Monday, July 17, 2017

Asked: “Where Can I Safely Put My Writing for People to Give Me Feedback?”

After giving his manuscript to a friend, a writer received his book back with a nasty note reading, “I don’t have enough pens to edit this.” It massively demoralized him, made him afraid to get feedback, and he wanted to know where he could anonymously post his work for review.

Now, some of you may be thinking, "This is the wrong question!" As others told him, you don't want safe. Safe will get you no where! But I don't see it that way.

Funny thing is, I’ve never had someone tear my work to shreds. I’ve spoken before about critiques that bothered me, that I struggled with understanding, or in which drama ensued, but while I’ve gotten critiques that I found naïve, and ones that I found sort of callous, and definitely ones that embarrassed me, no one has ever said something that served no purpose other than crushing me, something where they announced some vague and clever insult that gave me no direction put made their judgement of my abilities, and their sense of superiority, clear.

I realized this, some weeks ago I was talking to a friend and fellow writer and she told me about a play she was rewriting after years of shelving it. When she first revealed it in a college class, people were nasty, in my opinion. “I don’t like it,” they said. “I just don’t like it at all.”

She wishes she had more of a physical presence to request more useful advice, but instead she just took it, and went away mostly demoralized, and didn’t touch the play for four years since.

Even though I’ve had hurtful experiences, and even though someone has tried to tell me some stupid things—“Star Wars doesn’t have any backstory in the first act!”—No one has ever said to my face anything remotely like, “I just don’t like it at all,” or “I don’t have enough ink.”


That brings me to the answer to the question in question: How people treat you has less to do with location or skill, and a hell of a lot to do with your attitude.

The conversation between my friend and I came up because I was getting agitated about trying to find someone who pushed me further without being closed-minded. People felt either too malleable, agreeing with whatever I said, or they were too opinionated, not listening to alternative goals, tastes, or options. Moreover, I was getting advice from some less experienced women I knew which was fairly naïve, but when I tried to explain that I had been doing this a long time (and therefore had already tried their obvious suggestions) each jumped all over me as if I was saying I was too good to stoop to actual work. In the past, I’ve had issues with people jumping to the unsubstantiated conclusion that I wouldn’t take criticism—long before I ever even introduced myself. It wasn’t my actual actions that made my reputation, it was something about my first impression that made people somewhat intimidated by me.

And therefore far more cautious about giving me feedback.

My advice to this young writer who wants to improve? Learn to speak softly and carry a big stick.

Be friendly, fun, and cavalier. You put out this positive vibe that makes people feel comfortable, that makes them enjoy throwing their ideas out there, arguing with you, and challenging the both of you. It’s no big deal. We’re not on a time frame. Let’s just be honest and communicative. Neither of us expect any one idea to be an end all.

The big stick is your confidence, the fact that even though you want them to have fun, you still have your opinions. You’re still selective. You still have standards specific to you, and you’re not going to accept any idea thrown your way. If they say something naive or poorly thought out, if  turn into an asshole, you’re going to let them know it.
You want people to think that if they say what they really believe in a way that is helpful, you will both have a good time. You also want them to fear having to defend a half-assed idea that they threw out there because obviously those thoughts off the top of their heads is far superior to the ones that you’ve spend months thinking about.

Criticism is a learned skill on both sides, and it’s wrong to think you have to take abuse. But safe places are usually created and shaped, not found.

Safe places must evolve over time because each person works differently and needs different things at different speeds. In fact, the dynamic between my critique partners and I vary drastically. I have one friend in which we spend most of the time swearing at each other. We’ve known each other for a while, she’s my biggest fan, and I know she respects me, so she doesn’t have to constantly say nice things. We can be more emotional without worrying about offending each other, and we don’t have to think as hard about if we’re being clear because the other person will just say, “What the hell are you talking about?” so we can just speak from the heart. Other times, I’m with people who are very professional and informative, which has benefits that being emotional and playful doesn’t. If they said something to me that my friend might, I’d actually be pretty damn offended. I have a different partner depending on each stage in the manuscript because our dynamic, history, and skills are more useful at one time than another.

Also, there’s a jackass in every group. Pretty much guaranteed, so you can’t pick the right location and avoid them. You just have to learn to navigate around them.

You want people to feel comfortable speaking their minds, but you don’t want them to think they can get away with tearing you down just because it’s empowering for them. For one thing, those types of critiques are less consistent with everyone else’s, even each other’s, because they’re highly biased about what the speaker WANTS to believe; they want you to suck, they want their knowledge and opinions to be useful. But also, in the case of the above, being demoralized is a problem. You should leave feeling inspired, with several active ideas about how to improve, not just like you suck in some vague, all encompassing manner.

You have less control online, but I would recommend when you find a place, start by reading and critiquing first before posting. You’ll get a general idea of the other people you’re working with and develop a rapport with them, making it harder for them to just spew out every half-baked thought that feels good to say.

