I talk a lot about digging deeper in the writing process and putting more of our true selves on the page. It occurred to me about halfway through my second post on the subject that at some point I was going to have to address how to protect oneself in light of all that truth talking and self exposing. But I was okay with that because I’d just embarked on my own journey to discover that very thing! I was absolutely certain that I’d be back here in a few months with Seven Tips for Self Protection, or Five Key Ways For Writers to Protect Their Emotional Selves. No lie—the working title for this post for the last few months has been Shields Up! because I was certain I would come back here with answers on how to shield oneself.
Well, Dear Reader, I was wrong. Sadly and horribly wrong.
The truth, I have discovered, is much more complex than that.
As writers, we are utterly exposed the moment we put pen to paper. Which is probably why even considering writing can be an act of tremendous courage.
All of that is bad enough, but when we’re diving deeper and deeper to make our stories more authentically our own, when we commit to trying for a creative home run rather than just getting to first base, it is inevitable that we will have more invested in our books—more heart, more soul, more blood, sweat, tears and lamentations.
And if you think that it’s scary to intentionally put more and more of yourself on the page, to become more and more vulnerable, you’re right.
For some, it will never be a problem—they were born with a core sense of self and confidence that makes others weep with envy. But for the rest of us, those for whom this is a struggle, those for whom this is a Great Barrier of Fear, here’s the kicker: part of the journey of creation is about learning how to get comfortable getting naked. It’s about how we learn to step out of and away from everyone else’s expectations and assumptions and be our own selves, proudly and comfortably, warts, quirks, foibles, and all.
Maybe, maybe that’s even the reason some of us are drawn to creative pursuits in the first place—because that journey will force us to grow for our art in ways we would be hard pressed to grow without it.
So when you are that exposed on the page, that fully committed to your work and your vision, how do you protect yourself from the inevitable negative reviews and reader reactions? Let alone keep from feeling as if you are walking around naked while everyone else is garbed in heavy layers of thick rhino hide or steel plate.
I’m hugely sorry I don’t have something more encouraging to report, but that’s the truth. Or at least, it has been for me. Here’s what I have learned.
You simply can’t make good art and stay covered up at the same time. They are mutually exclusive. A creative path is not about least resistance or playing it safe—by its very nature it is about casting off layers and dancing along edges that others fear to tread. If you do that from a place of fear, your steps will falter, your rhythm stumble, your movements become false and stilted. Holding back in a desire to play it safe is the equivalent of a toddler putting a blankie over his face and believing he has disappeared from sight. Because here’s the truth of it—even when we don’t intend to put parts of ourselves into our books, even when we are clutched up tight with fear and protectionism, pieces of ourselves still find their way onto the pages. It is the very essence of what writers do. We leak and bleed and sweat our way onto the page, even when we think we’re bottled up tight.
The act of writing is not only about claiming our truths, our selves, but having the courage to not apologize when we do. Our writing is where we need to be our bravest and most fearless selves. You can’t write your best work if you’re not all in—and once you’re all in, you’re vulnerable. We don’t serve our audience—our true audience—by holding back.
Authenticity, genuineness, and raw truth are things we admire and respect in others—but it is often terrifying to be those things ourselves—especially in front of possibly thousands of readers.
While of course, intellectually, we may understand that not every reader will like our books, the emotional reality of it is quite different. And I think most writers don’t really anticipate some of the truly intense hatred some readers feel for some books, and that can be very hard to come to terms with when yours is one of those.
The truth is, I feel sad when someone doesn’t connect with a book I’ve written. I want to connect with people through my fiction and feel I’ve failed when I haven’t. On really tough days? That feeling can be closer to shame. And no, I’m not proud of that. I’m rather horrified, actually. All that personal work toward self-empowerment, forgotten in a second. Sometimes I wish I could apologize to the reader; they invested time and energy in my book—time they could have used reading other books. I want to explain to them that I didn’t try to set out and write a boring or shallow book or flat characters or a distant heroine.
But the thing is, chances are that our book isn’t those things—even though some readers respond that way to them. Because the truth is, the writer only writes the first half of the book, it is the reader herself that writes the second part of the book. All that white space we leave in the book is filled in by the reader’s own personality, world view, and expectations, and there is simply no way we can control that. And if we tried to control that by adjusting our stories to gain those readers approval, we could very well destroy the parts that created such a strong, resonant connection with other readers.
It’s not about pleasing ALL readers, but about finding OUR readers, our tribe. Those people who are fascinated by the same things we are, who ask the same questions, who look at the world through a similar lens, or are at least willing to do so for a short while.
The truth of the matter is, creativity is not a means to an end (publishing); it is a life choice, a way to live. If you want to walk a creative path and live a creative life, you have to get naked with yourself, and be okay with that.
This book I just finished frog marched me kicking and screaming to hard places I didn’t want to go to. It broke me wide open and forced me to face some of the tattered, maggoty parts of my psyche and then, as the deadline drew closer and closer, forced me to put everything back together again—whole and remade and better.
And you know what? I did it. It was the impossible book on the impossible deadline, and I did it. No one, no professional review, no reader reaction can ever take that accomplishment away from me. And for the first time ever, that is enough. I am happy with that. I am proud of the book and simply content to have written it the way that I did. I am well aware that some of the story choices I made may not work for some readers, and for the first time, I’m okay with that, too. I have to say, while it has taken me fifteen books to get here, I love living in this place and find myself wanting to do whatever I can to stay here.
The ideal of perfection is incredibly seductive but it is also unattainable, and the act of pursuing it will cause some of the most interesting and genuine parts of ourselves to wither and fade. But we are, all of us, terrified of being exposed for the fraud we secretly fear ourselves to be.
And therein lies the true power of negative reviews and harsh criticism: it stings not because the people who dole them out mean so very much to us, but because they give external voice to our deepest held fears and suspicions—that even all in, we’re not enough.
But through the act of owning these vulnerabilities, by simply saying quietly, firmly, yeah, I do believe that, I do feel that, those issues are important to me, we immediately remove some of the power such exposure has to shame us.
Writing is about being brave, taking risks, accepting and embracing our essential humanness; it is not about being comfortable or safe or a way to stay invisible.
Embrace the naked
Do the work.
Ignore the rest.