Writers are a very strange species. Observe: stooped creatures, often nocturnal, that dwell in small rooms or corners of rooms, hunched over keyboards, muttering to themselves. Gnarled fingers and slit-like eyes as dark symbols appear on glowing screens. If you approach them during this process, if you violate its sanctity, this may elicit a grunt, a growl or a passive-aggressive rebuke. They may tolerate a hand on their shoulder, in passing, but rarely being spoken to. Words don’t mix with words, and they are busy creating spells to summon worlds into existence. They live in their heads, where the words are kept and sown and harvested, and as the words tumble out, as the dark symbols line up on the glowing screens, these creatures, these creators, are all-powerful. The outside world, the one that you inhabit, is merely a distraction, an inconvenience. And yet, it exists. Stubbornly, relentlessly, it exists.
In the outside world, we are as powerful or as powerless as the rest of you. In the outside world, we are exposed. Writers are, in their majority, introverts; it is no accident that we choose an occupation that demands isolation. An occupation that means, for all the support we might have, for all those gentle hands resting, briefly, on our shoulders, we are alone. And it is something to think about, it is almost schizophrenic, that the work we do, if we do it right, results in exposure. Over-exposure. That, by putting our work out there, we are practically inviting dozens of people, hundreds, thousands, into our small rooms and into our heads. To admire our neat stacks of words, to pick them up carefully and examine them, or to trample all over them, as they choose. We are inviting the outside world in, and leaving ourselves no place to hide. The outside world where we are as insecure as the rest of you, as vulnerable, powerless now to control the words that come our way.
And they come. Relentlessly, they come. It is no accident, because by putting your work out there, by saying “here, look, this is a thing I made”, you’re inviting judgement. You’re asking to be judged. Yet none of us, writers and humans, like to be judged. Unless we’re judged worthy; unless we’re judged good. It’s schizophrenic, but there is no way around it: once a thing is out there, it’s fair game. Except it’s not a game. Not to us. Once you cross over from writer into author, you’re no longer playing.
Until I published my first book, I’d never given much thought to reviews. I hadn’t given much thought to anything beyond clicking “publish” and watching my book appear on Amazon, as if by magic. Beyond “look at this thing I made”. But reviews are the words that come our way; reviews are the judgement we invited. And it’s all fun and games until you get a negative one, and the world you carefully constructed in your quiet room comes crashing down, and strangers that you invited in yourself trample all over the ruins. Relentlessly and sometimes – even worse – casually, as if it means nothing. And writers, strange creatures though we may be, are just as vulnerable as the rest of you. There is a person behind the thing, and you can hurt them. And you would think, as writers, that we’d know of the power of words, how they can create or destroy, cut or heal, but no: paradoxically, we step into the outside world unprepared. To be lifted up high by praise or be casually shredded to pieces. Sticks and stones will break your bones? Words are much more lethal. And ratings, like ninja stars aimed at the soft, fleshy parts of our souls.
You’d think we’d know. But we cross over from writer into author, unprepared, and then we have to learn. That the thing we put out there is a target, not a shield; that it’s fair game and people will play by their own rules. That we cannot control the words that come our way. We have to learn not to care. But what inconsistent, schizophrenic creatures would we be, putting ourselves out there to be judged, if we didn’t care? Let me be the first to tell you, if you haven’t heard it before: actually, I do care. I may get better, with time, at picking up the pieces, I may get quicker at smiling and shrugging it off, but I will never not care. Good or bad, the judgement that I invited will always mean something. Just now, I cried at a lovely review that thanked me at the end. I care. This is not a game to me.
This is no sob story. We reap what we sow, and if we don’t like our harvest, perhaps we should choose another field. But if we insist on growing these crops, if we insist on peddling them to the world, we must do it with as much care as we can muster. As much vulnerability. We must tend to them, relentlessly. We must nurture the soil and tease out the weeds. We must stack up our words as neat as we can, so that they may withstand the judgement, even if we can’t. We must inhabit our worlds fully before we invite other people in. So that when we step out of our little rooms, stooped and slit-eyed, and say “look at this thing I made”, we can be sure that it’s the best thing we could have made. This is the best that we can do: as writers, as humans.
We can’t blame the seeds or the soil or the weather for the fact that not everyone likes tomatoes. Of course, there is something to be said for not going out of your way to trample all over someone else’s vegetable patch, but that’s judging other people by our own standards, which is exactly what reviewers are invited to do. We can’t blame them for the place where they started, or how high or how low we appear through their eyes. We must learn how to come down from the heights where praise lifts us, and how to stand up again when we’re tripped up, or fall. And we must care. Even when it hurts, we must care. Otherwise, we might as well stay in our rooms, playing at being a writer, and growling every time we are approached, and shrugging off every gentle, supportive hand that’s placed on our shoulders.
The above image was created in response to an Amazon review which compared reading my book 100 days of solitude to watching paint dry. I ran it as an advert for the book, with the headline “Cheaper than a tin of paint”. I don’t know if it sold any copies, but it kept me amused for a while. It was my way of shrugging it off.
You are invited to judge me on Amazon, or on facebook.