Just have a good attitude. Laugh, be friendly, be encouraging, but be opinionated. Really think before you speak, but be willing to argue if you don’t see eye to eye to someone. Argument is a core part of processing, and you both learn more if you challenge each other’s opinions. For me, argument is more likely to lead to agreement because I understand what they mean better. People should believe that if they’re genuine and helpful, they’re going to have a good time, but if they are rude or asinine, they’ll be called out on their bullshit.

You make a good critique group, you don’t find one. Sometimes you do have to say, “This isn’t right for me,” but in most cases, you develop it over time. Walk in, act like the person you want to be around. Speak your mind, but with tact and compassion. When someone tries to start drama, keep your voice level, and be honest and clear about what is happening.

In the case of the friend who makes uninformative jokes at the writer's expense, I would probably say, “I felt like you were more interested in being clever than being helpful. I came to you because I valued your opinion and insight, but instead you gave me no respect, offered snarky comments instead of specific issues, and I found your vagueness and choice in phrasing ineffective and insulting. I’m pretty angry with you thinking this was the best way to talk to me about your opinions, and you lost a lot of credibility with me.”

It’s important to be able to speak like this, honestly, articulately, and confidently when being torn to shreds, because it carries a lot of weight for your mental health and your reputation. Plus, people need to learn that making “clever jokes” isn’t the same thing as being honest. It’s just being a dick.

In any case, when this happens, I would recommend accepting that she’s was being a self-serving jerk, and feel comfortable with what you need in a critique. It’s okay to not work well by being abjectly insulted. Think about what you need, think about how your attitude is standing in your way, and then analyze the next situation to see how you can shape it into what works best for you.

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Friday, July 14, 2017

Considering the Things I’ve Seen in Hate Mail…

Last year George R. R. Martin missed his New Year’s deadline, meaning that the sixth book would not be out before the next season of the television show. He’s upset, his fans are upset, but apparently his editors were pretty forgiving about it. Of course, they have the experience to know it’s not like anything can be done about it now.

In the same week as this announcement I came across a few harsh words said to less famous authors about their series. One author posted an angry response to her announcement of a short Christmas book instead of the next installment of her series.

If you read about the controversy of writing and publishing fast like many self-publishers do, a lot of fans discuss how they don’t want to wait several years for the next book, and how they prefer series to come out fast.

Someone asked Neil Gaiman about Martin’s missing of the deadline, and if Martin was deliberately avoiding discussing its progress. Do readers have the right to complain?

No, answers Gaiman. No, says Anne Rice. No says the myriad of authors on Facebook. “George R. R. Martin isn’t your bitch.” You can’t force an artist to create.

Personally, I’m a bit conflicted.

I do feel like I owe my readers something. It’s more complicated than just adhering to their demands and, in fact, a writer has to behave like a parent at times, knowing what their child needs versus what they want. It doesn’t mean that a writer should produce something he’s not happy with, and many readers should recognize that they don’t always know what is going on with a writer—his life or his process.

As many writers will tell you, sometimes you just can’t work on a book. Sometimes you need to take a break. In my case, it helps for me to keep up with the routine of writing every day even when I’m struggling to get a few words out on a page. Sometimes completing something else will inspire you to finish the first. And, even if you do work by a schedule, inspiration is still important—your best work always comes from what you were excited to do, what came freely to your mind. If you had waited on that other project, it often wouldn’t been as good as it once was.

But that doesn’t mean readers don’t have the right to ask.

In the case of the writer who received a very harsh note from an agitated fan, I don’t believe it was appropriate for the fan to state her grievances like that, but I also think it was poor form for the writer to post the comment for everyone to see, especially while leaving the name of the commenter up. I got this “blacklisting” vibe.

Unlike most hate mail, this person truly was a fan. She was excited and disappointed that the story was not out yet, and from her perspective, it seemed like, “Why the hell are you wasting time on this fluffy piece of meaningless holiday crap?” It’s a disrespectful, but understandable feeling.

Personally, I generally avoid self-published series until after they’re done. So many of them are never completed. It’s typical enough that the book is more of an incomplete slice and couldn’t function as a satisfying standalone, so it’s not worth the frustration. I see many authors put out their first in a serial then complain when no one buys it, threatening to never make the next one because no one cares. Well, I bought it, I read it, I care. It can be emotionally upsetting to want the sequel and have the writer procrastinate, especially when they might not finish all together.

The author didn’t have to let herself be talked to in that manner; she would have been fine ignoring her. But she could have understood where the fan was coming from and recognize that she is, in fact, a fan. A polite response probably would have elicited more snottiness (how can a person explain her without sounding like she’s making excuses?) yet that doesn’t mean that the commenter is an enemy. She’s just upset and voicing her feelings. I believe as writers we have to take the high road and remember that we’re putting people’s emotions in our hands, getting the bad with the good.

What readers should remember is that you don’t know what goes on behind the scenes, and should speculate on the superficial reasons why Martin missed his deadline when it’s probably a mixed bag of reasons. Martin was always a slow writer, and his books are large. Four years is actually his average to get an installment published. Many people cite his newfound fame as a reason—he’s now enjoying the limelight instead of writing. Possible, just as likely as it is those newfound responsibilities of fame that could factor in. And I know from personal experience, a change in routine can be highly disruptive to your productivity.

