Toughen Up, Teacup, If You Want To Write

Somebody wrote something and somebody thought it was crap. This isn’t breaking news. When the blawgosphere was in its early days, and cheerleaders were extolling its virtues as the new normal where everybody could show the world their brilliance, I had a cute sound bite: Anybody can blawg. Everybody cannot.

Put something up on the screen and see what happens. Some people are going to find out that nobody wants to read it. Maybe because they’re boring. Maybe because they suck at writing. Maybe because they have nothing to say. The possibilities are endless.

But some people are going to attract some attention, though not the attention they want. Somebody is going to call your baby ugly. Somebody is going to say you’re wrong, your writing is idiotic, you, dear writer, are a moron. Yesterday, I was informed that a lot of people think I’m a “major league twat.”

Here’s the sad news. Not everybody is going to love you. Not everybody will think you’re as brilliant as you think you are. Me either. As regular readers here know, I’m told all the time how wrong I am. BFD.

Over the years, I’ve heard from writers who were taken to task for their words. After a book review I did years ago, I heard from the author, who was livid about my review. I felt badly about being unimpressed with the book, because I realized that the author put a great deal of effort into its creation. But giving him an A for effort wasn’t a reason to give him an A for a terrible book. The author’s reaction to the review concluded with

I could go on but your misreading of the book is, as you might put it, frankly exhausting.

Mallory Ortberg is the new “Dear Prudence,” giving Slate-ish advice to Slate readers. She was asked a question that was so wonderfully Slate:

Q. Terrified of success after bad reviews: I’m an artist who worked various minimum-wage jobs and made a lot of art (that no one ever saw) for most of my 20s. That is until recently, when I managed to get some pieces into a small but well-regarded show, and multiple bloggers wrote scathing reviews of my work. Weirdly it hasn’t stopped me from getting more gigs, and that’s what’s scaring me. My work has been rejected or ignored for years, but it never fazed me. I like a challenge. But now I can’t sleep at night just thinking about how these reviews and anonymous comments are online and will NEVER EVER go away. Even after I’m dead they’ll still be out there, speaking for me and my work. I’ve been painfully obsessing for almost a year now. Am I just not ready for any sort of success? Should I cancel all my upcoming gigs? If I can’t handle bloggers, what am I going to do when it’s an actual honest-to-God professional reviewer?

The Slateish answer was, wait for it, the tummy rub:

You say you want a career in your chosen field, and you have it. You say you “can’t handle” criticism, but you’ve continued to produce work despite resistance and criticism; you say that you’re “afraid of success,” but you are, in fact, already successful. It is not unusual for people of an artistic or sensitive temperament to feel particularly vulnerable to criticism, and it is not unusual to feel upset when someone doesn’t like your work. You want to make sure these feelings don’t get in the way of your ability to sleep and work and generally function, which is a laudable goal, but don’t feel as if your response to criticism is somehow abnormal. It isn’t.

Ortberg is right that it’s not unusual, but for the wrong reason. What makes it usual is the normalization of people of a “sensitive temperament,” the fragile teacups who are paralyzed by criticism. But the fact that sad tears has become the new normal doesn’t mean the critics are wrong or sad tears are right. If you can’t take a punch, get out of the ring.

No matter how much you believe in yourself, you are not owed universal adoration. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me, has won tons of awards and will be taught in colleges for decades. I thought it sucked, though a remarkably good example of the shallowness, narcissism and self-indulgence of the times. I’m pretty sure he won’t lose any sleep because I wrote this.

Recently, a commenter here took me to task for not “admitting” that I was wrong.

Yes, you have well reasoned posts that are very difficult to challenge. But you also write a lot, normally multiple posts a day. Nobody is fundamentally right 99.9% of the time. You should be wrong more often if you want to be an more effective communicator.

I’m not saying you are not compelling: you are. But the rarity of you being wrong might indicate any of the following: that you are an exceptional human being; that the blog is a self-created echo chamber; that this is the reason you are not as good a communicator as you would like to be.

Beyond explaining certain flaws with the assumptions, there was one additional factor that goes hand-in-hand with writing publicly: no matter what, someone will hate it. Someone will think I’m wrong. Someone will hate my prose. Someone will take offense at my word choice. Someone will tell me I’m a “major league twat.” To which I shrug.

Seth Godin made the point:

You will be judged (or you will be ignored)

Those are pretty much the only two choices.

If you can’t shrug off the fact that people will think you suck, then you can’t write. If being told your baby is ugly makes you cry, then find a puppy room. You are not going to like the real world. You have no business writing.

42 thoughts on “Toughen Up, Teacup, If You Want To Write

  1. John Barleycorn

    Oh shit! Not Seth again?

    Why don’r you use your superpowers to build an “army” all you got to do is run an ad or two in that newspaper you read evertyday if you want to save the world before Seth sells it back.

