Friday, February 4, 2011

Whose baby is it, anyway? Or - How to cope with criticism

No human being in the world is immune to criticism. Redecorate your living room in retro 70's to remind yourself of your childhood or buy yourself a fancy new outfit that says, "There's nobody else like me!" and chances are someone else will hate your choices. Unless we're talking about your mother, common social courtesy says we don't publicly pass judgment on others' tastes. We may have an opinion, but when we're face to face with our peers, be they friends or strangers, we don't tell them what we really think of their too short haircut and bad dye job, ugly new clogs, or the little black dress that looks like a Hefty trash bag the dog threw up on. We don't even dare hint that their newborn baby might be . . . ugly.

As writers, we pour so much of our souls into our stories that sometimes they feel like real babies to us - living beings that we carried in our wombs for endless months and then forced out in agonizing pain, only to be left drained and yet somehow . . . pleased with ourselves. Then, like raising children, we nurture that conglomeration of words and thoughts, trying to shape it into something better and respectable. Finally, we cut the strings and release it into the world: our book, our precious baby.

Only, it's not our baby once we let it go. And that's a hard concept to grasp.

Every writer hopes for praise. We bask in it when it does come along. We're motivated by it. Sometimes, we're just stunned by that someone actually gets it. But we all also get our fair share of criticism - and it can be devastating, if we let it be. The first bad review I ever got, I retreated into my shell for days, a worm of nausea gnawing away at my confidence. I re-examined my life goals. I felt guilty for selfishly hoarding time away from my family when I could have been doing something more productive with my time - like earning money at a real job. I admitted that maybe, just maybe, I had been deluding myself for years with a pipe dream.

Somehow, I found the courage to go on. Possibly, I am just too stubborn to admit defeat. Most of all, I felt I couldn't let down those who had believed in me, encouraged me and offered sincere praise. So I persisted.

The scariest part about writing isn't having the commitment to do it; it's having the guts to share it. So, it becomes a welcome surprise when people start to buy your book. And an even bigger shock when some of them tell you how much they enjoyed it. It's a special thrill when a complete stranger from halfway around the globe asks when the next book will be out, because they've already read all the rest.

It's inevitable, though: the more books you sell, the more likely it is that someone will buy your book and find it's just not their thing. If we all liked the same thing, there wouldn't be any variety in the world and what a bland place that would be.

A writer I very much respect once said that she figures once a book goes out into the world, it no longer belongs to her, the writer. It becomes the property of the reader and the reading of it becomes their experience. Not everyone is going to connect with it.

When I get a harsh review now, I read it once and never again. When I get a really, really good one, I print it off and tack it up on the cork board. It reminds me to focus on writing for the people for whom my writing resonates and not to dwell on those for whom it doesn't.

I may have started out writing for myself, but now the realization of a lifelong dream has finally sunk in. I'm writing for readers, the vast majority of them people I don't even know - and that both humbles and elates me. Thank you, each and every one.

Happy reading,


Michelle Gregory said...

i loved this. you nailed it right on the head. one bad review can so easily erase all the good ones. once i have a writing space that's all my own, i'm going to print off all my good reviews, etc and tack them up.

N. Gemini Sasson said...

Thanks, Michelle. Showing and judging dogs for over two decades helped me learn how two people can look at the same thing and judge it differently. Stand ringside at a dog show and one person will say Fido is the BEST dog they've ever seen while the next one is wrinkling their nose in disgust.

Writing is subjective. It's personal for both the writer and the reader.

Jack Ramsay said...

Good advice, Gemi. As writers we shouldn't strive to please all the people all the time - it's an impossible goal to achieve.

All the best,


Greta said...

You are so right Gemi. Yes, it's scary to share your work with the world and all of us have that cringing 'what if they don't like it?' feeling. It's something I struggle with all the time. But I didn't write it to sit on my PC. I want people to read my stories so I have to gird my loins. As you did.

Lexi said...

Focus on writing for the people for whom your writing resonates and don't dwell on those for whom it doesn't...

That's excellent advice :o)