I absolutely agree with Gaiman on the point that Martin is not a machine and he is not contracted to his readers to write every moment of every day. He deserves a life too, and more to the point, he needs it. No one can write in a box. Even a fantasy author who seems to be making everything up is still taking from his own experiences. We hate Joffrey because we know people like him. We care about their problems because, even though it’s magical, dramatized, and wondrous, they are pains and concerns we deal with every day.

There is a lot to be said for giving a writer slack. It doesn’t do him any good to miss his own deadline. If he could write quality books of that size faster, he’d be the most to be benefit. Sending rude and angry messages might make him feel more pressure to dedicate himself, but it is a cruel and undesirable side of humanity. Hate mail would be better off if it didn’t exist at all, and I think everyone needs to make an effort to consider their words carefully before sending someone a disparaging letter to try and punish them for their perceived improper behavior.

But do you have a right to ask for updates? Yes, if you feel it is important. If you feel it will help. Do you think your favorite author might not be working on the book they should be? First remember that screwing around is a means to incubate ideas, that living makes ideas, and that how they work might not make sense to you but it doesn’t mean they’re not working. You only know a part of the story. Will telling them you want the next one make them work quicker? Possibly, but more likely it is a catharsis for your anger. Before sending out a letter in anger, always chose your words carefully, productively, and remember that writers really are just human and they probably feel bad as it is.

In the same vein that it can be disheartening to upset your fans, there is some merit to hearing what they have to say. Knowing that they do care about the next book, being asked for what they’d like to see more of on your blog, and just letting them vent out their issues. How fast an artist works is complicated and somewhat flexible, but it is still their process and not to be judged from an outsider’s point of view, especially if they love the resulting product.

Readers have the right to be upset and even voice their concerns, but we should reserve judgment and harsh comments just like in any other situation.

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Monday, July 10, 2017

Comments to Expect When Giving Writing Feedback (And What to Do about Them)

Being a teacher seems a little like how many people describe hell: a continual time loop of the same conflicts with no end in sight.

Once you start to really experience criticism, patterns show up—certain emotional walls, repetitive arguments, and the even the exact same comments will rear their ugly heads. While this can become incredibly irritating, at least, over time, you start to understand how to solve the problems and learn what to expect when giving someone your opinion.

“I write for myself.”

“I don’t write for the money,” “I don’t write for the fame,” “I don’t write for the praise.” Several similar comments explain the same thing: “I don’t define success by ‘superficial’ things.” Legitimate, right?

I hear this said most in writers’ groups after someone receives feedback they don’t want to take. Whenever anyone suggests a change, the writer responds, “Well, I write for myself.” The frustrating part is, while it is your prerogative and responsibility to take the path that is right for you, if you write for yourself, why are you here? Why are you giving the work for other people to read? Why get criticism?

If you publish or ever even give a manuscript to another person, you obviously don’t write solely for yourself.

Dealing with someone who isn’t concrete about their intentions can be difficult. In some cases, sure, the person is flat out lying. They did give it to you for praise and when they did not receive it, they pretend, maybe even convinced, that wasn’t what they wanted. I think many times, however, it’s more of an issue of oversimplification. When they claim that they don’t care what other people think as a blanket statement, it can really mean that they take issue with that specific solution, seeing it as selling out or seeing that individual decision as being important to them; they’re not willing to betray what they consider a literary quality for the market. They do use their own tastes as a measuring stick, but they’re looking for aid in how to craft something that meets those tastes. My reader side is a fickle beast and my author side doesn’t always know how to make her happy.

Whenever you don’t want to make an alteration, it’s important you be honest and concise about your reasoning; open dialogue in which all parties are forthcoming is where the best understanding comes from. Or, if you know for certain you don’t want to make the change, no further information needed, simply don’t say anything. The point in putting forth your opinion is to discuss it, to have your feedbacker explain their feelings and thoughts, to explain yours, and to come to the conclusion as to what’s best for the project. If you can’t be truthful and specific about what you’re trying to do, people can’t really help you.

What to do about it:

Ask the writer, “What do you hope happens with this book?”

Do they want to get it published? What do they hope a reader gains from reading it? When they say they don’t write “for the money,” a lot of times what they mean is they don’t make decisions for the money, not that they don’t want it. Other occasions they mean they feel it isn’t okay to write for the money. Unless they outright state that they don’t want a lot of readers, they probably do. The trick is getting them to be honest with themselves. Don’t imply that your solution is the only way to achieve those goals, but ask to gain an understanding on why they came to you in the first place, use that goal to determine if the criticism is best for them, and how to phrase it in a way that is convincing. It might be true that they’re not looking to sell millions of books, but if they’re not, what are they trying to do? Answer that, and you can better state your advice.

Generally speaking, the “I write for myself” author tends to have a strong, moralistic abrasion to selling out (either genuinely or as an excuse) and shut down on any normal, understandable hopes he has for his story. If he still wants those things but feels shame, as though it makes him less of an author, his words may contradict his actions. It might be about making a safe space for him to be fair to himself.

