Friday, October 8, 2010

Happy Writers Society: In Pursuit of Praise

I remember the first long book I started writing. I was thirteen, and it was based off a drawing I did of a girl with wings. I loved that drawing so much I turned that blue-haired girl into my main character, and I made friends for her and a story (one that was much like Sailor Moon and a few other anime shows smashed together).

For a while I didn't tell anyone about trying to write a whole book. I would just go down to the old Mac my dad gave to me (since it was woefully out of date by then), sit down, and type for hours. It was fun for me, a way to purge all that teen angst.

Then one day I finally decided to admit to a friend that I was writing a book. Her face lit up, and she immediately begged me to read it. I was unsure at first, but secretly I wanted to give it to her to see if she thought it was as awesome as I did. I mustered up the courage to print out the first chapter for her.

And guess what? She gobbled it up! And not only that, she gave it to some of our other friends to read and they loved it too! Suddenly I had a little pack constantly asking me for more chapters. My parents complained about how much paper I kept printing on and then giving away, but I was so amazed!

Someone loved my story. Someone was out there dying to know what happened next.

It was like this drug. My fingers would fly through angsty, dramatic awesomeness. I couldn't wait for that next hit of "That was amazing! Ohmygoshwhathappensnext!?!?"

And then I made the mistake of giving my stories to a more...discerning eye, let's say. She thought they weren't very good. I mean, she tried to be nice, but I could tell. It was not even close to the excited reaction I was used to.

Everything changed at that point. I lost faith in my ability. I still wrote for a while, but instead of sending my chapters off to confirm that they were as good as I thought, I sent them off to confirm they weren't as horrible as I thought.

It's a fine line, but it makes all the difference.

I gave up writing stories that year, at fifteen. I'd stopped having fun, and worse than that I thought I wasn't very good at it. So I put away the words and concentrated on drawing. Oh, I still wrote, but it was never stories. I wrote papers and news articles and training manuals.

In college I took one creative writing class with this sick hope that my teacher would read my stuff and laud over it like my friends once did. I thought to myself, "If she thinks I'm good, then maybe I'll try again." Well, she didn't say anything. I took it as a sign—non-fiction for me. If that.

I didn't try to write a story until I got pregnant. I don't know, maybe it was the crazy hormones that made me courageous. But I started REwriting that one book I wrote as a teen. And I was having fun again! I thought the story was MUCH better than the first time I wrote it, and of course I'd grown as a writer, even if I was only writing short non-fiction.

The only person who read the book at first was Nick, and he was so supportive and excited it was just like it was before! That high of someone else loving my story was unmistakable and addicting. He was confirming what I had hoped—it was good. Maybe I wasn't so hopeless after all. I decided this time I would keep going no matter what. When the criticism eventually came, I wouldn't let it get to me.

Well, I try not to let it get to me. But let's face it, sometimes it's freaking hard to have faith in your work when you hear over and over that it's not enough. You work more, and then you get told again that it's not enough. And again.

But then you get a bite. Someone who LOVES it, and that boost of praise is like writer's crack. You can't stop smiling, and you just feel soooo good. It's a rush to think you reeled a reader in, that they are begging for more, that you're not just a crazy person who thinks they can be a writer but actually has no chance.

Here comes the warning, though: Praise really can be like a drug. And if you're not careful you could fall into the trap of praise-seeking instead of having confidence in your own work.

Like the young me who gave up writing, when you seek praise to prove that you don't suck, it doesn't actually help. Sure, it gives you a little boost, maybe enough confidence to pull out another chapter. But in the end the feeling fades and you have to hurry and get another hit before the darkness and doubt consumes you. Soon writing is just not fun. Who cares if others like it? You don't. And so you stop. You give up. You move on. You decide everyone who says you're good is wrong, because you know better and you know that you suck and they're just pandering.

Praise is no substitute for faith in your own work. You have to believe in your writing, that there is something there that has potential. You have to be okay with some people not seeing that potential, and you have to be grateful for those who do. But in the end the only praise that will keep you going permanently is your own.

