A man once entered into my writers’ group and read three pages of his story. When he was done, people gave him feedback, as customary. He sat there quietly, staring sternly forward, eyes glossed over, until the head of the group asked, “How are you feeling?”
He shrugged, saying, “It’s good. No, it’s good. Thoughtful anyway.”
A more aggressive member (lovely, important man), demanded, “Well, are you going to take the advice?”
“I just write for myself,” he admitted.
Something we’d all heard before.
The aggressive member puffed himself up, planning on using all of his height and weight to intimidate the writer into compliance.
I asked, “So, do you like it?”
He looked at me, surprised—I hadn’t spoken much until that point—before shrugging and muttering a rambling of answers. Finally he said, “Not really.”
He shrugged. “Well, I don’t like anything I write.”
An obvious subtext here is that he came in seeking validation. Another possibility is he came in hoping for solutions, then didn’t like what he got. I say there's a good chance he just needed some time to digest the feedback and trying to force him to agree so soon made him shut down.
Notably, I don’t think any of these goals are wrong. Seeking praise or validation, to me, is a perfectly healthy desire. If a person is honest about what they want—“I just am proud of what I’ve done and wanted to show it to you, but I’m not ready for criticism,”—I at least am more than happy to give it to them. Sometimes I need that, and I have specific people I go to. Demoralization, like depression, anxiety, exhaustion, or hunger doesn't just go away because you tell it to. There are those who would find this shameful, as if you’re wasting their time and censoring them by asking for nothing negative due to your ego, but these tend to be the people who are seeking validation via giving advice instead of seeking validation through literary praise.
As for rejecting all of the solutions people give you, it’s not uncommon for writers (or anyone) to struggle with a complicated issue by themselves for a good period of time and then go to someone else. That someone else summons an answer within the few minutes of first being made aware of the problem which is exactly the solution the writer himself came up within the first few minutes of thinking about it, something he has tried, and something that doesn't work. Many solutions given are overly simplified, so it’s not always that a writer is rejecting advice out of stubbornness, even in some cases where it's all of it. We should never assume that a writer has to take criticism given, or that he’s necessarily being disrespectful just because he doesn’t accept it. Or maybe he just doesn’t like it for whatever reason. Which is valid. Honestly, even if a writer is being a stubborn shithead, he has the right to reject any solution given to him (and the critic has the right to stop giving them) BECAUSE, partially, sometimes we need to sit on advice for a while before we understand and accept it. Also because it’s their work.
But despite all of this, it can be so frustrating to be on the advising end of this situation. It’s one thing to be asked for only praise; it’s very much another to be asked for criticism when that’s the last thing they want. Or even need.
It’s obvious why someone might pretend to be seeking feedback. In the story above, I know that the man’s real problem was his low opinion on his work combined with his emotional dependence on that opinion being wrong. He wanted to think his own judgment was biased because he was self-loathing. That’s why he came out that night. He wanted to prove he was a better writer than he thought he was. And when people didn’t say that, it just crushed his hopes.
But expecting to go to a criticism session and not receive any is ridiculous. Anyone who is genuinely trying to help you will be sitting there thinking of something to “fix” because we all know how aggravating it is to have people say nothing.
I think I’m expressing an inaccurate sympathy for the man though. In fact, I was just as annoyed with him as the rest of the group. He had been pretty harsh to one girl, claiming, “But don’t feel too bad, I’m too hard on myself too,” didn’t seem to like anything, and came off as a little snobbish. His statement of “I write for myself,” was one I’d heard many times before, and it falls into my stash of pet peeves when it comes to criticism responses.
The other day I considered some of the things that get me riled up, wondering why they bothered me so much, but it wasn’t until I found the common denominator that my “overreaction” made sense to me.
Truth is, when someone pulls the “Artistic” Card, the conversation stops.
Two online posts in a row I saw someone ranting about “creativity” over marketing. The feeds in which the comments were placed featured advice on how to get your book out there. They did not discuss what to write, but the how to present it to society. The rants exclaimed that you shouldn’t care what other people think, whether they like it or not.
(Part of not caring what other people think includes not caring what they’re doing, such as, I don’t know, whether they’re giving out marketing advice. Just saying.)
Have you ever tried to “improve” without caring what other people are thinking?
Reading is about communicating, conveying ideas, connecting intellectually with other human beings. Not only that, but unless you have decided exactly what it is you want to be doing down to the last word, feel confident in your judgment of hitting those goals, and honestly don’t care whether or not anyone else wants to read it or if they have completely different interpretations, there’s a good chance that you’ll look at your book and go, “Um… is this done?”
You may write for yourself and write for catharsis and write for enjoyment or to organize your thoughts or to do something instead of your usual smoke break. You can write for yourself and not care what people think, but the second you give it to someone else to read, you are asking them to think. If you don’t care, then why show it to them?
The problem with artistic license is that it trumps everything. It’s hard to argue with because they can write you off as a sellout. Even if you know damn well that they’re just changing their measuring stick when it doesn’t give the results they want, that’s hard to prove. When you discuss success, results, or readers, and they say, “I’m not in it for the money,” you look like the philistine when you reply with “Oh, bullshit.” You know they want it to sell well. There’s been times where I knew for a fact the perpetrator believed his book was destined for the New York Times’ list. I follow one man online who constantly states so, flipping back and forth from statuses actually saying he does not care if it sells well, then later he knows it will be a bestseller.
It’s difficult to prove that someone does care what others think or does want to sell their book, or even make an impact on their readers. We can easily deny everything, claiming, “I write for myself,” or, “I don’t want a character arc,” every time someone says something we don’t like. And honestly, who cares to help them after that? Why would I waste time trying to argue with someone who’s going to spend it lying to both him and myself? Other than, you know, the golden rule.
Besides the need to be right, which I admit to be victim to, there’s also the issue of “do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.” Which is, if I was having a hard time admitting my book was flawed, I’d like someone to diplomatically continue the discussion and deal with my block. I can’t count the number of times a conversation had an effect on me months afterwards, when the argument and disbelief helped the idea really sink in. As a teacher, I do think disagreement can be useful, and someone refusing to listen isn’t always a sign of disrespect. I believe, at times, it’s a necessary part of the process.
Pussyfooting around the real issue—“I think you’re making choices out of laziness and possibly fear, not creativity”—is exhausting though. It’s often not best to say so bluntly because the person (and this is autobiographical) will usually dig her heels in further. Now it becomes more about defending yourself and you can completely blank what the truth is. On the other hand, if you pretend that it is true, there’s not much further you can go. The only real option for the critic is to prove the claim is false, and by doing so, it will typically end in an insult.
“Why did you come here today?”
“Because I don’t like my work.”
“Well, I don’t either. And I’m telling you what I think will change that.”
I’ve come to realize it’s the lie of it, and the inhibiting lie at that, that aggravates me so much.
If you come to me and say you need to hear what you’re good at, I will tell you.
If you come to me and say you need some ideas for a specific problem, I will come up with as many as I can.
If you come to me and say you need to know how to publish, I can state what I know.
If you come to me and ask why people don’t want to read your work, I can tell you why it puts me off.
If you come to me and say, “I am not writing to be published, but I want to improve,” I can suggest what helps me.
And if you don’t like any of my ideas, but think a dialogue will benefit you, I can do that too.
But if you pretend your goals are not your goals, if you ask me for one thing and then claim you were never interested, if you lie to me or, more importantly, if you lie to yourself, there is really not much anyone can do.
You might as well say you’re a great writer and keep on working.