So, avoid using words like “selling,” “praise,” or even “gaining and maintaining readers” when speculating why they’ve come to you. Remind them that, in the context of feedback from a non-investor, they have full power to do whatever they want. Use their own words, if available, as a reference point for their goals—“You have stated being upset about the few sales you’ve been having”—and give the solution as personal belief—“this would be my main deterrent when considering giving your book a chance.”

On the other hand, people know if they argue artistic integrity they’ve won; even if the speaker does have the nerve to say, “Well that’s just stupid,” the writer can still feel morally superior because he writes for the right reason. If it’s not a genuine belief, just a cheap argument, try and pin them down in their own words to what their goals are, and take whatever they say seriously, even if it sounds like they’re lying. If it comes down “I don’t want anything,” as it often does, then say, “Okay. Then you’re good. Let’s move on,” and start talking to someone else. Next time they’ll be less likely to play the artistic superiority card if it loses them attention or aid.

“If it’s so good, why do I need to change it?”

Many people true to infuse compliments with their criticism, and sometimes that can backfire.

I’ve never liked the “sandwich criticism” technique in which you offer up a compliment then a suggestion then a compliment again. For one thing, it’s usually obvious that that’s exactly what you’re doing, for another, people often give some vague, succinct praise before launching into a tirade and then offering up another vague, succinct praise again.

Personally, I try to tie the compliment directly into the suggestion. By analyzing what the writer’s goal was, I can tell them how they succeeded, give them credit for their decision making while still discussing why it (or often the magnitude of it) didn’t work for me.

“Jimmy’s such a vibrant and funny character that when I hit Crissy’s P.O.V., she doesn’t compare. I’m less invested in her story because she’s is less complex and more negative, so her sections slow the book down for me.”

But obviously, giving compliments can mislead the author about the reader’s true feelings.

For example, I once gave feedback to a gentleman who had an explanatory and perfunctory writing style, typical for some new writers. He was a memoirist, and he deliberately focused on clarity. He did not believe in wordplay at all. This could be fine in some contexts, but his clarity was overkill, often condescendingly so, explaining and re-explaining things everyone already understood, using very basic words that often came off as choppy, almost juvenile. He was writing about a boring subject in a boring way. He “told” instead of “showed,” refusing to put in any sensory descriptions because, as a memoir, he didn’t remember what it smelled like or what the temperature was and he wasn’t about to lie. It was mostly editorializing and summation.

I told him that he was a clear, concise writer, that I always understood exactly what he meant, and so now he could he could take more risks with being confusing. He gave me this scoffing look that I can only describe as “But if my work is so good, then why fix it?”

What to do about it:

My decision was to just flat out tell him the truth. “I am bored.”

But in most cases, that’s not the desirable option.

He immediately shut down. He was one of those put-together sensitive types, the kind that seemed confident, seemed like a know-it-all, but you knew was seeking validation. He wasn’t rude or malicious, though often judgmental. He was good at taking feedback, but struggled with taking it effectively—he took what everyone said way too seriously. Afterwards, I saw him one last time in that group. He hadn’t written anymore. I don’t think that that was my doing—at least not completely—because in the many weeks he attended, he only had one chapter which he’d brought back to show us the changes. He had never written anything before and didn’t like to read, so it was likely he’d quit anyway, but you can see why I don’t believe outright saying, “It was boring,” convinced him to solve the issue.

You complimented them in the first place because you didn’t want them to be hurt. And while their ego can make you suddenly revoke your desire to be kind, usually that’s an impulse best censored. In some cases, being blunt might be the best and only way to be clear about your feedback, but diplomacy is still possible, and I don’t really want to take the high of the praise away from the author, even if I feel like he’s preventing him from understanding my point.

First, admit to personal preferences. Criticism isn’t about winning the argument, but helping a person understand their readers. If you admit it might just be you, know they’re rarely going to accept your argument as the outright truth—initially. But the problem here is if you compliment them on something they highly value, they’re more likely to shut out concerns that they haven’t thought about. This is even more true if they actively disagree with them, so let them know that their tastes (even if they might not be honest about what they’re tastes are) are valid and they’re less likely to write off the entire criticism.

By saying, “I know you don’t want to write anything too dense,” you give them an escape route before you admit, “Still, I’d like to see you toy with how you describe things more, challenge yourself to widen your palate.”

It is unlikely to get them to agree with you instantaneously, but they’re also less likely to get defensive. The idea is more capable to take seed for when someone else mentions it again.

Finish off with a frank explanation of how the decision did not achieve what you would want for the book. “There were times in which the focus on clarity was hard to get through and took away from the mood of the scene.” It’s difficult to be honest about what you’re feeling when something like, “It’s boring,” is hurtful, so specificity is key.

“I don’t want a character arc.”

Authors, including myself, balk when someone says, “A book has to have this.” Oh really? Challenge accepted.

