Thursday, April 24, 2008

IT Happens
Patti Callahan Henry

IT happens. Of course I forgot IT happens. Like a fat, happy baby living in the oblivion of good times and a full stomach, I ignored the possibility in bliss. No, I’m not talking about Stephen King’s demon IT, I’m talking about something worse to a novelist – The Bad Review (notice the capital letters). This IT is a demon of another type – one that can eat the soul of a writer in a single moment flat. That IT. And not just any bad review, the “professional” (albeit anonymous) review. One that goes in trade magazines and on the internet for all your enemies to gloat over. IT.

There are the clich├ęs to make us feel better when this happens; ‘you’re not a real writer until you get a bad review”; ‘the bestselling novelists in the world get bad reviews”; “it’s one review out of a ton of glowing reviews”. BUT the fact remains – the professional called your baby ugly, insulted your two years of heartbreaking work, and knocked the breath out of your belief that this book was really quite good. Suddenly we as writers question everything we’ve done, everything we’ve written, our purpose in life, even the fact that we write at all. Maybe its time to make cute little pot holders and cross stitch Precious Moment scenes. Maybe I should change my writing name, or take a year off and move to a monastery.


Of course one bad review should not make us question our life’s purpose or even the novel. Why does it matter so damn much to us? So, I ask myself (again) – why do I write? Back to that nagging and irritating question – again. I’ve been here before; the place where doubt and darkness seem more real than the light and goodness I know is inherent in the art of storytelling. This is a battle I’ve fought before and I’m not sure I can fight again.

Then I remember -- the writing life is not for sissies. It is for the brave heart, the individual willing to put their heart, soul and mind on the line for a story they believe is worth telling. Constant and unremitting approval should not be the goal.

If I write for approval, then a negative review should knock the wind out of me. If I write because I feel called to tell a certain story, then does this negativity matter? If my fulfillment in storytelling hinges on one opinion, then I’m now empty. If my fulfillment in storytelling comes from offering a moving story, and touching readers who come in contact with me and with the story, then I’m full of purpose and on a good day – passion.

I now return (as I often do) to something C.S. Lewis said, “Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. ….To love is to be vulnerable.” I am going to take some creative liberty and apply that to writing – if you don’t want your heart broken, or your ego battered, then simply don’t write.

So what comes of it is this? It isn’t so much what the IT is in our life (we all have our own), it matters what we choose to allow IT to do to us and for us. Do we allow it to define us? Take us down? Or does our identity and strength come from another place than IT?

Easier said than done, I know.


Jackie said...

This from a writer who got 4 1/2 stars from RT.

Keetha said...

I'm sorry for the bad review and can only imagine how devastating it must be. BUT. It sounds like you're making lemonade; that's a great post!

River Jordan said...

I used to review plays and have written reviews of a few books but it tortured me so - I just can't anymore. I can say I LOVED something and recommend it but slashy snarky words from me. I know how much goes into getting the words on the page.

Just as a boost - I'm amazed by the writers who DON'T READ the reviews. They swear they don't. Terry Kay once told me not to ever read them because you'd either get a big head or a broken heart. (my loose paraphrase) and a writer that I thought had written a work of PURE Genius was slammed horribly for that work in the New York Times book review. Of course, by then the writer had already begun another beautiful story which I guess in the short and the long run is the best medicine.

Warmest wishes,


Nicole Seitz said...

Girl, you said it. We're just people--Insane people who expose our most vulnerable sides to the world and say, "Love me! Please?"

I've felt the very same way after a not-so-good professional review. I worked through things the same way you did. It's the ones who get back on that horse, you know...blah, blah, blah.

You're right. It makes us question everything. And after we question it all and come back to the realization that we just have to, HAVE TO write, aren't we even stronger, tougher writers--less afraid to say what we must?

Happy, fulfilling, writing!