“Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” -Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction
“As a writer, you can’t allow yourself the luxury of being discouraged and giving up when you are rejected, either by agents or publishers. You absolutely must plow forward.” -Augusten Burroughs
Everything that I’m about to tell you is completely true, except for the parts that aren’t, but there aren’t any of those, so let’s just get to it.
Many writers, as you may or may not know, tend to suffer from a puzzling paradox of a fragile ego combined with a righteous arrogance. We constantly battle fear & self doubt, yet we still manage to believe in ourselves & our words to the very end. Day to day, depending on the weather, intensity of hangover, or how we feel about other people that day, we may feel rather insecure about what we’ve written. The next day, we may likely feel as though we can get nothing short of brilliance on the page & anyone who questions it, or suggests that we are putting out anything else will likely be answered with righteous indignation – or profanity & a busted whiskey bottle. You know, whatever you’re into.
Of course by, “we”, I mean “me”.
At the same time, criticism is absolutely necessary. There is really no phrase that does a writer more harm than when a reader shrugs & says, “Yeah… it’s good”.
You see, this doesn’t motivate anyone to aspire to greater heights with their work. It can fool us into thinking that we’re good & don’t really need to improve. Or, maybe we know that we need to improve, but just telling us that “it’s good”, doesn’t really point out the dull bits that need polishing up.
Just as harmful is for someone to shake their head & say, “No… this is complete shit. You have no talent, no ability & you should give up now, because… YOU ARE NOT A WRITER.”
Any variation of this sentiment can sting. It can wound, cut & scar. However, it doesn’t have to. If someone expresses this sentiment to you, there are endless appropriate comments. A couple of which are:
Fuck you. (I’m a fan of classics.)
So it was, several weeks ago that Olivier & I hopped in our car & made our way out of the suburbs & up to Montmartre. We were armed with a bag full of various fromages, a bottle of red… & the first half of my manuscript, a short story collection of literary fiction that I’ve been working on.
The plan was that a friend of a friend – an Englishman & “editor” residing in Montmartre – who would also be attending brunch that day would have a look at it. He’d proofread it & provide a critique of my work. He of course, would be doing this as a favor… for a friend of a friend.
I handed him the 50 or so pages. He flipped through them. “So,” he asked. “What is your target audience? Americans, or English-speaking in general?”
“Well, English speaking in general,” I said. “I don’t care where they’re from.”
“The reason I ask is that I noticed several ‘Americanisms’.”
Actually… that last bit he said not to me, but to my husband. In French.
“Well,” I said. “I don’t really notice those very much when I’m writing… since I’m American.”
And the brunch went on. Everyone ate… & drank. Then drank some more. Eventually, the time came for Olivier & I to make our way back to the suburbs.
“There’s really no way he could say anything bad about your stories,” Olivier said as we sat in the Sunday evening traffic jam out of Paris.
“You really think so? I mean… he’s been living in France for so long… & he seemed rather, uh… aged. I just wonder how hip he is to contemporary American fiction.”
“Bah. I wouldn’t worry about it,” he said. “I’ve read everything that you’ve written. It’s awesome shit. Don’t you worry.”
Two days later, I received an email from this “editor”. (Yes, I’m using this term loosely.) I read over his email & read things such as:
“Your short stories. I have read them to the bitter end…”
“I don’t have many nice things to say about what I discovered.”
“Writing in the personal mode, recounting one’s experiences or phantasms, is rarely a good recipe for writing a successful piece.”
“…you will tend to reveal more of your inner-self than you would like. This is mostly what you are doing, baring your egocentric, frustrated, anti-social being which is not at ease with the world…”
So… I took a little time to consider this…
1 – Writing that recounts personal experiences isn’t any good. Fortunately, there are plenty of literary flops to reinforce that statement. Here’s just a few examples of the train wreck that can be caused by writing from personal experience:
2 – Writing from personal experience will expose bits of your inner-self to the world. I wonder if that has ever occurred to any other writers before. I’m sure it is as much of a surprise for you as it was for me.
“A person who publishes a book appears willfully in public with his pants down.” -Edna St. Vincent Millay
“The writer is committed when he plunges to the very depths of himself with the intent to disclose, not his individuality, but his person in the complex society that conditions and supports him.” -Jean-Paul Sartre
3 – I’m frustrated, anti-social & not at ease with the world. Um… so? Well, I suppose that it’s true that these are incredibly negative traits & any writer who’s ever been frustrated, anti-social, or ill-at-ease with the world has been doomed to a life of utter & humiliating failure. If you’ve ever wondered what failure looks like, it looks kind of like this:
Of course, any fool is also aware that any fictional characters displaying any traits or sentiments that can be construed as “anti-social” or “misanthropic”, will also be big, messy sacks of fail…
Then, there is this epic failure, which many have heard of:
Now… am I comparing myself, or my writing to any of the artists, works or characters listed here? No, of course not. I’m simply using them to illustrate a point. If you don’t see the point, then you should probably close your internet browser now & go brush your teeth with a fucking brick because you’re an idiot.
