Let’s put ourselves in a very large comfortable room. It’s a writing seminar. You’ve paid money to come here. You’ve made all these travel and work arrangements. You have waited for this seminar for weeks. You’ve got a charged laptop, some pens, a legal pad and a bottle of water – everything you need to take notes or do whatever’s asked of you in this seminar.
Let’s go one step further and say that I’m not giving this seminar, that Published Author X and Author Y are. Published Author X is a big deal. They’ve got a lot of books to their name, they write a popular blog, they have loyal fans. They play up the role of cantankerous maverick, equal parts grouch who hates “the establishment” and practical rebel who occasionally fires off big, shouty rants. Published Author Y has fewer books to their name, is less angry and ranty, and could be mistaken for aloof. Author Y isn’t terribly practical, and is known for stressing the importance of theory and frequently references academic sources and studies and papers while Author X is ten times more likely to cite their own work.
Got it pictured? No, the genders don’t matter. No, the location doesn’t matter. Make it ideal. Make your supplies infinite.
Now, put me in the back of the room, Obi-Wan Kenobi Force Ghost style.
Author X and Y tell you that this seminar isn’t just going to be them talking to you, but they want you to write and they’re going to move around the room and check your progress. This might freak you, but they cage it as “a chance to get help from experts”. So you smile and start writing.
The first hour goes past. They move through the room, and while they haven’t gotten to you yet, you can hear what they’re saying to others. People look upset, dejected and disappointed. A few tear up. Someone loudly stormed off behind you. Author X and Y both say to keep writing.
The second hour rolls along, and it’s your turn. Author X comes over, asks to see what you’re writing. They scrutinize it, and call over Author Y. They both look at it. You might ask questions, but all you get out of them are the non-answers of “Hmm” and “Oh.” Their faces are a mix of frustration, constipation and that face your old neighbor makes when the kids up the block are too loud. Seconds stretch. Then they speak.
“It’s not bad, could be better, I guess.” and “Well, yes, it could be better, but it’s, you know, alright.” It doesn’t matter who says what. Their answers are vague and deflating. (If this isn’t deflating enough, insert your own pair of really uncomfortable sad things).
Now the question becomes – do you stay and try harder? Do you head out the door? Did you just waste your time? Are you disappointed?
Sadly, that scene happens in some variation to a lot of people. They come to a seminar looking for something more than the inspiration they get just from reading a post, they come for more than the awkward guilt or shame of knowing they could do more or do it with less difficulty. I believe that people come to a seminar or a workshop or a convention looking for answers or a route to whatever their next step in their journey is. They have questions they need answers for, they need feedback on their progress, they want to hear what they can do, how they can do it better and what they should avoid or work on not doing.
How Praise Helps The Writer
Writing is a solitary and often emotional activity. We accept a lot of risk in the production of what we create, often enduring lengthy periods of rejection or lengthier periods of anticipating/expecting rejection and feel a deep attachment to the characters, the stories and the ideas. We generally write by ourselves, sitting at tables and desks and often with a schedule that differs from everyone else’s comings and goings. It’s an activity that puts you in your head, drawing the story out and onto the page. Sure, you might get up and complain at your pet or potted plant about how the scene is or isn’t working, sure you might argue with coffee pot or ice dispenser when you can’t quite get something right, and yeah, I guess you might sit and write with your spouse or significant other on the couch over there folding laundry and staring (why can we always feel them staring?) at us while we type frantically away. When the bulk of creation is internal (meaning in YOUR head), there’s not a lot of praise. We’re slow to praise ourselves, maybe we grew up that way or we just had poor role models for praise, or like me, you were told that praise is short-lived and really only given when you “truly” deserve it … but never get told the conditions when you deserve it.
Little Praise, Then What?
Back in our imagined seminar, let’s go back to the Authors X and Y standing over you. We’re going to talk about the actual standing part in a second, but go check out their faces. The tension in the eyebrows. The pursing of lips. The somewhat blank stares. We’re taught at an early age (and through stressful experiences develop) to read faces for signs of danger or upset, and sometimes for some of us those systems are built on bad code. For me, if I can’t immediately register a positive response, I assume the super negative. I’m pretty sure a lot of people fall along that negative part of the spectrum if they’re creative.
Criticism might come from other people, but we define it. At the most basal, all Authors X and Y are doing are opening faceholes and passing air over cords in sound patterns. Our brains have to process those vibrations as sounds we know, then further process them into speech, then go one more step to put them into definitions and draw conclusions. Try thinking about that while listening to someone tear you a new one over the phone, or getting yelled at by a boss at work. It’s sound waves. The definitions at the end of that chain of brain processes? That’s up to you.
I’m not saying you should disregard what someone says, but I am saying to consider it before you lock onto the negativity of it. I’m also not saying you should jump the gun in the other direction and assume they hate it because they’re jealous of you. That’s a possibility, but no more so than your piece needing work or them being unable to properly express themselves and be able to maintain their personas and egos.
So What Can I Take Away From This?
Okay, let’s talk a little about this room we’ve imagined. See how you’re sitting and their standing? And how they’re standing over you when they walk around? We’re wired to accept them as authority figures. It’s how teachers interacted with as children. It’s how parents used to tower over us as we toddled about. Some of us tend to question authority and rebel and chafe at it, but most of us all get a sense that the standing person, the leader-person is more knowledgeable than we are.
