Joel Olson posted at The Village Voice on why, I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script, an amusing, and pained, observance on both dealing with getting and getting feedback on writing. Which got me thinking.
He notes, “…not only is it cruel to encourage the hopeless, but you cannot discourage a writer.”
There is much truth in this. Speaking just from personal experience, I think I ‘quit’ writing about a dozen times–yeah, it’s like smoking, or drugs, only worse. Finally, I gave up on the whole giving up idea–if it’s not taking, it’s not taking. But it still took a couple of years after that of still writing the stories to get something to the point where it could sell. (And, no, you cannot see the ms. under the bed. They’re staying there–for now, at least.) From my side of the street, writers write.
On the other hand, there’s John Kennedy Toole (and isn’t that a name to work with), who offed himself, and eleven years later A Confederacy of Dunces came out, went on to do very well. So was it discouragement, or booze that dun him in, or another set of demons? And did the folks who rejected his work wonder about that later? (Don’t we all hate to be the one with the straight pin at the end of the birthday party that really does need to end now?)
Now, I’m not advocating for the tormented writer stereotype who needs comfy care. On the other hand, writers can be touchy bastards…oops, I mean sensitive types. As in thin-skinned, egocentric, arrogant…well, you get the idea. You cut us, we not only bleed, but we whine about it the whole time–words are habit forming. And, yes, every critical word sent at our precious goes in like a cut–or seems to, but that’s that ego thing.
And on the third hand, this sort of thing always leaves me heading for the truth behind the word. To ‘discourage’ is to dishearten–love that word, taking the heart out of you. According to M-W it’s to “deprive of confidence” to “hinder by disfavoring” or to try and talk someone out of doing something.
Seems to me that saying something needs work, or that it doesn’t work, or even that it sucks does not come tied to saying, “give it up.” But even that opinion is subjective–art’s supposed to appeal to the individual on a core level. So I like this book, but hate that other one, and a third is a big ho-hum–and the next person down the line feels entirely different. (God, please always have folks feel something about my work–love it or hate it, but spare me indifference.) And if you’re going to get really artsy, you’d better know your audience is not going to be mainstream.
Which leads me to the fourth hand of this bridge set, and the idea that really, it’s damn hard to be discouraged unless you do it to yourself. As in confidence is an inside job (or if it’s not, my friend, you are in serious, serious trouble, probably not too unlike Toole).
So I’m left thinking that what anyone says to you about your work is an opinion. How you take this is your responsibility. Even if you ask for it, your reaction to it is yours to own. To my mind, a writer is responsible for her own work. And for her own opinion of it. Meaning, we all need the ability to evaluate any critical comment and see it as either useful or irrelevant. That includes the comment, “Ever considered knitting, dear.”
Hemmingway (not a writer I adore, but he has good things to say, and you cannot fault the man’s craft) is credited with the quote, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector.” A good thing to apply not only to the world, but to your work, so you see what’s good, and what’s crap. And then learn how to fix the crap (or just cut it out).
But Jeffrey Carver’s the one who said, “Practice, practice, practice writing. Writing is a craft that requires both talent and acquired skills. You learn by doing, by making mistakes and then seeing where you went wrong.”
And, yes, we all lose perspective at times. We ask for advice which we are not ready to hear. Shit-detectors can fail on us. (Oh, yes, those purple pants were indeed a mistake, and yes, so was that very bad, bad idea of that cowboy amnesia story.) Which means, a writer needs friends who will point out the mistakes, say what’s wrong, and do so in a way that is not an abuse of friendship. And I do mean friends (not friends of friends, or acquaintances, or cyber-stalked folks, which just seems to me to be a path that is begging for a smack down or neglect).
If you do not have such friends, reference Toole’s story again. Or, frankly, Hemmingway’s. Which just goes to show, it’s not always about the rejection. Sometimes it’s about having friends who tell will you the truth. And the ability to hear them.