So it’s not uncommon for writers to decide they want to write a book without a character arc, or a climax, or an introduction, or an inciting incident, or a likable protagonist. And, honestly, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Testing out and challenging the rules of society is exactly what art is about.

Except when you’re the one trying to help them improve their writing.

By handicapping themselves, they also handicap you. Often your main criticism will be exactly about that weird thing that writer is obsessed with. Likely, you don’t even think it’s that important. You find it the biggest downfall of the work, but they refuse to change it. They said so even before you began. There’s a reason these things are described as necessities, even if it’s just our cultural expectation.

So what do you do when someone refuses an element you think is a quintessential part of the story?

What to do about it:

Well, for starters, I believe you should try and work with their vision, even if you think it’s incredibly stupid. For one thing, there’s so many books in the world, we don’t really need another “just good” one, so why not let them take a risk if they’re willing? Again, unless you’re an investor of some sort, it’s not your choice.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t be honest.

Before addressing their concerns, feel free to speak yours. State your experience with this kind of comment. When you have been going to writers’ groups, classes, teaching others, and just generally giving feedback, it’s something that comes up fairly frequently. It’s possible that the writer has no idea how common his staunch decision to go against the grain is.

“I am here to help you do whatever you want to do. Keep in mind that I have dealt with this kind of thing before, and many times I feel like writer thinks it’ll be an easier path when it is a much, much harder one. I’ve seen a lot of people get frustrated and abandon the idea. If you truly want to write like this, just be prepared for a difficult road, but I’ll support you.”

Then they’ll argue that they’re not doing it because they think it’ll be easy, citing “artistic integrity,” but just smile and nod. Any argument or explanation will make them more upset. The point is to make clear where you’re coming from, not convince them of anything.

Address exactly why they want to do it. Are they just challenging themselves? Do they feel like it will have some artistic umph to it? Worst case scenario is they are being lazy or aiming for originality with something big and obvious, but at least then your options won’t be restricted. Just tell them in order to consider their vision, you need to fully understand it.

Then address your arguments against it, but pose them as obstacles, things to consider, not reasons not to do it.

“You will have to find an alternative way to make sure readers don’t find the script a waste of time. Readers like progress. If the characters didn’t change, what did? What happens in the story that changes the reader since the moment he picked it up to when he put it down? Maybe the character didn’t learn anything, but that doesn’t mean the reader doesn’t.”

The good side is that it will enhance your critical thinking, force you to question your assumptions and really examine the importance of this “rule.” It not only challenges the writer, but the critic into rethinking everything they thought they knew.

It can be appealing to just shut down after faced with the same attitude time and time again. Having the same arguments, being confronted with the exact same statements—you might feel compelled to just tell them to knock it off.

But like with everything, the trick is truly listening and learning to ask the right questions. Criticism isn’t just about imparting one singular opinion; it’s about the exchange of opinions, ideas, and vision. Seeing someone struggle can be painful. Having them be egotistical, angry, or stubborn is worse. It’s useful to remember that understanding is achieved by conversation, and even if someone doesn’t immediately agree with you, even if they don’t take your advice, it doesn’t mean you didn’t help them in some way.

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Friday, July 7, 2017

En Garde, Romeo

Breaking up with my ex left me in a state of fear.

Or, more accurately, breaking up with my ex and trying to be open with men left me in a state of fear. After getting out of a relationship in which I had somehow allowed myself to become codependent, sacrificing my desires for the sake of “compromise,” I decided to overcome my introversion and be accessible, not just to potential love interests, but everyone—a goal I’ve had for some time, in fact. I wanted to become more extraverted, period, but mostly I had no idea what I was looking for anymore and just wanted to allow a true connection between me and someone else instead of disengaging for fear of small talk.

I don’t get crushes often, and my ex was one of the first people I fell hard for. He was shy, smart, sensitive, seemingly considerate, fun, had the same interests, and liked what he liked without apology. For a brief moment, he made me feel truly special. That didn’t last long, but it had been intoxicating none of the less.

Part of my concerns is that sexual attraction, for me, is far more about personality than just physical traits. You know what I find most attractive in a man? His hands. Specifically, the way he moves them. The way he moves them when his eyes light up. The way his face cracks into a huge smile discussion moves towards his passion. It’s the moment he’s start to relax, be himself, and becomes so engrossed in whatever it is he’s thinking about that you can watch him without the emotional walls in the way. I start to feel a crush when I believe his lingering gaze is more than just him checking out “some woman,” but actually contains conscious thoughts behind them. Not just an unemotional stimulating visual, but a twinge of genuine affection and hope, yet still rational enough to realize he doesn’t actually know who I am, but would like to learn.

It takes some time to get there. Anywhere from 20 minutes of conversation to three months of working side-by-side. It takes more time to be sure it’s never going to get there.

