As writers, we’re all used to receiving criticism about our work, from our beta readers, agents, and editors. We’re accustomed to reading one-star reviews online. But what about criticism served directly to your face? How do you respond?
Here are some scenarios that have happened to me and/or writer friends (some details changed to protect the guilty).
- You run into your mom’s friend at the grocery store. She asks how the writing’s going. You say fine. Then she asks, directly, how many books you’ve sold, because she hears writing doesn’t pay all that much.
- You’re at a party with a friend. Your friend, proud of your work, brags about you. This excites the other guests, who exclaim about how cool that must be. Another guest chimes in, asking why you’d bother writing fiction since it’s completely useless. The party falls silent. You choke on your bruschetta.
- You have lunch with an old colleague who tells you how awesome your book was. Then he says he got it second hand, since he won’t pay more than a quarter for a book, and tells you how he’s sending it through all his friends and relatives so they won’t have to pay for the book either. He figures twenty-five people will read it for a quarter! That’s one cent per person! (He knows authors aren’t good at math). And then he tells you how after that, he’s planning on using it for kindling, too.
- After many years of rejections and hard work, you’re a New York Times Bestselling author. You give a killer talk at an event and feel good about yourself. Then a lady comes up to you and jabs a piece of paper under your chin, with a detailed list of points on how you could give better talks, as if you’re at a Toastmasters contest.
The Peculiar Territory of Author-hood
Being an author is unique. It’s a profession many people want to break into. This sometimes stirs up feelings of jealousy that people wouldn’t experience if you were, say, a podiatrist. Becoming a published author also means you’re a bit of a public figure.
Add to this our contemporary society, where everyone feels entitled to have their opinions heard, even if their opinions lack the substance of actual expertise, and you have the perfect recipe for being under a steady barrage of criticism. Yet, as a public figure, you don’t want to respond with equal negative force, so what can you do?
Consider the Opinion
If we were like the old-school brawler Norman Mailer, the offending person might get a fist to his nose. Being publicly criticized can make a person feel angry and defensive. But because most of us don’t relish the prospect of a night in jail, it helps to think through possible responses before something like this happens, much as we rehearse what to do in case of a fender bender.
The best course of action is not to parry or argue, as might be one’s gut response, but to diffuse. Sometimes people are looking for a fight, so if you give a defensive response, the situation may escalate and not be worthwhile. Instead, diffuse, diffuse, diffuse. Diffuse like you’re a drop of essential oil. How? Consider the other person’s opinion.
I was at a Tobias Wolff talk once, and when he took questions for the audience, one man asked about something very minor in one of Wolff’s books that he felt Wolff got wrong. Was Wolff an expert in this subject? It was too bad Wolff wasn’t as well-informed and frankly brilliant as this man. A self-satisfied smile bloomed over the man’s face.
I was indignant on Mr. Wolff’s behalf. How dare he! Go on, tear him a new one, I urged in my head.
Instead, Mr. Wolff humbly allowed as to how he wasn’t an expert on the subject, he’d lightly touched on it, maybe the man was right. Deflated, the man plopped back into his chair.
A most elegant example of acknowledging the other person’s opinion, and completely diffusing it.
At my debut book launch, a woman told me I closed my eyes too much when I talk. I merely said, “Okay.” I hadn’t known that, and I later made an effort to correct it. Was it deflating to be told that after my launch? Yes, but I was able to utilize the information later.
It’s the Other Person’s Problem
I also try to assume that the person saying something may actually think she’s helping you. Or, they may have personal problems that you’re not privy to. Framing their comment in this way helps you to keep an emotional distance.
I remember once, a million years ago, I worked in jewelry sales at JC Penney. A customer came in with a hostile attitude. She deliberately pointed at the wrong pieces of jewelry and called me an idiot for picking out the ones she’d pointed at. I knew I hadn’t done a single thing to warrant this treatment, so I said to her, in the most gentle tone I could muster, “I’m sorry you’re having a rough day. Is there anything I can do?” The woman burst into tears and explained her father was in a coma, and apologized. You just never know what other people are going through—of course they shouldn’t take it out on innocent bystanders, but nobody’s perfect.
Think of Possible Responses Ahead of Time
Sometimes what strangers say can leave us speechless in the moment, and we don’t think of a good comeback until the next day. Don’t you hate it when that happens? Here are a few canned responses that I’ve used– add your own in the comments:
“Thanks, I’ll consider it.”
“I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it.”
“Thanks for sharing.”
“It makes me sad that you don’t value my work. I certainly value yours.” (For someone you’re close to—only say it if you’re really sad!)
“That’s too personal for me to discuss.”
Stop Reliving Negative Encounters
The last step, and perhaps the hardest, is to forget about the encounter after it happens. Today I opened a Google alert to a negative review. I read it, thought, “This guy doesn’t understand. That is NOT how I wrote that book,” and then closed it and forgot about it because I had a number of real-life things to attend to.
Until, that is, I thought I might post it on Facebook to congratulate myself for my newly-found thick skin. Immediately, I was transported to the moment I read it. The irritation, the urge to tell him how he got it all wrong.
Thinking about it again caused me to relive it.
This reminded me of something a therapist once told me: if someone says something unpleasant to you, you relive it every time you think about it. If you think about it two hundred times, then you’re reliving it two hundred times. The person who said the thing to you only lives it once—how unfair is that? How does that make you better? It doesn’t.
As writers, this last step is especially hard. After all, we have to remember all the gory emotional details of our pain so we can include them in our writing.
So, if I have an encounter like this, I might talk about it a couple of people (Can you BELIEVE the nerve of this guy? I might say). Or I might forget about it shortly after it happens, because if I don’t give it much time in the first place, it’s easier to let go. After all, as Coco Chanel said, “I don’t care what you think about me—I don’t think about you at all.”
Have you experienced this? What do you say in these situations? Has it worked?
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