Today’s post is written by regular contributor Sarah Baughman.
Writing is a conundrum: highly personal, yet undoubtedly public.
On the one hand, we write what matters most to us, weave our deepest feelings into characters and scenes, offer confessions, feel nervous to share what we’ve crafted, talk about loving “the process” whether or not we find “success”.
On the other hand, we crave acknowledgment, submit to literary magazines, enter contests, check and respond to our blog comments, sign up for writers’ conferences and critique groups, employ editors, attend readings.
Writing begins privately and demands some degree of isolation. The flicker of inspiration we register—a line that comes to us as we wake up, a setting we dream on the way to work—begins inside; nobody else can see it. We work for hours at a computer, honing words alone.
But inevitably, someone else enters the picture. We request feedback, revise and polish. Send our work into the void to be judged. And why?
We make our writing public because we crave connection. Positive feedback is nice, but it goes deeper than that. Recently someone who commented on an essay of mine wrote, “Thank you for…making me feel less alone in my thoughts.” His words spelled, for me, success. If by writing I can somehow further understanding, empathy, and a feeling of belonging in a world that’s sometimes lonely, I’m happy.
Author Laura Munson’s professed artist’s statement reads: “I write to shine a light on an otherwise dim or even pitch-black corner, to provide relief for myself and others.” Relief for myself and others. Indeed, writing is neither purely altruistic, nor purely selfish. As we reach others, we too benefit. We connect with others by doing something we enjoy anyway. What a great arrangement!
But what happens when it doesn’t quite work that way? All writers who publicize their work know not everybody will like it. Maybe some people will hate it. Others just won’t quite relate. Rejection, disagreement, or even ho-hum neutrality can come from faraway publishers or from people we know and love.
It’s one thing to be intellectually prepared for rejection or indifference, and another to experience it. No matter how much we might love hearing that Kathryn Stockett’s manuscript of The Help was rejected sixty times before getting picked up by a publisher, we don’t actually want those sixty rejections for ourselves.
It’s tempting, in the face of less-than-ideal reactions to the public version of our private work, to lose focus, adopt a different style, ditch a writing plan we once felt excited about, or even withdraw from that public sphere for good. But we shouldn’t.
On the contrary, writing our own truth–via fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, or any other genre–becomes indisputably important.
How do we know we’re writing our truth?
- We have a clear vision. We might not know how it’s going to end. Or we might know how, but not why. We do, however, have a sense of the direction we want our work to take, the themes we want to see emerge.
- Our characters feel like real people. We don’t need to make every character a thinly veiled version of Aunt Mildred or Cousin Timmy, but we should feel connected to each character. They should seem like kindred spirits, or frightening enemies.Our reactions to them should feel visceral, as though we’re reaction to a person we met on the street.
- Elements of ourselves emerge in our work. Even in fiction, even in a work where you’ve adopted a setting, a persona, a conflict that you think you’ve never experienced. You should still see some elements you can relate to, something that tugs at your heart.
- Hitting “publish” feels good. Nervous is normal. But when you’ve written your truth, the anxiety of wondering how people will react is outweighed by the sense that you’ve written something worth sharing.
How can we deal with unwanted, or absent, responses?
- Anticipate potential reactions ahead of time. Assume that what you’ve written won’t speak to everyone. Also assume that it will speak to at least someone. Bet on half and half, and you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised.
- Focus on positive responses. Human nature makes it easy to focus on the negative, even if it’s a minority perspective. If rejection gets you down, reread positive notes, critiques, and comments you’ve received. They’ll remind you that you’ve connected after all.
- Step inside the alternate perspective. Considering people’s motivations for rejecting your work makes for an interesting psychological experiment. How do your experiences and values contrast in ways that explain the difference of opinion? This isn’t a superiority contest, though; you should walk away feeling humbled by a variety of views, but still confident in your own.
- Remember how disagreement enhances diversity. The reason high school English programs feature authors as different as Toni Morrison and Ernest Hemingway is because there’s no one right way to write.
Emily Dickinson advised, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” Write it sideways, perhaps? We all have different truths to speak, and our readers won’t always agree with us. But it’s hardly a reason to stop writing. Think of the connections you’d lose if you did.
How do you absorb others’ reactions to your work while ensuring you remain true to your vision and goals as a writer? How do you handle responses you didn’t want, or didn’t get?