Now, when I say I’m afraid of men, I don’t mean the idea of rejection makes me nervous. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’m not going to pretend my ego can withstand blows, but I am far more afraid of a man allowing himself to “settle” into a relationship with me because no one better is around. If I could count on a guy breaking it off when he realized it wasn’t going anywhere, I would be far more willing to go on uncertain dates. More importantly, if I could count on a guy accepting I’m breaking it off, I’d be more willing to take a chance. I come from a small town in which men outnumber women 7:1. Adding in the fact that most men are slow to wheedle down their number of potential mates, it’s not uncommon for him to stick around until he has to make an actual decision, which could be years. People say women are more likely to break things off and ask for a divorce in a long-term relationship, and I believe it.

When I say I’m afraid of men, I mean when sitting next to a stranger, I constantly worry about being touched without my permission. I worry about getting screamed at after having a polite conversation that went nowhere. I’m worried about having to reject someone constantly for weeks, being argued with if I explain why, being insulted if I don’t, and not being taken seriously in either regard.

Once I decided to socialize more, I started getting “stalked.” It was benign in nature, an overexuberance on their parts, but I would be inundated with messages from men I’d spoken to only once—or not at all. On one specifically exhausting experience, I took a chance on a guy who seemed normal enough, I skeptically gave him my number to then be blitzed with messages. At first I tried to be respectful and honest, “I’m headed into workshop. I’ll have to see how tired I am when I get out,” and he refused to listen to me, demanding if I was coming with him five times throughout the duration, calling twice.

When I finally told him, “I’m not talking to you anymore because you don’t respect my boundaries,” he continued to message me, his confusion growing worse and worse even though I had already made myself perfectly clear several times. As in, saying the actual word ‘No.’ As in growing from, “We don’t have anything in common,” to “I don’t enjoy being around you.” I did refrain from calling him a smelly, creepy son-of-a-bitch because that would be more for catharsis than the truth, and I knew he was extremely self-loathing and sensitive, so it wouldn’t help.

Over the course of the summer, I got harassed a great deal in this manner; men constantly approaching me with lies and criticisms, desperate for any woman’s validation and treating me like dirt to get it. These were strangers, obviously, and the conversations lasted less than five minutes. Ten at max. But most people didn’t understand the damaging effect from being constantly approached with “helpful” criticism, insincere intentions, and the overwhelming fear that I would once again fall for the wrong person. They instead, told me that my stalker was my fault for engaging with him in the first place, or for smiling, for making eye contact. “Just block them,” instructed one older stranger who I only talked to when he messaged me unsolicited advice about my Facebook posts. “Just be flattered,” others suggested.

Moreover, there is a very understandable issue standing between us: Many of the men who approached me didn’t want to get emotionally invested until they knew they stood a chance. I, however, often didn’t know if we stood a chance until after a natural emotional investment is planted. All I knew was I was having boring small talk with a guy who not only wasn’t paying attention to anything I was saying, but tuning out his own voice as well—an average looking guy who put no effort into being fun, interesting, or even pleasant, who refused to be intellectually present, possibly because he honestly didn’t care about who I was as a person. Yet, despite their obvious opinion that I was replaceable and not worth trying, they were astoundingly confused and obsessive at my disinterest.

You’re not really that interested in me! What’s there to be confused about?

Extraordinary people look normal on the outside. They don’t always make a good first impression, and you don’t always see the beauty in them until after you’ve given them a chance. But you also don’t always see the ugliness until it’s too late.

My male friends, who I respected and adored, thinking they were loyal romantics, would discuss with me their view on love and their wives/girlfriends and… it sounded like settling.

“Oh. I don’t believe in the one. I just believe in picking someone and choosing to be committed.”

They admitted they secretly wanted harems “at one point,” but realized it was just a fantasy.

All of this was so incongruent with the way I perceived love—and had felt love. It emphasized the discrepancy I had felt between me and my ex. I had cared about him, and only him, for the entire two years we were together. I never shopped around or wished anything different about his appearance even when things were really, terribly bad. I didn’t have a crush on anyone else, or lament past relationships, or do anything but wish that he would give me even a modicum of attention. Even when I hated him, I prioritized his happiness. He was having a hard go of it, and I couldn’t throw water on a drowning man, especially one that I cared about. My love was there through thick and thin, and only through extreme self-reflection, logic, and betrayal did I finally convince myself that I wasn’t caring about me, and I should have been.

Experiencing the severe antipathy of men in the following months only strengthened my fear. Hostility was planted between us. I felt every time I was kind to someone, gave someone nervous or insecure or hurting the briefest of chances (just by being polite even), he’d turn around and bite me, smugly, looking down on me for ever being “interested” in someone like him. Even though logically I knew that selfishness, lack of self-awareness, and an inability to listen are personality traits, and I recognize many women who treat their boyfriends badly, the security in generalizing was too appealing. It was better to think, “All men don’t give a shit!” than try and figure out which ones did.

My female friends couldn’t help; I was too privy to the problems in their relationships and only heard about it from the woman’s side. My male friends didn’t help. They just verbally affirmed all my deepest fears.

There was one thing that I could do to overcome it. I Googled my greatest concerns, but instead of writing, “Do all men…” I changed it to “women.”

By flip flopping the genders, I came across articles expressing my exact emotions, but with men who had been in my shoes. I could empathize with someone without confirming my growing bigotry, relate to their pain, and see their desires and fears could coincide with my own. By reading about women who had hurt someone in ways that I never could, it became easier to believe my boyfriend hurt me in ways that another man never could.

