You know, watching Celebrity Apprentice, a guilt pleasure, has actually brought back unpleasant memories this year of my days working in theatre and why I burned out. There’s something that happens when you get creative people together that can be very unpleasant: a clash of the titans, I mean, egos. If you’re artistic, you’re passionate, if you’re passionate, you’re ego driven, and if you’re ego driven, and Western, in particular, you’re likely an individualist. Those three traits combine to make collaboration a challenge for most of us. It can be hard enough dealing with editors, publishers and critics commenting on our ideas, our art, etc., but to have to create with someone equally driven and deal with their opinions too can just push you over the edge. But art is often, at its best, in collaboration. So proper care and feeding of the ego is important.
This post is not as much about how to collaborate well as how to be a decent artistic citizen, let’s get that straight, How to be professional and courteous when working with others, i.e. how to play nice.
1 ) Respect Others’ Gifts. You are not the only gifted person on Earth. It’s best to remember that. Think back to the last time you wrote embarrassing prose. Yesterday? The day before? Everyone writes crap, no matter how experienced or trained you are. Sometimes it’s quickly overcome and tossed aside, other times it consumes your frustrating day. You’re not above it, so before you pump up the ego and get cocky, give yourself a little flashback. Nothing tames the ego like a reminder of your own frailty.
2 ) Remember Your Last Bad Review. We all have gotten them. We all dislike them, even when they teach us stuff. It’s just not fun to have someone criticize a piece of your heart. Before Mister or Miss Ego mouths off to someone else, try to remember what it feels like to get a bad review. That ought to temper your words or at least slow you down enough to think before you speak.
3 ) Check Your Motives. Why are you there at that moment interacting with those fellow artists? Did you get invited or did you choose to come? What value can the interaction provide you? Unless they’re crashing a hot date, chances are, they’re there for a reason and you should take advantage of the opportunity to network and build relationships. These could be the people who recommend your work, vote for you in future awards or introduce you to your next publisher or agent, after all. No artist is really in competition with another. Our selling point is our unique voice. And, in the end, networking is so key to everyone’s success that we all need each other, so check your motives and remember that.
4 ) Your Art May Be About You But The World Isn’t. Yeah, sorry, the world doesn’t revolve around you. Ask the biggest names you know: Mike Resnick, Robert Silverberg, Kris Rusch, etc. They’re all quite secure in their gifts and their goals and yet, they’re nice and respectful toward others. Why? Because they know that they are one of many: many have gone before them and many will come after. You can make a choice: do you want to be remembered well or badly? It’s your call.
5 ) Learning Rarely Occurs In A Vacuum. Sure, working out the nitty-gritty issues with craft can occur on your own in your office or studio, but chances are the interaction which gave you the insight needed to know where and how to make improvements in your craft came through interaction with others. People speak into our world all the time unexpectedly and without even being aware of it. If you view every opportunity to interact with other creatives as a potential learning opportunity, the chance to get better at what you do–even if it’s learning from someone else’s mistakes or wrong thinking–then your attitude during such encounters will adjust accordingly.
6 ) You Can Control Yourself, Not Anyone Else. Okay, so one of the other creatives is being an egomaniac jerk. So what? You can’t control their behavior, you can only control your own. If it gets too bad, you can always leave, yes. If it’s someone with whom you have a good relationship, you can try to pull them aside and let them know. But beyond that, it’s out of your control. Don’t let it stress you out or change your behavior. They’re the one who’ll really suffer from their behavior in the long run as long as you stay out of it. Remember what you can control and let go of the rest.
7 ) Listen More Than You Speak. One of the best ways to control that ego is to let someone else talk more than you do. Look at the interaction as an opportunity to practice listening skills. For most creatives, listening is key to learning things which we’ll later try to capture in our art. So…look at the opportunity you have to listen first and talk later. Make sure when you do speak that what you have to say matters. People who feel you’re listening to them are much more likely to listen to you anyway. And frankly, the less you speak, the less chance you have of saying something dumb, right? Especially if your ego is making you tense.
Ultimately, any successful creative’s career involves interacting with other creatives and those who support them. My experience in television and film was that the most successful and longstanding people in Hollywood were the nicest. The ones who’d just appeared or risen quickly were more likely to be jerks. There’s always exceptions but that tended to be the trend. From my experience so far in publishing, I’d tend to say the same rules apply. I’ve already met people who fall into both categories. What about you? The best advice I ever got on entertainment came from Ted Danson, off the cuff, after I’d interviewed him one day. He said: “Always surround yourself with people who are willing to tell you the truth. You’ll get lots of people telling you how great you are all the time in this business, but what you need is someone who’s still willing to tell you when you’re being an asshole.”
Good advice for all of us, if you ask me. For what it’s worth…
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, andThe Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories featured in anthologies and magazines. He edited the new anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. His children’s book 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Jokes For Kids from Delabarre Publishing. As a freelance editor, he’s edited a novels and nonfiction. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.