    Something like this ought to do:

    Do you have the stones to slam Manchester by the Sea in close quarters wine bars?

      1. John Barleycorn

        There ain’t no hate there. Besides I don’t think he will be able to say no to a cameo role in several of of my 2016 Hollow Wood Cock Buster parody porn series flicks.

        He is gonna shit when he hears I got Trump to sign on for a post inauguration twit about the series for only 500K back in July.

        Who knows even my critics at the Academy might have to make a new slot for me when I roll out the reinvented multiplex theaters that should be getting zoning approval in about eighteen months from now.

        I fucking love this country even if the federal judges are appointed and you can’t crack a joke in the grand jury room without being interrupted by a evangical prosecutor with runny nose.

    1. Enjoin This!

      The very name “Manchester by the Sea” is enough to mock itself. Real stones require mocking Marblehead while in Maddie’s.

  2. Patrick Maupin

    “Frankly exhausting” describes what the internet has wrought on the friends and family of these teacups, when yet another emotional conversation about the opinion of yet another hater half a world away is always the most important topic of the day.

    1. SHG Post author

      I was quite surprised, looking back on that comment, to find he used that word. It’s become a buzzword for SJWs today, but that was years ago. Maybe I should have seen the fragility coming back then, but I didn’t. I still thought people took enough pride in themselves to make achievement worth the price of exhaustion. I was wrong.

  3. Derek Ramsey

    After I ‘took you to task’, you had a guest post, a post where you didn’t comment and let everyone discuss among themselves, and a comment on another post where you said you were wrong about something. You’ve demonstrated your editorial skills and the ability to communicate. I stand corrected.

    It would be better if people could distinguish between criticism and incivility. Expecting (or at least aiming for) civility is a good thing, but expecting lack of criticism is stupid. The comments on SJ tend to be quite civil compared to most places and the criticism is mostly honest or earned. You have commenters who apologize for not taking enough time thinking through their comments. But there are some who just don’t get it because they can’t take criticism. They can’t be helped.

    1. SHG Post author

      I thought your question was totally fair and appropriate. SJ looks very different from your computer than mine, which is something I’ve grown to realize over the years, but isn’t likely to be the sort of thing that’s either as easily seen or worthy of much attention for a commenter.

      On the other hand, I don’t mind incivility nearly as I mind a variety of other things commenters throw at me. The rule of thumb is that it takes exponentially more effort to undo an irrational or substantively erroneous comment than it does to explain an idea logically or accurately in the first place. One of the things that iks the crap out of me is having to waste my time responding to foolish comments. Your comments were by no means foolish, and I actually appreciate the occasional opportunity to explain how things are from my end.

      1. Derek Ramsey

        This explains your frustration when you write a piece and the first comment is someone who completely misses the point. Then you apologize for failing them in your attempt to communicate, and they completely miss the point of that too. It’s painful to watch, especially when most of us get what you were trying to say the first time.

        At least sometimes it leads to a Picard double facepalm and some laughs.

  4. Paul Thomas

    I’ve never been able to understand the criticism that someone “acts as if they’re always right.”

    I think the odds are vanishingly small that EVERYTHING that I believe to be true is actually true. But for any single given belief, I think it’s probably true, else I wouldn’t believe it! So I always act as if I’m right, even though I am aware, in a meta sense, that I am not always right. This seems unavoidable.

    1. SHG Post author

      Your point is simple, yet a truism. If we didn’t believe something, we wouldn’t say it. It’s not that we’re 100% certain (unless we suffer from Dunning-Kruger Syndrome), but that, having given an issue enough thought that it’s worth expressing, that’s the conclusion we’ve reached. Once there, why would someone saying, “I dunno, I don’t think so,” change it? It’s nuts, not because we always right, but because that’s not enough to shake our belief.

      1. Paul Thomas

        I think most of the time when people say ‘Mr. X thinks he’s always right,” what they are really trying– incoherently– to say is “Mr. X is more certain about his beliefs than the factual support for those beliefs would warrant.”

        But “Joe sucks because he acts like he’s 90 percent likely to be right about Black Lives Matter when he’s really only 70 percent likely to be right” is a criticism that doesn’t quite roll off the tongue.

        1. SHG Post author

          Assuming everyone accepts the facts to be facts, and have relatively symmetrical knowledge, then it comes down to values, which are personal. Trying to nail it down to empirical metrics isn’t just awkward, but an attempt to make personal values into empirical values. That really can’t be done.

          It’s perfectly fair to value things differently, which is one of the reasons why, when I remind people SJ is my house, it reflects my values rather than theirs. If they want their values up top, they need to start their own blog.

        2. Patrick Maupin

          I think most of the time when people say ‘Mr. X thinks he’s always right,” what they are really trying– incoherently– to say is “Mr. X is more certain about his beliefs than the factual support for those beliefs would warrant.”

