Let’s get something out of the way up front. No matter how good any story I write might be, no matter if it achieves success beyond anything I could imagine, there will be people who do not like it. The more successful something gets, the more likely that there will be people who not only dislike it, but actively hate it.
You want evidence? Take a look at the Goodreads ratings for the first book in the Harry Potter series, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” At the time of this writing, there are 47,416 one out of five star ratings. Forty-seven thousand, four hundred and sixteen. Really?
I don’t choose that book because it is somehow indisputably great but because the Harry Potter series is quite obviously one of the most beloved and commercially successful works in the history of art and entertainment. It also doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that would get people so worked up that they’d sail right past dislike and land all the way on frothing rage.
Need more? “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” has over 3,300 one star reviews. WHAT!? WHY DO YOU HAVE SUCH STRONG OPINIONS ABOUT THIS BOOK???*
This is to make it as clear as possible that I am under no illusion that my writing will be universally beloved. It won’t be. I don’t even really want it to be because I’d like my writing to be worthy of differing opinions, and I’m okay if yours is that my thing is not really for you.
And yet…I still feel self-conscious talking about and sharing my writing. So if it’s not fear that someone will hate what I write, then what is it? Three reasons.
My Writing Is Me
Writing is in an intensely personal act. Everything I write, even the most straightforward blog post, is revealing in some fashion. Knowing in advance that not everyone is going to like everything I do does not diminish the feeling of risk each time I hit the “publish” button on Lost Caws.
So if I feel a bit of that for every blog post, extrapolate that to the months and months and thousands upon thousands of words I’ve put into my book.
The anxiety this engenders is not about strangers reading my work and thinking it’s terrible. That part seems too abstract. The real anxiety is in putting my writing in the world with the inescapable understanding that it represents me as a person.
I’m excited to share my novel with the world. I’m proud of the work I’ve done on it so far, and I’m certain I’ll be even prouder when it’s complete. But it will also leave me feeling exposed in a way I’ve never been before. I hope that the more I do it the easier it will get, but I have a hard time imagining it will ever go away entirely.
Please Look at Me. DON’T LOOK AT ME!
Awhile ago, I put up a post about the various tools I use to do my work inspired by the “This is How I Work” series on Lifehacker. One of my favorite editions of that series was for Ira Glass, best known as the host of This American Life. The following quote in particular hit home:
Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?
I am a noisy introvert. My sister Randi made up that phrase and it describes lots of people I know. Lots of writers seem to be introverts who love to now and then be on stage. Lots of radio people too. I covet large amounts of time alone, and I’m most comfortable and very happy when I’m alone, but obviously there’s another side to me because true introverts don’t end up with their own national radio shows.
Thank you, Ira, because I have always felt that way but never had the words for it. I’ve given speeches, performed sketch comedy in front of friends and strangers, led training sessions for over a hundred people, and given professional presentations at conferences to peers with much, much more experience than me. Those things do not phase me in the least. In fact, I enjoy them.
They are all performances of a sort, and asking me to perform is not a problem. But approach me at a party and ask me what my book is about or what kind of writing I do…I don’t know why exactly but it’s different. It’s more personal somehow, more intimate. Part of my introversion lies in not enjoying talking much about myself, and sometimes being asked to do so creates an emotional event horizon from which no words can seem to escape.
This is a tricky place to be when you’re trying to create a career based around public validation of your work. I need people to want to know about this stuff. I should be encouraging that interest as much as I can, but it does not come naturally. I imagine this is similar for lots of noisy introverts. We want to be mostly left alone, but when we have something we want to share we’re hoping you’ll suddenly have time and interest in what we’re doing.
My Art is My Business. My Business is Art.
I have a complicated relationship with the word “art.” It’s a word with lots of meanings, but the one I’m honing in on is this from the Oxford dictionary:
Works produced by human creative skill or imagination
This includes a huge swath of activity, as I think it should Just about any kind of entertainment where someone has created a thing for you to enjoy is art. So yes, under that construct I consider my writing to be a form of “art.”
But I also cringe a little when I say that. Over the years I have read or watched loads of interviews with people who justifiably consider themselves artists speak at length about their work. There is sometimes such an air of self-seriousness that I feel an urge to dismiss their work as art in the first place. I find petty ways to undercut whatever they’re talking about as some internal way of punishing them for the perceived sin of self-importance. Applied to my own work, I worry that by calling it “art” I will begin affecting the same level of pretension that irks me in those interviews.
I’ll be clear. This is dumb and snobby in its own right. I should not do it. Easier said than done, of course.
The flip side of worrying about coming off as pretentious is a knee-jerk tendency to try to describe my own writing as something other than art. Because my current book has supernatural and fantasy elements in it I convince myself that it is not REAL ART, that true works of art are the province of those more gifted, more ambitious, and more serious than I am. I do this even though I look at other media with those characteristics and would call them art with no hesitation.
These two opposing points of tension — being worried about coming off as overly serious while simultaneously dismissing my own work for not being “arty” enough — are an outcome of trying to balance writing as creative expression and writing as commerce. I want my writing to be as creatively successful as possible, and I’m also trying to make a living at it. It is not art for art’s sake. What’s more, at least with the current book, I’m attempting to make something that has at least the potential to be entertaining to a wide swath of readers. I love plenty of stuff that’s considered to be literary fiction, but that’s not what I’m pursuing.
Does that mean my writing is not art? I think it is, and I hope you will too. But I cannot let concern over what level of artistic merit my work might or might not be perceived to have distract from the more important goal. Which is to write. A lot. As well as I can and then move on. I can call my writing art without being overly serious about it or about myself, and I can also do so even if it contains characteristics that others don’t think are art worthy. My guess is that there might be some overlap between those people who seem too self-serious and those who might be quick to dismiss certain things as not real art. My other guess is I might not enjoy those people a whole lot in the first place, so I should probably not concern myself too much with what they think.
You Should Still Ask Me about My Writing
You could be forgiven for reading this and deciding you never want to ask me about my writing. Don’t think that. You should still ask if you’re interested just as you should not feel obligated to do so if you are not. The hangups above are mine, and they are not your responsibility. And beside that, I actually do enjoy talking about it. This is what I do now, and I love it. For whatever hangups I have about talking about my writing, it’s a lot better than when someone would ask me about my work and I had to talk about process flow diagrams.
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*If you’ve been looking for an easy way to make yourself crazy, read the one star reviews of, well, anything. I am always amazed at the invective people have inside them for things that just don’t seem to merit it to me. How angry are you in life if you are spending time writing scathing reviews of children’s books?