Monday, January 22, 2018

Have You Ever Considered Being a Writer? She Asks the Writer



“Have you ever considered being a writer?”

So began a painful night in which I bit my tongue for a friendly woman who offered me a clam thinking it was an oyster. Proverbially speaking. It was the start of when I realized I needed to move out of New York and get away from this roommate.

Conflict is hard when the other person doesn't think they're being confrontational. A direct insult, hostility, any sort of overt aggression is easy to handle. Fight fire with fire. But someone who has no idea that they were spewing fireballs will never get why you threw a burning log at their face.

Kind people are more damaged by outright cruelty, and they really don’t deserve it. You want people to feel like they can give you their honest opinion, to hear unsolicited ideas and criticisms so that you don’t have to spend all of your time seeking it. On the other hand, naïve advice can be demoralizing or counterproductive, and it’s very difficult to have a useful conversation about it when they don’t really understand what they’re talking about. Especially because examining an alternative P.O.V. is a learned skilled which often takes a certain level of prior education on the topic.

This woman was just talking, just trying to be helpful, but all the while she wasn’t listening. She would make a shallow, simplified suggestion, posed as a question, and when answered, contradict herself and criticize me.

“You should try blogging.”

“I have a blog I post bi-weekly. It's called What's Worse than Was, and I started it about six years ago.”

“Well, you need to focus. Sometimes people have too many projects and just need to have their passion.”

It was a series of do this, why would you do that? She wanted to help me live my life, but she had no idea the difficulties or time required from what she suggested. She acted like it was easy, like all I had to do was walk into the newspaper office, get a copyediting job, and my career as a novelist will take off!

When I told her I had been doing this for fifteen years—as in, I’ve tried or considered all that, my dear, sweet friend—she said, “Well you have to start somewhere! Just because you’ve been doing this a while doesn’t mean—”

I finally stopped the conversation with an abrupt wave of my hand. She was shocked that my typical attentive demeanor had suddenly disappeared as I excused myself from the conversation. This was not my first rodeo, and she was not the first woman to criticize me when I tried to suggest that maybe I did have some experience in what I was doing. Her tune changed, unsure of what boundary she had crossed, but knowing one had, indeed, been crossed, and as I left she said, “I would love to read some of your writing sometime!”

I ignored her. Why would I give someone a story to read after she's demonstrated zero respect for my ability or what I’ve been working towards for over a decade? Maybe if she even liked the same sort of fiction, but no. She was not in my target audience, and even without reading anything, I knew she did not think I was any good at what I did. The older woman saw me as someone to shape and mold and didn’t really care where I was starting from or where I wanted to be going.

It reminded me of when I was in college and after pushing my plays on many professors and peers, I had a teacher who, after refusing to read it himself, lectured me on needing to get outside feedback and giving me a list of names. Of the teachers I’d recognized, they’d had my work sitting, untouched, on their desks for months.

“You should get Sean to read it.”

“I did. He has a couple of my plays now he hasn't looked at.”

“Well, he says you’re not good at taking criticism.”

“How would he know? He hasn’t give me any.”

And as I say, that wasn’t just a flippant remark. Outside of the fact that he’d never read any of my work, my professor didn’t give anyone criticism. He was nervous about conflict. He always praised, never condemned, and the only student I’d ever seen him actually give any negative feedback was a headstrong girl with killer pipes who continued to do musical theatre even though they told her “NO.” Why? “She isn’t ready yet.” But really, in my view, musical theatre was their thing, and they didn't want the students to have it.

When criticized, she smiled and nodded, taking it like a champ, and then completely ignored them. They knew she wouldn’t flip out, but also were irritated with her.

She and I once talked about my professor's statement I was bad at taking criticism, and she speculated that maybe he was referencing the fact that I asked questions and disagreed in class. He was fairly sensitive and had a hard time standing strong in the face of any adversity. And I’ll admit I can be intimidating when I let myself, and don't agree with anything for the sake of it.

You’ll have to believe me when I say that I respected his opinion, and the opinion of my professor who suggested him, when giving them these scripts. Even when arguing in class, I believed they had logical ideas behind their otherwise confusing statements, and I never intended to make them feel stupid or prove myself right. I honestly didn’t understand.

But I had this teacher sit there and lecture me, as I’m struggling and struggling and struggling to get feedback, that I need to put my ego aside and just go out and get people’s opinion. As if it was just as easy as that. As if the reason I wasn’t getting it was because I thought I was too good for it, not because I’m at the mercy of those people who have agreed to do me a favor.

He had no idea what I was going through, assumed the worst of me, and gave advice that really just proved how naïve he was about my life.

And what do you say to that?

I think most advice results from an autobiographical standpoint, and that helps to suck up some of the insult when someone assumes the worst of you. The older woman, a retired make-up artist, told me several times she has an issue with checking her ego and tends to get into fights with… well, everyone due to her opinionated ways. She’s not stupid, and a lot of time’s she’s right about what she’s saying, but has admitted herself that her pride holds her back and makes her difficult to work with. As for my professor, well, he was a perfectionist, an old man on the bridge of retirement, who stuck with academia instead of taking risks on his art. He had all kinds of opinions about what he would do as a writer if he ever did write anything (which he hadn’t since a few poems in his twenties), but couldn’t take the blow to his ego if someone didn’t like it. He never did anything he wasn’t ready for, and recommended the same to his students.

It’s come up enough times in my life that I should find a clear way to disengage, but how to do so without sounding petty, mean, or butthurt? A conversation about alternative solutions go south when the person, new to the issue, fixates on the merits of the first thought they ever had and condemns the listener if there's any semblance of criticism.

I have to keep in mind that I don’t have to explain myself, and unless I actually have reason to believe someone has a special kind of insight, a good, “Not interested,” will suffice. Explanation leads to argument and denouncement of all the work you’ve put in so far.

It's difficult to hear the lack of faith that others have in you, but sometimes we need to remember that it might not be about you. Even if it is, their assumptions about how easy something would be if they ever got around to it, or how you obviously must be self-sabotaging yourself, does not change the reality of the situation. You know how hard you’ve worked. Don’t let anyone take that from you.



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