The New York Times recently published an “Opinionator” entitled “Writing is a Risky, Humiliating Endeavor”. In it, the author describes how his ex-wife unfriended him for what she considered an unflattering portrait of her in his book. He goes on to confess various insecurities about his writing, how it will be received, his fear of offending anyone. A friend of his called him in a panic – people had been talking about her online after being published.
“Let’s face it: just writing something, anything, and showing it to the world, is to risk ridicule and shame. What if it is bad? What if no one wants to read it, publish it? What if I can’t even finish the thing? Every time I begin a book, a story, even a fresh page, I have a sense that it might go horribly wrong.”
At first I thought the piece was satire, a little comedy bit about papering the walls with rejection slips. It dawned on me about 2/3 of the way through the article that he was sincere. He really cringes at the thought of people judging him through his work.
This is tough for me to wrap my mind around. Before I ever wrote a word I knew the horror stories told by Stephen King and William Golding. Not “The Stand” or “Lord of the Flies”, but rather the dozens of rejection letters they received before gaining the attention of a publisher. JK Rowling approached bankruptcy before “Harry Potter” became an international bestseller. Before the advent of the form letter, many rejection slips came with a personal warning. Zane Grey was told he had no business being a writer and to give up. Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) was assured he was just too weird to ever succeed.
As I mulled these statistics I remembered something else. Robin Williams. When I heard about his death it hit me as though I lost a personal friend. When I heard it was suicide, a part of me just started crying. It’s still crying.
The public reacted pretty much as one would expect. The first wave was of loss, sadness, pure grief. But the moment the news came out that it was suicide, the “social sneer” started to raise it’s head. Instead of “how horrible” I started seeing stories about how weak he was, how selfish. How could he do that to his public? To his family? What had started as a tragedy devolved into a character flaw.
I did what I always do when I’m mad. I wrote about it. I even submitted a shorter version to my local paper. To consider suicide an act of selfish weakness is to completely, thoroughly, utterly lack the slightest understanding of mental illness. This conclusion lacks empathy, compassion and…
David Gordon, author of the above article, I offer my apology. In my determination to become published, I have indeed forgotten the kind of personal risk that’s involved. I’ve armor plated my emotions these days when it comes to my writing. I take constructive criticism with a grain of salt and cheerfully feed flames to my Charmander. Maybe it’s just that I’ve fought so many personal battles over my health that I can afford to be a bit blaze if people reject my writing. No matter.
To you, David, and to every insecure writer out there I say this – we’re all in this together. The people who aspire to create for a living are already setting themselves apart from the “norm”. Most people can’t imagine how we do what we do. David, you say you used to cringe if someone described writing as “brave”. First responders are indeed very brave people. But so are writers, artists and anyone who would try to create something from nothing for a living, then offer it for consumption to the general public. Yes, those same people who can’t imagine how we do what we do.
It’s a scary, scary world, David. I’m not even sure why. There’s a way to tell someone “no” with kindness, to encourage them even while rejecting their efforts. Then there’s the fan who told me they wanted to give one of my stories the MST3K treatment, in a sincere desire to “help me improve”. Funny? Maybe. Constructive? No.
David, you’re published. I’m not. Your opinion piece ran in the bloody New York Times! In the world of profit and loss you’re already worlds ahead of me. But even more, even with all that insecurity, you still have the guts to go out there and just do it.
Thank you, David, not only for the inspiration, but for the best perspective check I’ve had in a long time.