your creative skin by hydrating yourself with projects you enjoy working on or by reading, taking classes, attending conferences, etc.

Insight #3: Strengthening from the Inside Out

Discussion Guide

Topical techniques are important, but to truly have healthy, resilient skin (both physical and creative), it must be nurtured from the inside out. Exercise, good nutrition, adequate sleep, and relaxation all help to reactivate our skin’s innate ability to repair itself.

Okay, okay, I know I’m taking this skin thing way too far, but as I advance into my next decade of writing, and as this market continues to change and challenge, these insights are crucial to my well being and perhaps yours, too.

Highs and lows, thin and thick—it is all a part of this crazy business.

In closing, Katherine Paterson also said, “It takes courage to lay your insides out for people to examine and sneer over. But that’s the only way to give what is your unique gift to the world.”

Be courageous, give your gifts, and don’t forget to treat your creative skin well in the process.

Cynsational Notes

Jessica is a founding member of the Texas Sweethearts & Scoundrels.

Check out this video of her talking about patience and online distractions.

9 thoughts on “Guest Post: Jessica Lee Anderson on the Creative Skin We’re In

  1. Great guest post, Jessica, and thanks Cynthia for sharing it. I love your analogy, and the advice is spot on. As I go through some insomnia right now, I can especially attest that a good night's sleep is a must for our skin — both creative and literal. Thanks again.

  2. Caroline, I'm such a fan of Katherine Paterson that I've barely spoken to her at VCFA. Totally starstruck. Have you read her books on writing?

    Agreed, Carmen and Elizabeth!

    I love the analogy, too, Lindsey and Samantha!

    Jessica, thanks for sharing your sweet wisdom, and congratulations on all of your success!

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