It could be scary at times. Many of these searches were filled with the expected anger, turning to violence and promotion of rape. It was worse when the solutions were telling men to do exactly what I was afraid of—don’t take no for an answer. She’s just testing you.

I suppose what made me truly angry at my short-term harasser was that I had gone out of my way to communicate what was going on while still taking care of my needs. This normal, friendly guy had asked me to hang with a group of people, but my introverted self wanted to go home and snuggle with my cat. However my self-improving self wanted to stop telling people no every time I was offered to hang out. But my rational self recognized that I had a routine of going to bed at seven for my three a.m. job, and by 10 o’clock I’d probably be crashing.

I realized I had about two hours of the workshop to make my decision, so instead of ignoring him, which I considered rude, I explained what was going on with me in an honest and fair way.

His blowing up my phone condemned my consideration. Best case scenario? He was so consumed with anxiety as to whether or not I was coming that he was oblivious that I might feel pressured if he demanded an answer—not safe. Maybe he was accusing me of lying, like I was making up stories to back out—it never feels good not to be trusted. But more than that, if I was lying, why didn’t he have the self-respect to say, “I really don’t need that kind of shit in my life.” Either he was kind of stupid or just selfish. Or both.

At the end, it just seemed like he lacked self-control and self-awareness. By the time I got out and read his texts, the group wasn’t even there yet. It wasn’t like they were waiting on me. He just acted on impulse, which is terrifying when you’re a small woman completely dependent on any lover’s self-restraint to be physically safe. If he doesn’t have the desire or capacity to intellectually control his impulses, you could end up severely injured.

It’s not that I don’t empathize, but rather I’ve started to learn that I tend to empathize too much and don’t demand enough respect in return. I gave someone the benefit of the doubt they never offered me. He didn’t listen to me because he had a serious problem listening period, which I found over the course of the writers conference where we met. He spent so much time worrying about how he “came off” that he was never present for what was going on. When I realized how little he took my feelings into consideration, I had already “misled” him by not rejecting him immediately. Had I known from the jump that he wasn’t going to leave me alone, I wouldn’t have done the little things, like offered to having him sit by me when he had an obvious momentary existential crisis whether or not he should. If I had known from the jump what a bad listener he was, I would have never giving him a chance. If I had known from the jump it was never going to happen, I wouldn’t have behaved like it might. But I didn’t know that. I just knew that he was interested, and he wasn’t giving me any deal breakers in the three seconds I had to appraise him. Did we have potential? Unlikely, but not out of the question.

Reading up on men’s view of rejection, I came across the issue of the “shit test.” Prior to that, I had no comprehension as to what his end game was by repeatedly messaging me if I was coming or not. My best guess was that he was extremely impulsive.

As it turns out, many trains of thought thing that women intentionally reject men in order to see how serious he is. And I get this. As I said above, a guy might look like he’s interested on a surface level, but that doesn’t really mean he is, and only time will tell. Plus, many guys show their true faces upon rejection—both positive and negative. If he’s putting on a façade, even subconsciously, it’s more likely to drop after he stops trying. When a guy takes rejection well, he’s much more likely to actually be a nice person rather than faking it. When he takes it poorly, well, you’ve just bared witness to how he’ll act when he doesn’t get his way. If he gets angry, you know you’re dealing with someone who will grow hostile in disagreements.

And you do know he’s more serious, although I would argue that the biggest reasons I receive my “stalkers” (for lack of a better term) is not due to me “engaging with them” as I was told, but because I’m not much for flirting unless I think it’s going somewhere. I tend to “reject” men (and any stranger trying to socialize with me) fairly quickly. The more overt your rejection, the more they latch on. So while he may not have been sincerely interested before, once you tell him, “No,” he will grow more invested. In fact, some men lose interest if the girl is too intrigued too soon, especially if she’s attractive. He wanted the validation of getting the attention of someone more discriminate.

So yeah. Even if it’s only subconscious, I would assume that many women do have shit tests. But I would also like to say it’s not necessarily a test. Maybe she doesn’t know what she wants. Maybe she’s serious in her rejection at that moment. Maybe she’s prematurely ending the conversation out of fear of how easily out of control flirtation can get. Maybe she doesn’t really want to reject you, but knows that it’s a bad idea to get involved with you. Or maybe it’s not a rejection at all and she’s just telling you the truth about what’s going on.

Where does that leave men? What am I asking? Nothing, actually. Just understanding. Even though reading the hatred on the internet can be hard, there are those who I relate to. I get why it can seem like people just looking for relationships might be selfish users, why it’s so easy to stereotype and generalize. Why we look for secret agendas and don’t trust, especially after a bad experience.

I share this with you because I do feel bad for the men who have been mistreated by women, and I realize how much effort I had to put in to understand why they behaved the way they did. Sometimes, I realize now, it’s not a complete disregard for my feelings, or a malicious attempt for manipulation, but rather a genuine confusion on what it’s like to be from the other side.

