Thursday, October 22, 2015

Don't Fear The Ugly Baby: Facing Criticism For Your Work

In 2000, my book, The Big Spooky House, was released. I was excited. I always am when a book hits the market. I was especially pleased because in 1996 I'd gone into baby making mode and wasn't working all that much. In 2000 I had a soon to be four year old and a toddler. I was in need of something to remind me that there really had been a time in my life when my most important function had nothing to do with preventing diaper rash.

Unfortunately, there were some reviewers who did not like the book. I remember reading one review that depressed me for almost two weeks. It was the first time I'd had a book come out that wasn't well received by the critics.

It felt like some stranger had walked up to me on the street and said, "Oh my, you have a very ugly baby."

These days, when I encounter an uncomfortable public situation with my work whether it be my writing or performing, I call it an 'Ugly Baby Event'.

It hurts your feelings. It might make you upset. It might make you go into defense mode. It might make you angry. It might frustrate you. It might make you sad.

For a period of time after my first bad review, I was afraid of future ugly babies. I wanted to go cautiously so that I didn't expose myself to that sort of rejection again. Stick to what you are good at, I told myself, don't tread where you are likely to be unwanted.

In 2002, my husband quit his job, and I went back to storytelling full time. I was worried. What if I fail at this? What if I can't afford to feed my family? What if we lose the house? What if I can't do this?

I was no longer considering the ugly baby that I was walking around with, but all of the potential ugly babies in my future. Well, there was only one thing for it. I started calling my mentors and friends. I called Jim May, Syd Lieberman, Milbre Burch, and Beth Horner.  I asked what sort of advice they might give me if I were going to get back into the storytelling game full time. I also asked if they thought I could do it.

The advice and support I got from them made a huge impression on me. I learned what it meant to be a guiding light in this business. I learned what it meant to plow forward. I learned what it meant to be completely honest with someone who is struggling with choices in our very public job. I am forever grateful to them for their support, and the time they spent listening to me.

This is my twenty eighth year as a professional storyteller and author. Sometimes I'm in the middle of a show and I can't believe somebody is letting me do this for a living. I love this work.

Sometimes I am writing furiously on a piece and wonder if it will ever see the light of the published world, or if it will become another project that I write at forever, but never share with anyone else.

Li'l Rabbit's Kwanzaa and other books by Donna Washington

There will be ugly babies in my future, it is inevitable. There will also be gorgeous babies, curious ones, misunderstood creatures, awesome creations, marginal attempts, and huge ungainly pratfalls.  That's what it means to be a public performer. That's what it means to put yourself out there.

So, if you are on the cusp of trying something new, breaking into the next level, worried about sending out that manuscript, facing your first festival, writing your first grant, or whatever adventure you are about to face, push on through.

The world is full of opportunities, but only if you take the first steps.

The word 'no' isn't going to kill you.
The words 'I didn't like this' don't mean nobody likes it.
The first attempt at something might not go well, so you learn and do better the next time.

Fear is the thing that holds most of us back when we would go forward. Fear of failure. Fear of rejection. Fear of the unknown.

About six months after the first couple of reviews came out about The Big Spooky House, a slew of them were posted by teachers, librarians and parents. Turns out, the book was a hit with kids and the grown ups who read to them. People still contact me and ask how they can get copies of it since it has been out of print for the last five years.

Here is a page where a kid who reviews books gave A Big Spooky House five out of five bookworms'.

'A Big Spooky House
By Donna Washington
Illustrated by Jacqueline Rogers
32 Pages – Ages 6+
Published by HarperCollins
He was a BIG man. He was a STRONG man. He wasn’t afraid of NOTHING….or was he?
This is one of my favorite Halloween books and I blogged about it in my Halloween post last year, but since it’s my favorite I am including it in my post this year! This book has been out for a few years but it was the first “scary” book that I really liked so I am recommending it! The story is great and the reading level is a little harder. It is also a little more spooky of a tale. I really like this book! I give this book five out of five bookworms!

My ugly baby isn't so ugly. In retrospect I realized that I never thought I had an ugly baby, someone else thought that.

We create art and we send it out there. Stand by what you create. Learn from the feedback. Keep going.

As for the ugly baby is the price of doing business in our business!

Happy Telling!


  1. Love this. Actually, the one-star makes the five-stars look legit. Never sweat them single stars. And...we have done baby-fearing to ourselves with making the "appreciations" coaching style so prevalent and single-choiced in our shared oral-storytelling art form. I often have to retrain my coaching clients how to listen to, understand, filter and use deep-coaching as stimulant (fertilizer) vs. "clap for me and I will clap for you" we do so much in our guilds and workshops. Oddly, artists from other art forms often are shocked when I start with appreciations. What is it about us as storytellers?

    Speaking of critique: you have an article about your fine books and you have no links to the books at Amazon or other sources. What?! :-)

    1. Thank you for reminding me about the links. ! I try hard to do this with other people's work and I never remember to do it with my own! I'm glad you stopped by! Learning to appreciate your own work is a difficult thing for many of us. Thank you for being one of the coaches out there who helps us figure out how to do it!