Yes, I just told you to be a raging narcissist. Well, not raging, but a little bit of a narcissist. A squitch.

Now that I've given you permission to like your writing, I would like to inform those that volunteered for the infomercial that they should be receiving an email from me soon. I really thought this process would be faster, but you would be surprised how hard it is to coordinate a full film crew without any cash.

Luckily, I have ninjas.


  1. Thank you for sharing. I too have ediscovered my love for writing after a bit of a hiatus. I'm moving in the right direction now and am happy about that! ^_^

  2. How funny about the pregnancy hormones... I wondered the same thing once!! It was during my pregnancy with my second that I started writing again for the first time since college, and the love I had for my writing was SO much more than ever before (although I snicker when I read what I wrote back then...)

    Excellent post!! I really enjoyed reading

  3. I related to this on so many levels, it's almost frightening. I'm an addict, but not just to praise...also to writing. So I won't stop until I'm dead. Your points are right on target though. Thanks for the great words!

  4. You were much braver than me at 13! I wrote my first novel around the age of 11/12 but I wouldn't let anyone read it. In fact I wouldn't let anyone read anything I wrote willingly until college and I did a few short stories.

    My teachers loved my stuff in high school but I always felt too insecure to let peers read it. It's only within the last five years that I've had enough faith in my writing to let others read it. I had to develop that "praise" for my own writing and not be as harsh. I think I'm my own worst critic.

  5. I don't accept praise from anyone. I believe that they're just being polite.

    Ok, I take it back. I accept praise from one person, but only because I know he's honest. I can feel his honesty when he tells me he loves my book.

    But everyone else? They're just being polite.

    Mabye I should try some of that praise drug you're talking about, just to see what it's like :)

  6. You definitely broke trough your blogger-block.

    And you're right, receiving compliments are VERY addictive and when you don't get any for even a small period of time, you can start to doubt your talent.

    You have to trust in your own talent. The praise and compliments are just the frosting on the cake. But that should never stop you from giving frosting to other people's cake :)

    (okay, and now I'm actually kinda hungry for cake...)

  7. What a wise, wise post. In particular I liked:

    - "... instead of sending my chapters off to confirm that they were as good as I thought, I sent them off to confirm they weren't as horrible as I thought. It's a fine line, but it makes all the difference."

    - "Praise really can be like a drug. And if you're not careful you could fall into the trap of praise-seeking instead of having confidence in your own work."

    The latter quote especially speaks to me, because I TOTALLY feed off praise. I never thought of it as a bad thing -- just the way I was. But you're right: it *can* be a bit dangerous, and I need to stay aware, stay SELF-motivated. I think I intuitively knew that, but having you say it aloud (well, internet-aloud) really helps.

    Thanks, Natalie!

  8. Great post! It's absolutely the truth. I remember hiding away as a teenager to write NSYNC fan fiction on my parents old computer and then saving it on my floppy disk so no one but my best friend could read it. Ahh...the good old days.

  9. Very wise post. After riding the roller-coaster for a while, I've learned to steel myself against praise. I allow myself to feel great, but I also always know that right around the corner will be criticism. That's just the way it is. If you don't believe in yourself and your work, there's no way to survive and keep going.

    I have a very similar background with writing that you do. Loved it when I was young, got smacked with a brick by some teachers, gave up, went into "respectable" writing (business cases, technical, board memos), and ultimately came back because I had to.

  10. Gee, you've had quite a journey! You're an example to me in your persistence. I definitely agree that it is a fine line between writing for your own pleasure, and writing just to hear words of praise. I hope it's not soo very wrong to need both. We spend too much time alone with our keyboards to not wnat to crawl into the light and relate to the world in a meaningful way. Praise feels better than a warm chocolate chip cookie, fresh out of the oven! I do try, though, to find a balance.

  11. I totally feel you on this one. I am a little addicted to feedback - I like hearing the bad too, but I love love love the praise.

  12. Praise = crack for writers
    Love this! So very true!

  13. You know this is so true. I don't know why, but IMO writers are the only artists who never think they're good. I mean even F-list actors think they're the fuzz. Why can't we have a little more faith?