          Anecdotally, in the few cases where “X acts as if he’s always right” has been voiced to me, and I know (or later meet) X, my own assessment has been “X is dismissive of evidence and other opinions and doesn’t allow for the possibility that he’s wrong.” Which sometimes happens because X is on the wrong end of the Dunning-Kruger scale, and sometimes happens because X is an asshole.

          But for any single given belief, I think it’s probably true, else I wouldn’t believe it!

          That doesn’t distinguish you from most of humanity, yet somehow most of humanity is not charged with acting as if they are always right, right?

          I was accused by a former boss of “always having to be right.” Which may (I hope) be subtly different from always acting like you’re right, and of this, I am guilty as charged — if I’m wrong about something that is important to me, I want to know about it and fix it! But most people probably feel that way as well.

          What may distinguish me from some people is that if you challenge my beliefs, I view that as a learning opportunity, and if I can’t figure out why you think I’m wrong after a bit of research and thinking, I will dig in and challenge back — don’t just dismissively tell me I’m wrong. Give me evidence and/or logic.

          Otherwise, all I’ve learned is that you think I’m wrong.

  5. Dwight Mann f/k/a "dm"

    Somebody who is genuinely not deeply bothered by criticism doesn’t spend an entire post trying to convince others of that claim. Your compulsion to respond even to wisecracks demonstrates such a claim to be complete nonsense. Somebody (me) makes a quip about you sometimes acting like a major league twat and the very next day you burn hundreds of words asserting criticism doesn’t really bother you. You’re as thin-skinned as the SJW buttercups you put so much effort into repeatedly writing about. Your readers (myself included) mostly don’t care, which makes your protestations otherwise unnecessary.

    1. SHG Post author

      Would it make you sad if I told you that this wasn’t really about you at all? Would you have to give up your position as spokesperson for my readers? I could put in a good word for you, if it would help.

    2. Patrick Maupin

      “Major league twat” doesn’t live up to its own billing. Of all the criticisms that could be and have been leveled at Scott, this isn’t even in the sandlot league. Do you really think you moved the needle with this articulate gem?

        1. Dwight Mann f/k/a "dm"

          Scott. It’s Dwight Mann now, not “DM.” I located my balls and I’m desperate for recognition thereof!

      1. Dwight Mann f/k/a "dm"

        Do you think your white knighting for Scott is going to “move the needle?” My quip was a reply to a reply to a reply. If you weren’t so busy posturing while speaking for somebody who is more than capable of speaking for himself (and did so), you’d realize that sometimes saying “fuck you” is actually best done simply by saying “fuck you.” Occasionally you just want to get under the skin of somebody who got under your own skin. That you don’t like my choice in how to do so doesn’t really move my needle too much. Scott seems to have gotten over it, you should try to too.

        1. SHG Post author

          I thought it was astro-turfing or gas-lighting or day-lilying. You kidz have so many cool words, I can’t keep up.

        2. Patrick Maupin

          I’m glad you recognize Scott doesn’t need my help. That’s a great start. BTW, there’s a difference between moving “the” needle, and moving your needle. I’m more than happy to leave that latter task to you.

  6. B. McLeod

    Every now and then, someone may even “ban” you. But, if you’re still okay on basically all the other Internet comment sites in the universe, there’s certainly no reason to hang up your keyboard over it. If everybody agrees with all your posts, it means you are essentially superfluous.

  7. Mike

    I should think that anyone who writes might try a self evaluation on themselves.

    Go back and re- read some of your earlier writing with a critical eye as if someone else wrote it.

    I did and realized that this guy (me) really sucks. If you can’t be honest with yourself…

    1. SHG Post author

      I hate reading what I wrote. I’ve never written anything I think couldn’t be much better, whether 10 years ago or yesterday.

  8. Ross

    I’ve never understood why anyone would think that it’s not possible to be right 99+% of the time in posts made to the internet. Assuming you think carefully about what you write, it’s very possible that your posts will never be “wrong”.

    At the risk of going off on an irrelevant tangent. it’s much like the folks who think that there’s something wrong when business wins 80 or 90% of the cases that they get before the Supreme Court. Apparently, the split should be 50-50 to be fair. It couldn’t possibly be true that businesses only bring cases to the Supremes when they think they have an excellent chance of prevailing, could it?

    1. SHG Post author

      Part of my reply to Derek was that posts aren’t random, but things I chose to write about for a reason after deliberation.

      1. WheezeThePeople™

        Well, yes, yes it is . . . Cobra head boots and all . . . I was on sabbatical to grow a ZZ Top length beard . . . So it’s not like I’ve been unproductive . . . I was also facing death in the eye and death flinched, running like a sissy for its mommy . . . So yeah, I’m back in black, it’s been too long and it’s good to be back . . . Though I have periodically been perusing your sacred prose here and needless to say, I am suitably impressed and amused by the regular beating doled out to the neighing naysayers. The beatings shall continue until morale (or is that morals and/or possibly morels) improves . . .

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