A few short weeks before I self-published Letters to Josep, I received some really stinging criticism. “It’s nothing special,” I was told. And it wasn’t just anybody who said this: it was an author and educator I had contacted in hopes of getting an endorsement, who, months earlier, had called my work “impressive” and referred me to a potential publisher. I think he may have forgotten who I was in the meantime; I don’t know what else would account for the sharp discrepancy between his reactions.
Objectively, it was a really crappy thing to happen so close to the book’s release. It was the only response I’d gotten out of all the requests I’d put out asking for endorsements. Approaching people for blurbs and reviews is about the scariest thing I’ve ever had to do, and to have this be the only thing I got back for my efforts was really, really discouraging.
But as the existence of this entire blog attests… I’m stubborn as all hell. When I decide to do something, I do it, come hell or high water. So I nursed my wounds, had some chocolate, and went ahead with my plans to publish the book.
Half a year later, however, I’ve found that the incident still reverberates and makes me afraid to approach people for their comments on my work.
For example: I gave a copy of Letters to Josep to a well-known rabbi a couple months ago, and though I know he is very accessible, I have been too chicken to follow up with him. Josep has also sent the book to a few public figures in Catalonia, only one of whom acknowledged receipt so far. I’ve had an e-mail sitting in my inbox for more than a week, addressed to another author and public figure who I know likes me and enjoys my writing and would probably be more than happy to help… but I still haven’t worked up the courage to hit “send.” While I am really hoping to get some kind of positive response from any or all of them, I’m completely terrified that they’ll respond negatively. What if they hate it? Or, more realistically, what if they think it’s “nothing special”–like that critic mentioned at the top of the post?
This phrase brought to mind something I remembered from the writing of researcher Brené Brown. She calls it “fear of mediocrity.” People today are terrified to be mediocre, to be average. I don’t want my stuff to be “decent,” I want it to be exceptional. I want to be exceptional. I want to be a great writer.
This desire to be exceptional at everything is a form of perfectionism. We want to be the best at everything we do. But we can’t be. We can only be the best at what we are.
I may one day be a great writer. More likely, I will continue to improve at what I am now: a good writer.
A good-enough writer.
As a good-enough writer, I’m probably not going to go down in the history books. I’m probably not going to win any prizes, nor are my books going to become bestsellers. I’m going to get some scathing reviews on Amazon. I’m going to get some criticism from people of all walks of life. (That happens to great writers, too.) It’s going to hurt. I’ll give myself chocolate when it happens, I’ll take what constructive criticism I can use, and I’ll move on to bigger and better things.
Not being great doesn’t make me unworthy. It doesn’t mean my work shouldn’t be shared and enjoyed by other people.
What if what that guy said is true, and my work is mediocre?
I know the true value of what I’ve done. And the artistic/literary quality is just the tip of the iceberg. Letters to Josep was more than collection of letters about Judaism. It was even more than a tribute to an important friendship in my life. It was the sweet fruit of a bitter struggle, a very troubled and turbulent period in our lives. Starting the blog was a sort of crazy, wildly creative coping mechanism. And then, the decision to turn it into a book and publish it myself was a great act of courage–a decision to stop sitting back and waiting for someone else to determine whether my work was “good enough.”
What I achieved with LtJ was far more than its value as a piece of writing. And I deserve to be proud of it, even if somebody thinks it’s “nothing special.”
…I know all that. In my head.
As I moaned about all this to my long-suffering husband last night, I asked him if he thinks it will always be like this. Will I always be terrified of criticism? Will the soul-crushing anxiety about the future always overwhelm the sweet satisfaction of success? I think the answer is yes and no. It’s like rejections. They always hurt, but after a while, it becomes easier to shrug them off, especially when you get enough praise and encouragement to hold as a shield against the criticism.
So… I decided that I need to give more space to the positive feedback. Negative feedback has this way of swallowing up all the good things people have said. So I made this graphic; gathered from quotes from some of my favorite bits of feedback in the last few years. As I gathered them, I noticed that at the center of everything, there were five words that resonated the most, that felt like the main reason my writing matters. So I put those words dead center.
I hope to be adding to this in the future, and I plan on making an effort to keep a record of all the lovely things people say to me about my writing, so I can take it out and read it carefully when I need it.
I wanted to punch that guy in the nose when I read what he wrote to you. Keep sending requests and asking for feedback from people you admire and take what is useful. Not every criticism is going to be useful and some are only applicable to the person who gave it. They have their own issues. I think your writing is beautiful!
With some writers I have to scan and wade through to see if I can glean anything. With you, everything is in place waiting for me!