This is not necessarily true. They might be more knowledgeable, as knowledgeable, or less knowledgeable than us. They’re just people. They do the same things we do. They’re fallible. They poop. They forget their keys and spill things and put off doing chores just like we do. They are human.
Yes, they’ve been published. They might have been doing this activity longer than you. They might have learned some things you don’t know and be able to help you do things you had trouble with before. On that basis, give them respect. But do not confuse respect for surety. This is not a case where you follow them into the mouth of hell. This is where you accept what they say then choose how you want to interpret it. No, you don’t get to be a dick about it, you do so graciously and sincerely.
“Thank you for [the feedback]. I appreciate you bringing that up.”
Don’t deliver that quote in that passive aggressive tone like you’re all sarcastic or worse, “killing them with kindness”. No, I mean really sit there with your feelings, compose yourself and thank them for saying whatever.
The Magic Trick
Okay, so Author X and Y? What you know of them are some facts (they’ve published books, they have a certain persona online, they’re hosting this seminar) and some abstracts (their personas, any emotion you believe them to have). You give them those abstracts. You project that. That’s stuff from you to them. In short: you expect them to be a certain way, they’re either going to act in accordance with that (live up to it) or you’re going to filter and color what they did or said to fit that expectation. We’re human. We do this. We expect the controversial person to be controversial, and when they’re not, we either claim the actions as poking fun at normal or we suffer a disconnect and have to change how we feel. We expect the aloof-looking person to be rude and we prep for it, and don’t give them a fair shake.
(Wait, the person I imagined WAS rude. So, yeah, they gets no fair shakes.)
The magic trick is that these people aren’t experts. There are no experts. There are people who have found ONE way to accomplish a goal, and there are people who are still looking. Instead of looking to duplicate what they did, look for your own path to goal accomplishment. Their path is not and won’t be your path. And only some of their advice is going to help you. Discern. Think for yourself.
Then What About Competition?
Stay in that imagined seminar, but I want you to add something to it. Picture the first things that come to mind when you read this phrases: legitimate publishing, traditional publishing, real writing success. A lot of people, upon coming across those words think about agents and editors and big offices and books going on bookstore shelves. For a long time that WAS publishing. Over time, we’ve seen a lot of different ways to get written things into the hands of people who want to read them. These new methods are different than the old methods for a lot of reasons – different end product, different steps in the production chain, omission of gatekeepers, whatever – but assuming the old method is “legit” and the new method isn’t is a lot like assuming the author at the front of the room holds some exclusive knowledge and has to decide if you’re good enough to know it. For me, that’s not legitimacy. That’s exclusion, and a loss of my control over my craft.
When teachers or agents or editors or publishers promote scarcity or exclusivity as a proof of legitimacy, they’re reinforcing the behaviors that deny praise and encouraging the anxiety and presumption of wrongness. First of all, they’re the decision-makers for that legitimacy. That makes the assumption that the person you impress speaks or has knowledge about what your audience likes. I might have been occupied for much of the day, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t vote this agent/editor person the power to determine what I like. They’re ONE person. If they don’t like your work, find someone else.
In our virtual seminar, look at the other people. You might think they’re all currying for Author X and Y’s favor, and you might think they’ll get it before you, but that assumes you’re not good enough to be liked. Now, let’s really shake things up. What if you didn’t buy into it? What if you didn’t write like you’re competing? What if there was no competition?
There is no competition. None. Not because you’re better than they are, or they’re better than you are. They write. You write. You all have the same goal: to get your work out into the hands of people who want to read it (ideally in exchange for money). Yes there’s scarcity in some models of publishing. But not in all of them. There are plenty of ways to accomplish that goal, why get rigidly attached to one? Yes, there’s a lack of praise all over the place. Negative feedback outnumbers (but not necessarily outweighs) positive feedback. We’re quick to give low reviews to things so that people can see how superior we think we’d be and so that we can get a moment of spotlight by sharing that negativity.
Can We Be Positive?
Yes, I hear you, you check out blogs and leave positive comments and tell people you’ll buy their books and you retweet and favorite their tweets. You promise you’ll talk to them when you finish your work. You tell your friends all about the books. That’s nice, but that’s the tip of the positive iceberg.
The 80% under the surface can be split into:
30% you learning something from what they’ve written (a model for dialogue or character or tension or something), 50% you writing. Yeah, you’re not going to escape that writing part. Sorry. It’s why we do this. But you can thank them. And not just, “OMG I <3 ur bookz! nbd tho” (or however the kids say that, I think I forgot a “squee” or something). I mean track down a method contact longer than a tweet and drop them a note. Tell them how their book got you through a rough part of your own writing. Tell them how you really enjoyed spending your lunch breaks escaping your hated job by exploring the world they made. Tell them how a character’s strength gave you hope when things looked bleak. Tell them how a moment in the story moved you.
Put your guts out there. See what you get back. You’ll be surprised to see what not being a negative fuckhole can give you.
The Cycle Has To End
If there’s little praise, then we are competing for it, then we’re not focused on getting guts on the page – we’re trying to divine what will please the praisekeeper – and they might be some fickle people. Snapping that cycle is as easy as looking at what you’re writing, remembering why you’re writing it and being aware that you (not others) are in charge of it. Yes, you can hand it off, but only do so to the people you know share the same intensity of care and enthusiasm you do. And when someone rains on your parade, understand that you don’t have to quit on account of storms. They pass.