Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Emotional Pinball

Every week I participate in an online writing workshop, reading the stories of strangers and having them read mine. This past week I submitted a short into which I’d put more work than usual, dragging it through a score of revisions, chopping out the bad bits and sewing it back together and yanking the pieces apart again when they didn’t fit quite right. In the end, it was a good story -- or so I thought. As the critiques rolled in, it became increasingly clear that my readers disagreed. They found the structure confusing, the main character unlikable, the conclusion disappointing.

These responses prompted me to react the way I typically do when someone (or, in this case, someones) dislikes my work: I stewed. I invented rationalizations for certain scenes while brushing my teeth, revisited favorite bits that had come under fire during the drive to work and formulated counterarguments during my fifteen-minute break. So when a particularly forthright review landed in my inbox, I let its author have it. Of course he didn’t have to like my material, I wrote, but I didn’t like his tone, which struck me as more-than-a-little snarky. Awash in moral superiority and wounded pride, I thwacked the send button. Just let him come back with an angry rejoinder. I’d give it to him with both barrels. Only he didn’t. When he replied, it was to apologize and assure me that he wasn’t trying to be harsh, he’d only wanted to point out parts he thought needed improvement.

You don’t have to be a prophet to know that my role in this exchange won’t go down as one of Loren’s Proudest Moments. Letting emotion supplant your better sense almost always ends in shame. My father spent over two decades working with a psychologist who liked to say that we must hold the a priori assumption that reason can triumph over our feelings. Otherwise we’ll spend our lives simply reacting, ricocheting like a pinball off of ungovernable external stimuli. Yes, passions can get heated when it comes to our writing, but we need to rule over them and take our stripes with a smile. The pain cleanses, makes us better. I hope it’s a lesson I’ll learn myself one day.

(Picture: CC 2009 by


B. Nagel said...

Y'know, I'd swear I posted a response on here the other night.

I can get caught up in the activity of the creative process or the details of a specific scene and lose perspective. The sense of how a piece fits into the whole, the sense of how the whole works as a story, the sense of why the heck am I doing this other than the fact that I can't sleep.

And then I have to lose my informed understanding by setting it down and walking away for a time. Otherwise I will read parts of the story that I never wrote.

I swear I left this comment last night.

Loren Eaton said...

I hear that Blogger sometimes doesn't always grab comments. That was a problem with the Clarity of Night contest, I think.

Another thing that may help perspective wise is reminding ourselves that the worth of our lives isn't encapsulated by a single activity. I get overinvested, which leads to heartache. And embarassing emails.