Though I don’t believe men and women are all that different in our desires and fears, some of our personal experiences vary drastically. When I tell men the stories of how others have talked to me, they’re often shocked, skeptical, or freshly enraged. When I hear men describe some of the ways they’ve been treated, I am often shocked, skeptical, or freshly enraged.

Most importantly, when I read recollections about why men are drawn to the Pick-Up Arts that teach how to use manipulation and abuse, I get the evolution. I understand the fear, the frustration, the hurt that led them to seek answers. I see some of the logic in the methods, and in pieces many of the advice understands the female experience better than I do. In fact, some of the advice is straight up good. (While others is downright terrifying.)

But applied without context, Pick-Up tricks start to demand that women grow more and more self-protecting and less empathetic. It turns a possibility into a cold no. It makes a first impression the only impression, the first chance the only chance. Acting like women are evil for not knowing if you’re an option immediately means she’s going to err or rejection. Assuming her “not right now” means she’s shit testing you is likely to chase her away faster.

Maybe sometimes means maybe. If you feel like a woman is wasting your time by intentionally stringing you along or playing games, move on. But the truth is, she might actually just be protecting herself from getting into a car with the wrong person. Or worse, the wrong relationship. If men focused more on a woman’s emotional state—rather than telling her to smile, or that she’s being emotional—they would be better equipped to separate rejection from uncertainty, uncertainty from manipulation. If men understood that women are taking time to separate those things, we’d be less afraid to give them a chance.

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Monday, July 3, 2017

Can Pessimists be Good People?

Bojack Horseman was yet another one of those shows that I prematurely judged in my afraid-of-change, like-my-comfort-zone sort of way.

It’s a cartoon about a horse (man) who was a sitcom star in the 90s for a terrible show that made a ridiculous amount of money. Now he lives a wealthy, depressed life with little meaning or escape despite his lack of responsibilities.

First time I saw it, I thought, “This is idiotic.”

Second time I saw it, I thought, “This is pretty funny.”

Third time I saw it, I thought, “This is genius!”

And so it goes with me. I’m at least aware of it now and try to give things a chance despite my gut-impulse of negativity. People ask me why I attempt to force myself to finishing reading books I don’t like, talk to guys I don’t like, and watch all of T.V. shows I sneer at, and it’s because I have an instantaneous and irrational distaste for everything new. When I moved to New York City, I told myself to give it two years for this very reason. If I stayed away from everything that made a bad first impression with me, I wouldn’t have found half the stuff I loved. Truth is, I spent the last few years without little pleasures in life because I didn’t expose myself to novelty enough.

In the first season finale, Bojack asks his unreciprocated love interest if she thought he was a good person deep down. She responded with, “I don’t think I believe in deep down. I kind of think that all you are is the things that you do.”

In a pretty ironic way, the thing I dislike about myself is my negativity. I’m illogically pessimistic, my emotions prepping themselves for the most mediocre scenario even when conscious thinking tells me otherwise. I’m pretty smart when it comes to reading situations, and I can predict reactions and results fairly well. Doesn’t mean I can control them exactly, but I’ll find myself—like in this moment—believing that I have no capacity to feel love again while logically recognizing that it’s more likely I’m still healing from my first real failure.

On the surface, I think people these days see me as kind person, possibly a doormat. My actions tend to serve others. The nice thing about getting little pleasure out of life is it makes selfishness a futile endeavor. Deep down I know that I’m a good person. I recognize an inherent, ingrained, almost ridiculous sense of loyalty that other people in my life struggle to even rationalize:

“I don’t want to take the part time job to then suddenly turn around and quit if I get a full time.”

“Well, what are the odds you’re ever going to see them again?”

“No, I don’t want to screw them over.”

“Oh. Right. Fair enough.”

I don’t have to force myself to worry about others or take a lot of thought to feel guilt and remorse. I did spend a great deal of my life developing interpersonal intelligence—recognizing when I’m being a shit head—but I have a deep maternal instinct satisfied through teaching and caregiving.

On the other side, I’m an angry sonofabitch. Possibly due to constant hunger. Possibly due to the red hair, but mostly because of some sort of automatic territorialism that conflicts with my sense of solidarity. I want everyone to be happy, but I do not want some smaller mutt acting like he’s the king of the hill. Metaphorically speaking. An actual dog could get away with it.

Upon some self-reflection, I also realized a pretty obvious source of my anxiety: I’m afraid of being ganged up on. I don’t think that’s abnormal, but the amount I obsess over it is. I don’t mind when someone hates me, (Well, I don’t spend a lot of time distraught over it anyway.) but I get unnerved when I can’t read a room, such as when filled with strangers. You can control a situation when you understand pre-existing feelings, avoid getting alone with two people who hate you at one time, and avoid bringing up subject that everyone disagrees with you on. But when you know nothing, tides can turn easily.

Am I a good person? Deep down, I genuinely care about people. On the surface, I focus my actions to ease the lives of those around me.

But somewhere in between I’m snippy, judgmental, and need to be right. 

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