Stephen King observed years ago, and I’m paraphrasing here, that there are two kinds of writers: those who write for themselves, and those who write for an audience. He was of the opinion, and I’m of the opinion, that only the first group really counts. If you’re a real writer, you never have to ask “what am I writing about next?” Your problem isn’t coming up with ideas, it’s surviving them. Yes, you may struggle endlessly to translate those ideas into something anyone else can understand, but they’re there. In the dark recesses of your mind. Breeding. You might’ve managed to write one book since the first idea that gripped you, forced you to–as Hemingway put it–sit down and bleed. You might’ve managed to write one page. But in the time that’s taken, your ideas have spawned new ideas.
Being a writer really means being a slave to them. So when people don’t like them or, at least, don’t like how you’ve managed to convey them, that sucks. But you can’t take it personally. It’s not about them, and it’s not even really about you. Which is why I don’t read my Amazon reviews, and haven’t logged into my Goodreads account more than twice in five years.
Obsessing over others’ opinions is unhealthy. I’ve observed before that your book is your soul and that’s true. People who don’t understand the comparison, or for whom it seems ridiculously overblown, haven’t written a book. And like you can’t spend your life worrying about whether you’re popular, you can’t spend your life, your writing life, doing the artistic equivalent of same. Are you an individual, with integrity, or are you a mirror?
Someone commented on my last post that it was my “duty to grow as a writer, and you can only grow if you engage with your readers, even if they think you are piss poor.” Well, now. Let’s stop and think about that statement for a minute. Is it true? Is the best way to grow as a person to prioritize the opinions of those who don’t understand you? Who maybe even hate you? I, personally, say no. The best way to grow as a person is to surround yourself with influences–people, places, and things–that elevate you. That inspire you to do and be more.
No one ever grows, at least not in a healthy direction, from a place of defensiveness. From a place of fighting for recognition, on the most basic level, as someone worthy of love. I know. I grew up in an abusive home. These days, I’m fortunate to be surrounded by people who love me. And it’s love, and acceptance, which has helped me to grow as a writer. As for the role my readers play…it depends. Feedback can often be helpful, if it’s specific. I haven’t grown, though, as a writer, from absorbing negative criticism. Of course, some people are going to dislike my books. Some people are going to dislike me! Which is, naturally, distressing. But you can’t let others’ opinions control your life. Lucius Annaeus Seneca observed, “if one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” In other words, you have to chart your own course.
Never take advice from anyone you don’t want to be more like. That’s my axiom. How can I sift out the good advice from the bad, though, if I don’t know who I am? If writing, for me, was about pleasing the greatest number of people, I’d never have started a single book. Let alone finished one. Because pleasing others is impossible. You have to put your own dreams, your own goals, first; and then pursue them in a way that’s commensurate with your morality. Let others’ opinions of you sort themselves out along the way.
This person also asked me if criticism must always be kind. I say yes. That is, if you want anyone to listen to it. The difference between a friend and a bully, in the end, often comes down to word choice. I don’t expect anyone to listen to me, if I’m making them feel like shit. But, more importantly, I don’t want to make anyone feel like shit. I want them to come away from their interactions with me feeling better about themselves. Now, of course, that’s not always possible; I can’t control what others think and feel, and neither can anyone else, and that’s a vital point to always remember. I can only do my best, according to my perspective.
Can I decide, then, if I like–or dislike–someone based on how they treat me? Yes. That’s how the world works.
So what is, in the end, my duty to my readers? Do I have one? To answer that question, I think it’s very important to parse out me, the professional, from me the actual human being. I write books for a living. But, like everyone else with a job, I also have a life. No one’s job, and no one’s life, should obligate them to feel bad about themselves. If someone treats me like shit, I’m not going to give them the time of day; anymore than I’d expect the people working at this McDonald’s to seek out the now famous “McNugget Lady” as their new best friend.
PS: Please enjoy this picture of my lawn, and remember that the best remedy for internet induced unhappiness is getting outside.