Monday, July 19, 2010

Begging the Question

During a routine bout of exercising my procrastination muscles, I came across some sample pages a writer had put up on an open forum for critique. Brave soul! One who probably, deep in her heart of hearts, wanted to hear that her writing was brilliant. Don’t we all?

Unfortunately, it was quite the opposite. Comments ranged from helpful to nitpicky to petty. Poor soul. It’s hard to bounce back from that. Yet we all will be there at one point or another. I don’t think there has ever been a writer who has coasted through life without a bad review. There is always someone who will say the work sucked. Better to get used to it now, toughen up the skin and all that.


Only it makes me wonder. It’s easy to lambast bad writing. Okay, there are those who do it so well that it becomes it’s own entertainment –for better of worse. People have made a living tearing others down. And I admit to having a good chuckle now and then upon reading a scathing review.


Only one day that might be my writing someone is slashing to bits. Sure, I’ll have a thick skin by then. Already my skin has taken on a nice leather-like quality. Kid leather, perhaps. Strong enough to protect, but still supple. If one uses a sharp enough knife, slashes with enough gusto, it will tear. Perhaps someday I’ll have skin like pure rawhide.

I mean, beside the obvious errors of craft, what exactly qualifies as good or bad?

Case in point. My husband loves seafood. Oysters being on of his favorites. Raw oysters. Gak! I am often forced to sit there and watch him slurp down those glistening globs that resemble dead labia –yeah, I said it- and try to NOT vomit. Yet every time, every stinking time, I have to hear, “God, this is so good. Want to try?”

No, for the ten millionth time. I do not. Yet my husband can’t understand why I don’t. How can I possibly turn my nose up at one of nature’s most perfect foods?

Dude, CHOCOLATE is one of nature’s most perfect foods. Oysters are not. That is why they are protected by barnacle-covered shells. It’s nature’s way of saying, “Stay out! Only attempt if you are really, really, on the verge of dying from starvation, hungry.” Which, as anyone who has seen my ample butt can tell you, I am most certainly not.

Ahem. And then there is TV. My husband can happily spend hours on the couch watching Formula One racing. While I fall asleep next to him.

Whether an artistic work good or bad is really begging the question, thus one that won’t be solved by you or me. But it does lead to other slippery questions. *bg* Such as, how do you know if this writing gig is worth it? How do you know if you suck or not? The word of your critics? What if you simply haven’t found the right critics? What if you get a room full of oyster haters when you’re serving up a raw bar? If you’re published? Hello? Been on Amazon lately? A book might have a world of five star reviews and one star haters.

Yes, I’m aware that I’ve veered into sweeping generalizations here. But if one’s crap is another’s treasure, then what do we make of bad feedback? More importantly, what keeps us going?

Because this really isn’t about bad or good reviews. I’m more concerned about when to say when. Sometimes I think about how it took Deanna Raybourn fourteen years and multiple shot-down books to get published*. Would I have that sort of perseverance? I just don’t know. The idea of facing that makes me want to cry.

The truth is I am still in awe of Deanna for that. And thankful, because that never-die attitude brought us Julia Grey –a wonderful character –and brought me hours of entertainment. She just as easily could have said, “That’s it! I give up. Agents and publishers are telling me no. I must really suck.”

So I’m asking all of you: when do you give up? And why do you do keep at it?


  1. Or JK Rowling's success story...
    I hear you on the oysters vs chocolate. And when you apply that to writing it becomes very hard to say "I don't like this because it sucks and that's not just a subjective opinion!" I don't know how high school English teachers all across the world deal with this every day.
    That being said, I write because I have to keep writing. The characters and scenes and emotions and events come, and must be put on paper. My mind might explode if I didn't.
    Do painters, songwriters, etc. feel this way too?

  2. It's not about what others think of my writing, (although it's wonderful when they like it...) I write because I must. "I am, therefore I write." Or um, is it, "I write, therefore I am?"

  3. I write and keep on writing because I love the challenge of writing a novel; because I love those moments when everything just flows, even though they can be few and far between; because I adore words and books; and because the only way I'll keep on learning about this passion of mine is if I *do* keep writing. :-)

  4. Deniz -- I've got to believe all artists feel that way. :)

    Susan -- about "I write, because I can" ?? *bg*

    Rach-- I do it for those reasons too.

    But do you all think you'd keep on with it if you kept getting bad feedback? Does the pleasure of writing decrease over time if there is no outside motivation to keep going?

    Just asking the question for discussion.

    Me? I think I'd keep going because, like Deniz, my head might explode if I don't. But you never know.

  5. Would I keep writing if I kept getting negative feedback? Hmmmmmm...

    For six years as the communications director for a non-profit agency, I wrote a lot of non-fiction stuff. I determined early on not to get defensive about my writing; I was there to serve a select group of people and if changing something I wrote served them better, I was glad to do it.

    The beauty, or irony, of it all, is that my Very Healthy Writer's Ego allowed me to do this.

    A writer needs an Ego, but at the same time she needs some humility to see the flaws that others see in her writing. The Ego keeps her going. The humility keeps her grounded.

    If I was pounded with negative feedback, I hope my Ego would not wither up and die. At this stage in my life I've had enough positive feedback to think I would survive the negative.


  6. Very well said, Susan. :)

    Perhaps, good art needs balance. Because I've seen the other side, when an author gets in a place where they receive so much praise they become lazy with the craft. And we as readers suffer for it.

  7. Susan, I had an experience very similar to yours.

    For several years I prepared huge monthly reports for the board of the government department I then worked for (we investigated complaints of unprofessional conduct against lawyers) and one of my bosses was a micro-management freak and would basically tear our reports apart until they were sounded like something she would have written ... huge waste of time, most of the time, IMO, and my next boss didn't edit/censor us at all, but there was no choice other than to just slash and burn my work to suit her ... with the outcome that, like you, I've learned to park my ego at the door and not be too precious about my work; hopefully a scathing crit or review now won't cut too deep, won't make me pack it all in ... time will tell.