Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Unwanted Criticism -- Unexpected Transcendence

So, I've been asked to write about how to deal with criticism from the people who surround you day in and day out -- those unexpected jabs.

Here's the deal. You're a writer -- maybe your first book is coming out, maybe you're a blogger and you're now making your work public. The fact is that anyone who can read has the right to an opinion of your work -- whether they're the intended audience or not. They are, in fact, readers. Is it sometimes rude of them to offer their opinion? It is. Did they not see BAMBI as children? Did they not listen to Thumper's mother? Hard to say.

One response I use sometimes is, "Well, of course you didn't like it. You're not my target market." This works even when they are your target market because it baffles them. Oh, you? I didn't write the book for you.

Sometimes I joke. "Ha! Well, I wonder what I'd have to say if I read your ... what do you do again? If I read your clients' tax returns ... "

Sometimes I try to get away, quickly ... Um, you hated my cover so much that you ripped it into little pieces and made your own jacket out of clear mailing tape? "Excuse me. I have to use the bathroom! It's urgent."

Mainly, however, I try to remind people of my humanity. I'm a human being who writes novels -- not to make you angry, not to derange you because of a typo ... -- but because this is how I live in the world. It's how I breathe. It's how I give witness. I didn't publish the book because I'm uppity. (This can be a definite vibe you get ...) I wrote the book that I needed to write. I didn't write your book. (Sometimes people are really angry that you didn't capture their lives, their anguish, their struggles and joys.)

I tell them I see writing as a gift that I hand over -- sometimes with great anxiety. I know that it doesn't make sense rationally. It's no longer a gift if someone is paying for it... But it still feels like that's what I've been doing ... making a gift. And so when someone tells me, offhandedly, that it's not their color, the sleeves are too short, that they don't like cardigans anyway ... it feels like a smack -- worse because it's not a cardigan. Writing a novel is grueling.

I know that my work is in the world. I know that the opinions of it may be very public -- and I hope they are -- I welcome reviews even though I brace for them. The fact is, however, that I can brace for them. The little offhanded critique at the potluck? I can't brace for that. And those small jabs can be very difficult to take. Generally I take them in stride, but every once in a while one hits me on the wrong day at the wrong time.

But, too, there are those wholly different moments that you can't brace for either when someone comes up to you in the grocery store, and tells you that your book touched them, when someone starts crying -- surprising themselves and you -- when they mention of a poem about a miscarriage that meant so much to them ...

Those moments when the kid's mother tells you that her son hated reading, but read your book straight through, even while trying on shoes at the mall. And that kid is staring at you, agog.

Those moments when ... and here I should not use the general you ... That moment when my grandmother had finished the book that I wrote about her life, and she started to cry in my mother's kitchen because I captured her own mother, just right, and she was too old to get out of her chair, but she wanted to hold me like a baby and so I got down on my knees and let her hug me to her chest and stroke my hair. I cannot explain how that felt. A return in someway. A homecoming.

Those moments are worth every insult, every unexpected jab.

Those moments are the gifts given back to us.