A writer’s confidence is a wobbly thing. What seemed to be a masterful piece of writing this morning often becomes a worthless mound of words by nightfall, only to be profound again the next day. It is a punishment fit for Greek mythology: to be able to instantly and unequivocally assess the worth of every other writer’s work, except one’s own. We are too close to see the worth of our own writing clearly. In one mood, it looks to be skillful and beautiful; in another, it seems mundane and clunky.
Often, welook to those around us for reassurance. The role the people close to us play as emotional support can’t be overstated. Sometimes we show them our work just because we so desperately want them to be proud of us; other times, we’re forced to show them just because it’s expected that what we have shared with the world we also share with close relations. But the people who we most hope will enjoy and be supportive of our writing are often those who, for a number of reasons, find it the most difficult to be enthusiastic about our work.
The wrong book
I published my first book last year. My family and friends were all supportive; they each congratulated me and purchased themselves a copy. However, this lead to a little mix-up recently. For holidays, if a person at all enjoys reading, I tend to get them books. Last year I read the book Thoughts Are Things by Prentice Mulford. Growing up my dad would always say “thoughts are things,” and the ideas expressed in the book were very similar to his own. I wondered if it had been some formative piece of text for him that he had forgotten he read when he was younger. I got him a copy for Christmas. But, by the time I next saw him, it slipped my mind that I had given it to him.
At some point in our conversation that day, he turned to me and said, his eyes wide with excitement, “I forgot to tell you: It’s a really great book. It’s really something.” I was touched. I could tell he really meant it. The thing is that for a couple of seconds I thought he was talking about the book I had written. Then, the carpet of happy misunderstanding was pulled from underneath me, and I remembered he was talking about Mulford’s book. Imagine being saddened by someone saying “thank you” for a Christmas present. That, to me, exemplifies the sensitivity of writers. You put yourself out there in a way not many do, and while everyone else thinks of it in passing, for you it is all-consuming.
If a stranger, after purchasing the book leaves a review that is more critical than complimentary, they are simply expressing their opinion. But when I read that comment, I recall all the years of effort; the painstaking process of writing and rewriting, editing and editing more, which continues to this day and will likely never end; all of the thousands of dollars and hours of my time spent marketing; and all of that to ultimately be told that it wasn’t very good. Well, if this was the best I could do, and it wasn’t very good, than what am I?
It’s thoughts like these, and the general sensitivity that accompanies the vulnerability of making one’s writing public, that makes the emotional support of friends and family so important. But like so much when it comes to relationships, what we feel we need is more than we could ever even hope of giving another, if we were in a similar position, and therefore more than we could ever expect to get in return.
I have a good friend who makes music; specifically, he’s a rapper. When I hear his music, there’s something in it that stands out like a sore thumb and keeps me from appreciating it for what it is: his voice. It’s not that his voice is bad or odd-sounding; it’s just all too familiar. I try to listen to the song, but all I hear is Travis. When he raps some clever and boastful bar about his conquests with women or his wealth, I don’t see the image he’s painting; I see his actual girlfriend and his actual house. I know about the makeshift studio this was recorded in and his day job as a plumber. None of that detracts from the actual quality of the music, nor should it, but for me it’s distracting.
Him playing the music for me makes it even more difficult to appreciate it for what it is. When we’re in my car and he plays a new song, I can hardly sit back and enjoy the witty lines and catchy beat; I’m sitting there thinking about how to react. I’m thinking about what I can say I liked and how to come across as genuine in my appreciation for it. I can barely hear the actual music!
Moreover, there’s a certain intimacy to complementing someone else’s work, which can be uncomfortable if you’re not used to it. If someone isn’t the type to effusively say how much they care for you or otherwise make themselves vulnerable — even though they may love you to the ends of the Earth — it can be difficult to say how much they care for your work. Their emotional restraints don’t disappear just because they want to be a good friend and supporter. There’re no doubt a great number of times in their life when they wanted to be expressive and open up about their feelings but were unable to. Other times, people can’t express their appreciation because it makes too clear in contrast their own failings. A family member who always wanted to write a book but never did might find themselves choked up by regret or even envy.
Whatever the reason, when we have a preexisting relationship with a person, everything that is attached to that goes into their response to our work. It could be a masterpiece, but the complicated personal factors at play can keep the people around us from being able to fully recognize or speak on its value.
The rapper Drake mentions in his song, “How Bout Now,” how he once played his music for someone close to him and they quickly asked if they could listen to the rapper Ludacris’s music instead. There are people who would stampede over one another to hear Drake’s music before anyone else, but the person he played it to probably just heard Aubrey Graham (Drake’s real name). I’ve wanted to be a philosopher for the entirety of my adult life, but when my friends and family read my lofty words about principles and love, they probably just hear Martin. Martin has made a million mistakes, embarrassed himself a thousand times, and slowly developed any skill as a writer by a slow and painful process of trial and error, which they’ve witnessed every step of.
The writers I see as geniuses were probably, for a time, seen as those around them as just some person trying to sound smart or dramatic. After the rest of the world recognizes us, those closest to us will likely follow suit, because they’ll be able to see us through the eyes of others. But until that time, they’ll never really be able to see our work; they’ll just see plain ol’ us.
Every writer has the voice they write in and the informal tone they speak to their familiars with. I doubt Oscar Wilde found occasion for such dramatic lines as “We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars,” when discussing what to have for lunch each day. From afar, when we only know a writer by their works, we can let them be 100% who they are as a writer; it doesn’t come across as someone writing in an affected way, completely different from the way they usually speak. We know only their writing voice, and so however dramatic or profound their words are, it’s able to assume a complete naturalness.
We can take Nietzsche completely serious when he writes, “I say unto you: one must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” But his friends and family might’ve just rolled their eyes and said, “There goes Nietzsche, putting on his writing voice and trying to sound all grand and wise again.”
To have one voice to write in and one voice to speak in is a natural part of being a writer. Surely not even Shakespeare ordered food in verse or felt the need to rhyme whenever he asked a member of his household if they had seen his doublet lying around somewhere. To witness his transition from one voice to the other would’ve been slightly jarring for some of the people in his life and given his writing an air of inauthenticity. But that didn’t make Shakespeare any less of a truly talented writer.
There are lots of reasons why the people we know best, and whose opinions we value most, might not be able to give us the validation we crave as writers. It can be hard for the head to prevail over the wants of the heart, but we should do our best not to take it personally when the people close to us don’t get excited about the writing we produce. Easier said than done — trust me, I know. But to be a writer means following our internal compass even when no one else believes in us. Getting someone to pay for our words, when they can readily make their own, or buy the words of any number of famous, brilliant people, was an