Friday, 27 January 2012

Why'd Ya Have to Be So Negative, Man?

Apparently, the secret to leading a creative life is not to care what other people think about you. If you can skip through life sporting fluorescent green welly boots and an orange asymmetrical hairdo then you are well on your way to fulfilment. This is bad news for me, because not only do I not possess a pair of wellies, I also care very much what people think about me. On the upside, I hope that this makes me more conscientious. On the downside, it means I find negative feedback crippling.

I had a particular batch of negative feedback last year that shook me to the core, knocking me out of action (writing-wise) for three full months. I had been so confident about the work before that point, ebullient even. Was it hubris? Critique that I've had since suggests not, that it was simply a subjective difference of opinion. But the feedback was so unexpected and I crashed hard into an ocean of doubt. I feel like I'm still out there most days, clutching onto a piece of wood and hoping someone will rescue me.

People don't usually mean their negative comments to have any sort of lasting effect. They assume the person to whom they are delivering the feedback is robust enough to examine the issue from all sides and come to a measured conclusion. Sorry, but I'm not that person. I know that the creative arts are subjective. I know that everybody can't love everything. But I also know that my own emotional response doesn't respond well to logic.

The irony is that I can also be very negative in my own feedback. That part of my brain that exists to draw the worst conclusion from any situation also allows me to find flaws in seemingly perfect work. The more I read and write, the harder I find it to detach from the language and structure of a piece, and just go with the flow. Perhaps this is good – language and structure are the things that writers struggle to perfect, so any comments here might be useful. But I can't help noticing how easy it is to miss the spirit of a piece when you focus heavily on the practical aspects of writing.

This is usually the part of the blog where I turn around and offer up the solution to my problem, but on this subject I'm not so sure. I think it's tied up with the deeper aspects of a personal need for approval from others. Interestingly, these are the very same aspects that unconsciously led me to write and try to get published. It begs the question: will a healthier attitude to all this remove my desire to send a book into the world? Or will it simply make me more robust and measured in my approach to publication?

At least I get some time to work on this while my writing is being seen by relatively few people and criticised by even less. Imagine, for instance, how I would react to a negative review on Amazon. That isn't something that sits in my inbox, quietly simmering – it's visible like a scar to anyone in the world who cares to look for it. How would I resist clicking that link when I was feeling low, and torturing myself with the evidence of my very public failure? How indeed.



  1. A really important post, Nick, and one that will speak to many of us. I've been thinking of the whole self-esteem thing, and about how we separate criticism and rejection from the rest of our experiences. I don't have any answers either. We all need approval to some extent, and when that's denied or withheld, it bloody well hurts...

  2. Interesting post. Even the most stoic of us sometimes take a dive when the work in question is not deemed perfect. As writers we open ourselves right up to the world, and it's easy to see even the most constructive criticism as a personal rejection. I don't have the answer. I guess it gets easier with time. It must do, otherwise why do we keep writing?

  3. Yes, that old 'head above the parapet' thing. And there's no fatter target than a published author, it seems. And no effective helmet!

    Many people claim never to read negative reviews, but I find it hard to believe them.

  4. I guess it's all about trust and only exposing your work to people who you know are there to help build you up and not break you down. At a stage when you are still learning about yourself as an author, it's tough to get knocked back. The scar tissue will help later on though. Hugs, Nick.

  5. @Sue - it doesn't get easier but you learn how to cling harder to the good bits.

  6. Profound post, Nick, and thanks for your honesty in sharing. I think we all know the place you talk about, and we all, in one way or another, experience self-doubt at some point. For those of sitting in the slushpile, rejection, negative feedback can all hit very hard - particulary if we're given to being hard on ourselves at the best of times. I think ultimately it comes down to finding the balance between the self doubt inflicted by negative comments, the self belief that this is what we want and perhaps need to do. Read Bekki's book again :-) Big hugs.