It’s no secret that writers have an elevated view of themselves (try editing a writer’s work and see the sparks fly). It’s no surprise either because it comes with the territory. To wake up every morning, braving uncertainty, self doubt, loneliness, boredom (sometimes depression) and so on takes a level of commitment, balls and yes, a twinge of narcissism.
But there’s a difference between borderline narcissism and absolute conceit. And nowhere is it more obvious than in the place of criticism.
If you want to see writers at their worst, do a brutal criticism of their work. They’ll claw, scream, defend and explain their writing, with the conviction that, “if only you could see what I was going for, you’d leave all that in there.”
Look, there comes a time when you just have to release your work and trust your editor’s judgement. The truth is, we’re not attempting to reduce your work to a shadow of itself. Believe it or not, we’re trying our best to make sure your writing reflects your genius, your wit, and your skill. We’re also there to make sure you don’t show the world just how clueless you are about the difference between “there” and “they’re” or if your “clever wordplay” is merely pedestrian at best.
I came across an article recently, listing several writers who were ridiculously protective of their work (and their egos), so much so that one refused to have an editor, another compared himself with Hemmingway and Shakespeare while a couple verbally attacked their critics, denigrating them for bashing their books. (There are a couple of other quite embarrassing reactions but these stood out).
So this is to all creators, whether writers, designers, musicians and whatnot.
Look, not everybody will “get” your work. Make your peace with that. A quick search through my computer will tell you I hold some musicians in high regard whilst others virtually don’t exist in my world. I go through my colleague’s playlist in the office and I feel like puking (which I tell him in quite graphic ways). All human beings have that in common. Our taste change over time. Sometimes they don’t. Some people will NEVER like your work. Don’t take it personal. It’s not a reason to go to war and show the internet your insecurity.
I dare say that rather, you should welcome criticism.
The Oscars held yesterday and J.K. Simmons won for Best Supporting Actor in Whiplash. Deservedly. I really hope every creative person sees the movie because, oh boy! J.K. Simmons’ character may have been a beast but he said something that struck like a canon – There are no two words in the English language more harmful than “good job”. Nothing has crushed potential, and tamed passion and genius as much as those two words.
While I’m not saying you should purposely seek out people who would find joy in poking at your work (there are plenty of those already), or haul things at you whenever you make a mistake (like in the video above), you definitely do not need a fanclub. In fact, a better strategy would be to surround yourself with people who cut you down to size. People who aren’t so enamoured with your writing prowess. People who don’t think, “he’s such an amazing writer”. Rather, people who would tell you to your face that you have talent, but so do the Nigerian Super Eagles and they’re yet to win the World Cup. So, talent counts for diddly squat. Show us you’re great.
If they’re writers, they should be “better” than you, at least in your own evaluation. This makes you value their assessment more as something that shouldn’t be easily dismissed.
And then we sit down and play Call of Duty.
Because at the end of the day, we’re all just humans, trying to live one day after the other, and making it count. You deserve to live as a person, with all your vulnerability intact. Not as a god to be worshipped. Don’t let them strip you of your humanity. You need it to keep creating relevant content.
I used to have a reader who worshipped my writing. She was always full of praise for my prose – I never had a sentence out of place. No clutter. Nothing. My writing was one of the best she’d read. I was destined for great things. Guess what that did for my writing? Nothing. I didn’t improve. I didn’t experiment. I didn’t go out of my comfort zone. My writing became repressed, formulaic, predictable.
It took some brutal honesty to come to terms with the fact that if I’m going to get better at my craft, I don’t need fans. I need critics. People who can objectively tell me what is wrong and right with my writing because believe me, no matter how good your writing is, it can still be improved.
So please, the next time you write or publish something, say this to yourself:
“I will not take myself too seriously. I will not be a cry baby. Not everybody will like or understand this and that’s fine. I’m improving and will keep doing so.”