Sunday, August 26, 2012

Treat Yourself How Others Should Treat You

The best advice I’ve ever heard was not from a writer, but from a cartoon artist. Though I have never seen Phil McAndrew’s work outside his blog, “Super Obvious Secrets That I Wish They’d Teach in Art School,” has stuck with me ever since the first time I Stumbled upon it.

Most of it is pretty accurate and fairly well told. Things like draw every day and be nice to people are good but common pieces of advice he explains in a readable way. But the unique and interesting singular suggestion that really hit me was number eight on the list: “Don’t trash talk yourself.”

He explains:

“Why would you expect someone else to take your work seriously when even you, the person who created it, are openly talking about how much it sucks?”

Whenever I repeat this advice, however, I get the same, horrified response, “I wasn’t trashing myself.”

Which is part of the problem. We are so accustomed to defending ourselves through pre-emptive self-attacks that half the time we aren’t even realizing we’re doing it. Statements like “I wrote a couple of crappy young adult novels before writing the rough draft,” “That’s probably why I’ll never have a super popular blog will millions of followers,” and “I just hit 30k on my new project and didn’t completely hate it!” all count. It is easy to see why someone might think it doesn’t because they’re just telling the truth.

But note: all of these statements were uttered by the same woman, Jill Hathaway, the author of Slide. When I first read her interview in Writer’s Digest, I found myself growing more disenchanted with her in each and every answer. To be fair, I didn’t find the article with knowledge of her or her book, and after moving on to her blog, I still have no idea what it is about.

Skimming through her blogs, I couldn’t find one that didn’t have some sort of defensive statement, whether it be her inclination to explain that “You gotta read it, y’all,” isn’t grammatically correct, or just talking about how her book required so many rewrites.

Here’s the thing - She sounds like a nice person. She isn’t condescending and clearly not egocentric, she’s honest and to the point, and as a person I can admire her openness. As a writer, I get the distinct idea that she doesn’t think she knows what she’s doing.

A fan commented on her blog asking her about the title. Her response? “Uh…”

Why respond at all? If I had been that fan, interested enough to find her webpage and ask about her book and gotten that answer, I would have been offended. It feels as though she is saying, “That’s a stupid question!” Worse, it sounds like she has no answers, as if she hasn’t put any thought into it.

I bring this up not to give her bad P.R. I don’t actually believe that insecurity reflects on the novel’s quality. I haven’t read Slide, and I can’t critique it. I’m talking about this because I have no intention on reading it.

This woman had my attention for more than I could ask of a total stranger, and she did not intrigue me into even sampling her book. And it wasn’t as though there weren’t opportunities. The interviewer asked her what novel was about and she gave this uninspired one word answer. She spent more time explaining about her crappy other books than she did about this new one. The commenter gave her the option to plug her story inside her own blog by asking about it, and she just gave him a grunt.

And it’s not as though this is an uncommon mistake. In the last week, I’d read two other interviews that were tainted by this problem. One was by a standup comedian who kept talking about project that went wrong, but not telling us how, just repeating, “I wasn’t prepared.”

The point of interviews is to give information. I’m reading it to hear about these people, and when they answer questions succinctly, or worse, play a politicians game of nonanswers, the interview is boring, and you’ve done nothing to advertise yourself.

Lastly, a good question for authors to ask themselves is “Why is my fantasy better than yours?” Why do people read books when they can have a story to themselves that they control and isn’t limited by standards of protocol or expectations of readers. The answer is because it’s better thought out. The author knows more about his world than the average daydreamer does. An author’s fantasy has continuity, gravity, and realism, and does the hard work so that the reader doesn’t have to. Which means that when the reader doesn’t believe that the author knows what he’s doing and has put more thought into the world than she has in the shower, she’s not going to bother read anything he’s written. And what leads the reader to think the book’s fantasy isn’t more intelligent than her temporary one? The author indicating that he isn’t sure of anything either.

We all are insecure. On the rise to success, few of us see ourselves as experts. American society likes to see the successful as a different sort of being, a person who has it easy, a person who is meant to do great things and thus never questions if he can. But that creature doesn’t exist, which means that no matter if you are Stephan King, Gandhi, or the pope, you’re going to question yourself. The trick is to pretend like you don’t and keep your insecurities to yourself until you can say it in a funny and light-hearted manner – see any article in Hyperbole and a Half.