So, after all of this advice, the “editor” goes on with various & boring insults, all of which are not listed here, because like I said – boring.
“…your work does not incite anybody to feel anything but sorry for the writer/storyteller which you are.”
“There is nothing likeable about your characters, including yourself.”
Now, I think that the “editor” may have been a little confused here, as I am not one of my characters, but rather, the writer. That’s not the same thing. I suppose that he’s just trying to say in his own charming way that he doesn’t like me. He wouldn’t be the first. He won’t be the last. In fact, I’m pretty sure that there is a group holding weekly meetings. If anyone has the info as to the time & place of these hate meetings, that’d be helpful, as I think you may have a new member.
Basically, what I got was Word document with 1/2 a page of amateur psychoanalysis, telling me why this grouchy old man thinks that I’m an asshole.
“Please do not send these manuscripts in to any editor for approval, on the risk that you will get an even nastier(polite) refusal like: “We regret to inform you that the subject matter does not quite conform to our present editorial policy”.”
Now, when I initially handed my 50 pages over to the “editor”, I did use tricky words & phrases such as, “first draft”, “rough” & “unedited”. Since the small publishing company that he runs is in no way suited for literary fiction or American realism, I was in no way submitting anything for his “approval”. This was a friend of a friend, looking over my work, to offer a critique. At the same time, since these were not polished, I wasn’t submitting them to anyone for approval, as they simply were not ready for it.
Evidently, a few wires got crossed.
Evidently, if I submit anything to anyone & receive a standard rejection, it actually means, “you suck”.
Evidently, “any editor” will view things exactly the way that he does.
My opinion… this “editor” has no clue on how to critique a piece of writing. First of all, name-calling, personal insults & criticism & theories as to the state of the writer’s psyche shouldn’t come into it. Why is that? Because it’s critiquing the writer, not the writing.
Naturally, I was a little pissed off at first. But, after I had the time to cool off from his blindside attack, I got to thinking…
- I’ve had nothing but positive feedback peppered with all sorts of flattering adjectives on the same work from the members of my writer’s workshop, which is filled with amateur writers, as well as very seasoned writers with several writing credits & published novels. These people know writing & are not retards.
- It was apparent that this “editor” had little actual “editing” experience & was profoundly out of touch with certain literary movements & styles.
- A “friend of a friend” who is doing something for you as a favor to someone else may not want to do it & as a result, may act like a cockbite rather than politely declining.
- Some people are just cockbites.
Of course, I did reply to his email, thanking him for suffering the tortuous affair that is reading my writing & told him that “my work just isn’t for everyone”. Then I realized something else… something far beyond groovy.
These stories that brought forth this man’s ire… well, they’re all about the ugly insides of average people. The fact that it pissed someone off & disgusted them… well, I have to admit… that made me very, very happy.
It showed me that I’m on the right track.
So, here’s the point of my long, winding post – you knew that there would be a point, right? Well, here it is, goddamit, so fucking pay attention:
- If you’re a writer, then fucking write, that’s all. If someone tells you, “I don’t like it”, “This is a piece of shit”, “You’re a sick fuck”, or… even worse, “Yeah, it’s um… good.”, then use it. Use that disdain to fuel your writing engine to keep going. Encouragement is great & all, but spite motivates a hell of a lot better. Prove them wrong.
- Most people that would actually be a jerk enough to knock you down are likely falling victim to their own self-doubt. Yeah, your mom always said that those kids were picking on you because they’re just jealous. Well, there’s a reason that she kept telling you that. Listen to your mother.
- Keep in mind that many people will read your work who just aren’t suited for what you’re doing. They may not like or may not be familiar with the genre or style of your writing. Maybe it’s not your writing that they don’t like, maybe you should just be showing your splatterpunk novel to someone besides that girl who is always reading that Christian literature, dig?
- Negative reception to something that you’ve written doesn’t mean that you write poorly… it could mean just the opposite & perhaps the reader just isn’t ready for that yet. There are plenty of well-known cases of this same thing occurring.
- If you’re not involved with some type of writer’s workshop, get your ass into one NOW. The support & feedback that is given & received in these groups has a value beyond measure.
- Some people are just cockbites.
I feel I should mention that the “editor” also made a comment regarding my ineptitude when it comes to basic vocabulary… specifically that I use the word “tirade” incorrectly.
I’m not sure, but I think that I just wrote one.
“Critics constantly complain that writers are lacking in standards, yet they themselves seem to have no standards other than personal prejudice for literary criticism.” – William S. Burroughs, ‘A Review of the Reviewers
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