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When to listen to advice, and when to just Be You

Updated: Sep 15, 2019

Writing fiction is the form of art in which you put yourself on the line most. Musicians hide behind an instrument; songwriters can always say it was just bants*, Eminem being an example of such verbal contortion. An artist’s work is open to interpretation. Journalists report facts, or a version of them. Poets give us a slice of life, but it's only a slice. Even stand-ups can hide behind the need to be funny.

But when you write a story, and particularly if you are arrogant** enough to brand your story ‘literary fiction,’ you are exposing everything: your culture and your understanding of other cultures; your worldview, which forms how the story ends; your voice, including how you interpret the voice of others. You are giving the reader a whole world, and that includes your own prejudices, your dreams, your perceptions of the other sex, of sex, of your values, of how you judge others.

You think brain surgeons like to play God? They have nothing on writers. And writers pay the price; they, too, are judged.

So you bring this tender baby of yours, this work you have created - a short story or, worse, a novel - to an audience, whether that's an editor you've paid, a writing group, a carefully selected First Reader – in that act, you are bringing your entire self, your world-view. Over the years, your world-view may change - you may be like the musician who constantly moves on, finds new influences, swims with the tide. Or you may be the artist who has perfected a formula that works. Whatever you are writing, you bring to it your entire soul.

The reader sees within your work parts of you that you don't even recognise yourself. The reader is another human and they can see your prejudices, your faults, your assumptions. If you are a secret man-hater, or just a teensy bit ignorant about other cultures, believe me, your readers will see it. And that is painful. If you really want to be rescued, and believe in the myth of romance, your readers will see that to - or its absence, the hard-nosed practicality lurking behind the supposed romantic novel. Whether or not you're trying to do so, you will use your writing as therapy. It may be heavily disguised in a form of self-soothing which resonates with a large subsection of the public, and this is the genesis of many best-sellers. It may be blindingly obvious that you are writing about yourself. Your themes will betray you.

So, let’s get on to criticism. I'm not talking here of destructive critique, trolling and death threats, nor am I talking of line editing and the observation of typos. I'm referring to the criticism you have invited, that, on its arrival, fills you with burgeoning tears as you stand in the headwind of self-doubt. What should you do? Listen to it. What does this painful feedback tell you about your world-view? What is it saying about your book? Is it telling you anything your soul didn't know already? Are you too set in your ways? Or, conversely, are you too flexible? Have you adapted your story so it has become someone else's idea of the story they would write from your premise? Are you using your premise as therapy, and thereby producing something that doesn't have an interesting universality?

Whatever you decide, take the feedback - the kind that rips at the guts of your idea. Mull it over. Wander round, distracted, trying not to bump into things. Stay off social media, don't flame the sender, and whatever you do, don't be an arse about it. If necessary, and if you think it'll be useful, have a cry, perhaps on the shoulder of a Supportive Other. If it makes you angry: anger is a sign that someone's touched a raw nerve. Listen to that anger. What is it telling you?

Give it a week. Then go back to your story. Remember, it's your story. I’ll say that again because it’s really important, and because writers are generally empaths and therefore tend to absorb the stories and world-views of others (well. This writer is). So here it is again: This is your story. Think over what that feedback has told you, do some line edits if necessary, print your tale out without markup, sit in a comfy chair with a herbal tea or equivalent. Then make your choice.

There is very little point in giving advice: no-one ever listens to it, and nor should they. Anyone who provides advice doesn't have to live with the consequences of it (you can take this as guidance for life, as well as writing). Here it is again: This. Is. Your. Story. Be You. You are always you, but if you take on board the views of others, you can be your best you.

Have you had some grim feedback? How can it help you to grow?

*or, as Boris Johnson once put it, ‘obiter dicta’ ... he's not a person I'm keen on giving air-time to, but he does love his words

**that’s me, coming out of the literary closet#

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