Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Byline Blues and My Advice to New and Aspiring Writers

It’s a toss-up whether I spend more time as a writer or an editor. It varies. I’ve been writing a while now but I am also an editor and I help other folks with their writing as well, go back and forth between the two. At a certain point, whatever you do, that’s what you do though, or something like that.

I’m pretty much compulsive about my writing and editing both, moderately OCD, but only moderately, which is actually a good thing for those in the editing profession. It can do a number on writers though, those byline blues come honest. Despite the perpetual worry of what other people are going to think about your writing, most word smyths really are their own worst critics.

I agonize over every word and if I can avoid it, never turn anything in for publication without sleeping on it. Why can’t one work twenty years on each and every story? I’ve given it my best shot on more than a few. I can generally churn out a news piece or review without significant angst, but the thrill of my long awaited first fiction byline was very short lived.

Nonetheless, if you make your living as a wordsmith, whatever you write, at a certain point, you occasionally have to publish what you write. Minor details.

Maybe you only had an hour to do it, well maybe three weeks, but you knew from the start that was a ridiculous deadline, you really did have a headache, or your dog just cleaned out the cat litter box, again, and barfed all over the kitchen floor. But that still doesn’t stop the deadlines.

No matter how long I have ever worked on anything, I have never had a piece published anywhere in which I didn’t later find something that I wished I had done different. Mind you, I am also a professional editor, moderately OCD, a good quality in an editor, if I do say so myself…. Well, anyway….

Add to that though, if you write for a living, the work you do is often public, the criticism you get, and your bad day bungles, often turn out to be very public as well. Could be you came by that OCD honest.

My first published fiction: Magic Stream, The Fairy Tale, I was absolutely certain it was a creative masterpiece, I had published it first on my web site, then the publisher of a small magazine picked it up, I was ecstatically elated and my head was inflated. I was getting feedback from all kinds of folks telling me they had all taken it to their 12-step group and read it aloud. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and everybody seemed to like it in the 12-step groups.

So what if it wasn’t a New York Times Bestselling Masterpiece, it was a 12-step masterpiece and this little story was going. I was proud.

Then the day came when I got my first literary review type comments from a reader, actually there were a few. Now my head was really swelling. This English teacher had gone online and found a couple stories, of which mine was one, and she gave her class the option of reading and analyzing one of them. Since it was online, she also thought it would be a good idea and a wonderful experience if they all wrote the author of their chosen story and shared their literary analyses with them.

The students dutifully read the stories, of which mine was one! Then they analyzed them, in flawlessly perfect prose, that you would not be ashamed to send an esteemed author of Internet, who published her story on her own website fame. They analyzed the stories according to every literary device in their literature textbook. And then, as is tradition in literary analyses, they contemplated the writer and what would have possessed that particular writer to write that particular story.

Certifiably Bat Shit Crazy

They all sent me their critiques of my story, the most elegant of prose. The first line, “We read your story in our class and...” oh, how my head was swelling, and they continued with their highly astute literary analyses, as my head continued to swell. Then they continued on into the part well, “It’s obvious the writer has numerous psychological issues to work through, etc., etc., etc.” The gist of their combined and mutually agreed upon collective opinion of the story, which was written in the vein of an old fashioned fairytale was that it was indeed lovely, to a point, but what’s with the gore, whatever did she do with Disney? This writer was most clearly “bat shit crazy.” So much for literary fame and fortune.

Exactly what do you do next?
How do you handle remarks like that?

Ok, so my sweet little fairy tale was on the gory side, and perhaps not exactly what they expected from the fairy tale opening of a fine castle and a not wonderfully lovely princess. I like my fairy tales in the tradition of the Brothers Grimm. The ending was happy, I at least got that.

I know, I am rationalizing and making all kinds of excuses for why they declared me bat shit crazy, but the class obviously spent a lot of time and effort reading and analyzing my fairy tale, and writing me about it. Do you thank them for reading your work? Do you thank them for the benefit of the free psychological analysis? Do you thank them for collectively pronouncing you bat shit crazy?

I’m not sure there is an easy answer. But like it or not, that too is part of being a writer, and singing the blues isn’t going to do your writing a whole lot of good. Actually, it could be something to fall back on. But those students delighted in my bat shit craziness, and they delighted in the reading and the literary analysis that led them to that conclusion.

