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.  

How I Got Started as a Writer

When I was a boy, I wrote stories and drew pictures. I still have some of those stories and lots of drawings. I never considered becoming a writer then. Not until I was 18, when I had an epiphany.

I was standing over a copy machine in a church in Salem, Oregon. As the optics flashed, I had an idea. “You will write books.” It was an unusual idea, a clear idea. It was like a vision.

That was in 1976. It has been my guiding star for almost 40 years.

Jump to 1983. When I told my dad that I had decided to major in English, he said, “What are you going to do with that?” I told him that I wanted to become a writer—at that time, a technical writer to be exact. He replied, with anti-swagger, “You can’t be a technical writer.”

Thank you, dad, for your gift: Motivating me to prove you wrong.

I graduated from BYU with my bachelor’s in English 30 years ago this week. A few months later, I got a job as a technical writer for the company where my dad worked for 25 years.

Soon after I landed the job—my first, real, grown-up job—my dad and I had a conversation in the backyard of his house on the ranch. I said the most disrespectful thing I have ever said to him. “Dad, you can just eat crow.” He smiled. I knew he was proud, but he wasn’t accustomed to expressing emotions that John Wayne wouldn’t.

Fast forward to 2013. I have written 18 books which have generated revenue approaching $1,000,000.00. I haven’t seen all that revenue as income, but I have been able to take home almost 10 percent of that in royalties.

So here I am, looking back at the impact of a single moment 37 years ago, the moment that electric vision wrote itself on my heart. It has not been easy. Sometimes it has not been fun. But I have never given up. Not entirely.

Well. I did give up once, but only temporarily. I wrote my first novel 22 years ago, but I threw it away in a fit. I actually threw away several books. It was a discouraging time in my life. But my star kept shining.

I write everyday, in several genres. It never gets boring. I never tire of it. Besides my journal, I am actively working on three books right now: (1) a technical book, a second edition of one of my programming books; (2) a how-to book on how to write and publish a book; and (3) I am nearing completion of my second novel, a YA fantasy set in the modern West about a girl who talks to horses and falcons and rattlesnakes, and they talk back.

Andi, the protagonist of the novel, is getting ready to save the world, what part she can save, but she doesn’t know that yet. She’ll figure that out in book 3. Right now, she is just trying to deal with her mother’s betrayal and why someone wants to kill her. A horse named Jubi is helping her.

I have no plans to retire.

P.S. You should be writing, too. Why aren’t you? A salutary practice, writing.

Seven Thousand Pages

Yesterday, I reached seven thousand pages in my personal journal. I am near the end of my fortieth volume.

My first journal entry was on April 20, 1976. I was 18 years old. I have kept it up for 37 years.

Why have I kept it up?

Number 1. I am a writer. Writers write. It’s what writers do.

Number 2. We have a choice: expression or depression. I choose expression. Or it keeps choosing me.

Number 3. A journal is a place to practice with few negative consequences.

Number 4. It’s history. It is for my children and grandchildren. I hope it will be of value to them someday. Someday.

Though at times I have ripped pages out of my journal, it is mostly an intact record of my adult life. A record of my woes and joys, of trials and triumphs, of miracles, of my ever changing perspective.

Some of it is self-enamored drivel. I know that. But I forgive myself for that.

It is a pathway. It is both a method to relieve my madness and to relive my madness. And happiness. It works. It has been worth the effort.

I only wish I had written more.

P.S. This is not an April Fool’s joke.