As photographers and artists, as much as we like to think otherwise, we’re a bit sensitive to critique. Not that it’s a weakness – it’s natural. Being an artist is an incredibly vulnerable profession – you’re putting your bare soul out into the world, and when it gets a little battered and bruised, it’s hard not to let it get to you. I’ve worked countless other jobs that weren’t in a creative field, and I’ll gladly admit that a boss screaming at me for stapling papers incorrectly is NOTHING compared to someone making a mumbling, “I…guess people like this…?” comment under their breath at a gallery opening. The former is easy to handle. My heart and soul is not in those staples – they want me to rip them out and do them over again? Gladly. But the latter example…I’ll be honest I still remember how much that hurt. I don’t even like typing it.
But with all the bad comments, there is usually some good, and many of us bounce back and forth in a kind of equilibrium. And while, personally, one negative comment will still kill the upbeat mood of 100 good ones (I know it’s stupid, and it’s getting better, but it’s still a struggle), rarely is there anything that can be said that cancels out any negative setbacks I’ve had…except for this. Except of these 5 little words that many of us haven’t heard in years.
I remember vividly, the first time in a long time that someone uttered this to me. I was driving my ice cream truck around town –
Small timeout so you can freak out for a second…yes, my mom and I own a small ice cream truck, Mr Pugsley’s Ice Cream (click that link to like the Facebook page, my mom would love it!). I don’t run it much anymore, but my mom still does. I love it, but to be honest, it’s a brutal job. It gets hot in Montana (usually at least 100 degrees), and you’re in that heat all day, no doors, sitting on a tiny seat cushion with the engine running underneath it. Hot engine air pumps out onto your legs, you’re swimming in sunscreen, going 1 mph down every street you’ve already been down a million times, dealing with screaming kids, inconsiderate teenagers, rude parents, angry dogs and all while that fucking circus music is playing above you. The awesome people and hilarious stories all make it worthwhile, but it can be pretty tough to keep your sanity. Seriously, next time you see the ice cream truck, throw an extra dollar in the tip jar – that job’s a lot harder than you think.
So back to it. About 5 years ago I was finishing my Master’s in college. I was taking summer courses and paying my way through school by running the ice cream truck every spare second I had. This day was like any other, but the end is what really hit me hard:
5:50: Run 6 miles.
6:50: Do dishes, prep food for dinner, finish writing 8-page Cognitive Dissonance/Situated Cognition paper. Turn in online before 8:00.
8:20: Friend texts. “It’s only a 4-page paper, I just don’t understand how to do the calculations is all. Can you help me out?” I say yes. She emails me her paper and I check over to make sure the calculations are correct. They aren’t. I fix her calculations and email it back.
10:30: Shower, slather on sunscreen and gather things for the ice cream truck.
11:20: First customers. Three teenage girls driving a 2008 Ford Focus. “Do you have anything that’s strawberry?” asked Girl #1 without even looking up from her phone. “Sorry,” I said. “I have huckleberry, would that be okay?” Girl #2 rolled her eyes. “Eww,” she said, “That sounds disgusting.” Girl #3 clearly agrees. “Let’s just go to Dairy Queen,” she whined. “This sucks.”
<Insert “Mean Girls” reference here>
1:26: Temperature hits 100 degrees.
3:30: I run by a friend’s house to check on her cat while she’s out of town. She has no cat food in the house. I run to the nearest gas station, buy some cat food, come back and feed her.
4:30: Made routine stop at a house with 5 kids and Cruella DeVille mom. She only lets them have what is free (though she clearly has enough money for tanning and cigarettes). I give them a few popsicles and tell them not to tell their mom, hoping one day she might cough up some change to cover the weekly dent she makes in my donation jar. Wishful thinking, I know.
4:42: Temperature hits 104 degrees.
5:30: A man stops me in traffic to say his dog is missing, and since I’ll be driving the streets all night that if I see it on my route to give him a call. He gives me his phone number, address and description of his dog. I tell him I’ll keep a lookout.
6:40: I head home to grab a bit to eat. The air conditioner has leaked all over the carpet, so I put a bowl underneath it and clean up what I could. I’ll get the rest later. I head back out.
7:30: I find the missing dog. I call the number but no answer, so I take it to the address. She’s a hyper Border Collie named Bella, and secretly I want to keep her. He’s not home, but his neighbor, and elderly woman, starts screaming at me and accuses me of trying to steal this man’s dog. I explain I’m actually bringing the dog back, but she just shakes her fist at me and walks into her house. I wait another 10 minutes and he pulls up. Crisis averted.
8:20: I realize I forgot to refill my water bottle when I stopped by my house. I’m out of water but I’ve only got an hour or so left, so I’ll just ignore it.
9:30: I make my last round through a familiar neighborhood and am waved over by a little boy and his dad. He takes awhile to ponder the choices, and I don’t want to rush him but in the back of my mind I know I have to get home before it gets dark – this truck has no working headlights. After narrowing down his options he chooses a chocolate ice cream sandwich. He gives me the money and takes his frozen treat.
“What do we say?” asked the father.
“Thank you,” replied the little boy.
“Aww, you’re welcome bud!” I said back.
“And what else do we say?” asked the dad once more.
I waited for a second. I didn’t know what else he was supposed to say. He paid me, he said thanked me…I wasn’t sure what else the dad was talking about. But his son looked up at me, with big, brown eyes bordered by long lashes and said with complete sincerity five words I hadn’t heard in years:
“You’re doing a good job.”
“Oh, wow,” I stuttered. “Thank you so much. Thank you so, so much.”
He smiled, his dad dropped $0.50 in the donation jar and I headed on my way. I was completely silent until I walked into the empty house and sat down at the dining room table, set down my water bottle, and cried.
You’re doing a good job.
I couldn’t remember the last time someone had told me that, and I’ll never forget how hard it hit me when someone finally did. Not assumed I already knew, not insinuated it in a round-about way, but had actually said the words.
As artists we’re constantly looking for some kind of affirmation that we’re on the right path. We’re looking for something to prove we’re not throwing our lives away; that all this time spent learning random Photoshop skills on YouTube at 4:00 in the morning isn’t for nothing. We’re always bouncing back and forth between feeling free and feeling lost, feeling creative and feeling crazy, feeling independent and feeling alone. We’re all going through it – it’s a natural part of navigating life as an artist. But at least today, we can reach out to a fellow artist and say the 5 words they have probably forgotten what it’s like to hear:
You’re doing a good job.
I hope you tell this to someone today. It could be your mom, or it could be the person that gets your coffee, it doesn’t matter. Someone deserves to hear this, and they would love to hear it from you.
And if you ever need someone to talk to, feel free to talk to me – I answer best through email or on my Facebook page, Jenna Martin Photography :).
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