Despite the fact that I picture myself as an extrovert, and I really like to get out and about, the truth is, most writers are not extremely outgoing. Neither are editors and writing at least can be a very personal profession.

Soul Stripping

It’s kind of like stripping, I used to tell my own students, if you can’t take it off—you are not going to make it as a writer. We’re not talking about stripping down to your skin though, we’re talking about stripping down to your soul. All the way.

On a certain level, you have to do that, even though, if you hang with it, chances are pretty good, at a certain point, you too are going to be out there getting heckled, trolled, and variously declared bat shit crazy. To be a writer, you have to get past that and keep reaching until you grab hold of the universal, way down deep inside, you got to take it down to your soul, the tie that binds us and makes us all human.

Then you splatter your soul all over that paper. That’s what makes writers different from other people, it’s not just putting words on paper though. To be any good, you have to write like no one is watching. You really do. But once you are published, oh boy, it’s the part about soul stripping that can really get to you.

I’ve seen new writers throw in the towel when they already had more readers than every other writer in town, all because of very public and mean criticism of some minor something, like a grammar error. We get that too, but that can be corrected with time and experience. You want to be a writer, you might as well pull out that old grammar book. It’s not optional. We haven’t even got to the good stuff yet and here I have gone from soul stripping to grammar, no wonder they said I was bat shit crazy.

Anyway, if your grammar isn’t where it should be and you publish, you might as well expect somebody is going to start picking at you and your grammar both. And there you will be thinking you just wrote the most astute philosophical analysis since Plato himself, or at least Sartre, and someone will call you out and drag you over every burning coal of the Internet because you used “there” when you should have used “their” but if you had really had it together, you would have used “they are.” And they fill three computer screens yelling in ALL CAPS about your incorrect use of “there.” Whatever were you thinking?

Suck it up, that too comes with the territory. And when they finish picking at your grammar, thirty years later, you will still be having nightmares about the word “there,” except now they are tearing into your soul, or your intellect, or something. They’ll find something. One very famous poet had a whole town mad about the color of her house.

To make matters worse, when it comes to writers, most of us are already our own worst critics. That OCD thing is not actually a joke. If you think your self-criticism is bad….

So what do you do?

You roll up your sleeves and keep on writing.

You can always thank them for their feedback, that’s pretty generic. Also remember the old public relations adage, any publicity is good publicity. It may not be such a bad thing at all.

Whatever you write, if somebody writes in with comments, that meant they read your writing, they thought about what you said, and they looked at how you said it. They may agree or disagree with what you said. They may tear your grammar to pieces, even catch a spelling error, and don’t be surprised if, after serious contemplation, you too are declared bat shit crazy, and they tear your soul to pieces while they are at it. Look at it as a writerly right of passage.

If we all agreed with each other on everything, the world would come to a standstill and progress as we know it would be nothing more than a tumble weed in the winds of time (gratuitous literary devices). Nonetheless, I do believe that the most important function of a writer is to make people think. Furthermore, if everybody agrees with what you are saying, they are probably not honestly thinking.

That can be tough. We all love an occasional pat on the back. And we do so love to see those heads a nodding, traffic flowing and that “Like” count going up. But at the end of the day, that is not the point. That is not why we write. Actually, maybe it is.

Some writers make their living by deliberately stirring the pot. I’m not one of them. See above about OCD. But I’m not saying that I am completely past singing the byline blues either, sometimes a comment will get to me too. Comments come with the territory.

Also, sometimes maybe a comment is valid, and you learn from what was said. Online especially though, some folks just look for whatever opportunity they can find to shovel whatever negativity they can. And they do so love to shovel it at writers. If you write for any length of time and publish online, you are almost surely going to run into a few of them.

Fans are a lot of fun, but you can pretty much count on meeting a few self-appointed foes along the way as well. After a while you learn to recognize them for what they are, ignore them if you must, but don’t be afraid to block them if they affect your other readership. Learning to deal with such is a reality for writers today. Either way, keep on writing. Dealing with a classroom full of literary explications simultaneously declaring you bat shit crazy, can be small potatoes to the blues you get when dealing with trolls. But don’t let any of them stop you from writing.

In some kind of way, that and the blues are part of it. Vent, rant, and yell if you must, but keep on writing, even when you are singing the byline blues. 

Copyright 2014 Regina Garson

1 comment:

  1. This is insightful. I write for fun and to gather my thoughts. I can only dream of having detractors, but if I ever do I'll remember this post.