Taking It in the Teeth from Your Critics

When I was a young technical writer, I remember turning to a colleague one day and saying:

If you want to be a writer, you have to take it in the teeth everyday.

That has turned out to be true. You can’t write much, let alone a book, without discovering your detractors. It is a simple fact of the writer’s life.

And it doesn’t bother me. It really doesn’t. It used to bother me. But I now know that I must eagerly pursue writing enterprises, regardless of the public disadmiration.

I remember how upset I was when I first discovered an uncharitable review of one of my books on Amazon.com. That was almost 10 years ago. I’ve had a lot of time to ruminate on the phenomena of literary persecution.

No matter how hard you work, how many times you review, rewrite, reorganize, rethink, and republish, someone out there won’t like your work. In fact, they won’t like you. And that’s okay. It really is. When your work gets exposed to thousands of people, someone out there will thumbs down your work.

Try a little experiment. Think of the funniest or most touching YouTube video you have seen recently, something that you just love. Go to the video page and see how many dislikes it has. Amazing, isn’t it?

The root of our trouble as writers is based in our natural dislike, even loathing, of embarrassment and negative attention. It has been planted in us since childhood, when we were sent out to recess in grade school and found out there was competition for popularity and a tendency to mock anything that was even slightly different than the common or the norm.

People have opinions. They have interests, intents, dislikes, and quirks. People have bad days. People have bad lives. Some are in a lot of pain, psychic or physical. Just because someone has a bad opinion of you doesn’t mean you are bad or your work is bad. It means that you part of very big picture where a lot of people interact while they try to figure out how to live life.

I actually think criticism is a good thing. It’s healthy and often necessary. It’s educational and at times edifying though usually not uplifting. It can be helpful, if you let it be helpful by disregarding its unhelpfulness.

But my word of caution is this: respect and honor your critics while not breathing in their fumes. Your critics are giving off some kind of gas, and just because it smells bad doesn’t mean it is bad.

Now that I am a bit further along in my writing career, reading criticism of my books makes me giggle. I don’t know why, but every time I discover a bad review, it makes me giggle. Not that I think these reviews are always wrong or inappropriate. It’s just that the longer I live, the funnier and more interesting life becomes.

I have my critics, but they are not my enemies by any means.

Maybe it’s this: I write for love. I love people and I want to help them. That is at the foundation of why I write. I am as confident in my intent as I am in the spelling of my own name.

Let me sum up with this. Ernest Hemingway wrote this in a letter to Ivan Kashkin, a Soviet Russian translator and critic, in 1935:

Writing is something that you can never do as well as it can be done. It is a perpetual challenge and it is more difficult than anything else I have ever done—so I do it. And it makes me happy when I do it well (Larry W. Phillips, Ernest Hemingway on Writing [New York, New York: Scribners, 1984], 15). 

No matter how hard you try, you will never be perfect and you will never write a perfect book. Just because someone notices that is not reason to mourn.

Love your critics. Treat them with kindness and humor. Make friends with them. Friendship flourishes in struggle.  

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