Saturday, October 27, 2007

Taking It Personally

On the Writer’s Advice List, “Don’t take things personally” appears right under “Write every day.” Like every item on the Writer’s Advice List, which is what I call that nebulous collection of guidelines and wisdom that writers try to follow, detachment is a deeper idea than you realize at first. My initial inability to take comments without personalizing them almost derailed me as a writer. After I discovered how freeing it is to refuse to apply critiques and rejections to my worth as a person, life got a lot better for me, and not just as a writer.

Although I’d been a writer for virtually my entire life, I was still mired in what could be described as “The Swamp of Me-ism” when I decided to write full time. Intellectually, I understood that I should avoid taking things personally, but at that point I still saw everything that went wrong in my story, from its yucky first draft to its rejection slip, as the result of my personal failings. It was all about Me, just not in a good way. Enter Client A.

Client A needed a brochure written. He wanted to appear smooth, suave, and sophisticated. Unfortunately, he failed to communicate that to me. I thought he wanted homespun, honest, and hardworking. When I got his corrections on the first draft, I was stunned – not because I’d misread the image he wanted, but because he’d given the brochure to his secretary to “correct.” I was incensed. How dare he delegate my work to a secretary?! And one so obviously language-challenged, at that. Every one of her corrections inserted a grammatical error. I had many options at this point, and today I can think of several I would choose, but at the time I was just angry. Really, really angry. And insulted. I didn’t even realize I was taking things personally. I thought my rage was justified.

I grimace every time I think about the phone conversation I had with Client A. It was ugly. “You made me sound like I was picking hayseeds out of my teeth,” he finally said, after doing his best to dodge my flaming questions about what on earth I was supposed to do with his secretary’s grammatically-challenged corrections. I don’t know what happened to the final copy I did for him, but I do know that Client A entirely changed his business direction soon afterwards. As you might imagine, he didn’t hire me again. It took me another couple of years to overcome my defensiveness and to realize what a huge mistake I’d made.

When we tell someone not to take things personally, we’re reducing a tremendous amount of wisdom and maturity into a single sentence. Since Client A, I’ve learned that taking comments and corrections as a personal attack is one of the quickest ways to kill your creativity. From a business standpoint it’s also pretty deadly, but that’s minimal compared to the muse-squashing effects of aiming criticism meant for your words at yourself instead. Writers who convince themselves that they’re idiots because of unflattering comments about their work are less likely to sit back down at the computer. Writing is all about perseverance, so ignore your ill-informed detractors and study the hell out of any useful comments you get.

I’ve found that it’s helpful to remember that non-writers are usually unable to offer anything beyond “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it,” and they come up with odd stuff when they try. When you hear weird comments on your work that make no sense to you, chances are that the person making those comments has no clue how to give you useful feedback. To avoid hurting your feelings, people will attempt all manner of strange verbal contortions. Do your best to read between the lines. Ask questions to elicit better information, if you’d really like to get a better understanding of what they mean. Keep an open mind and exercise your active listening skills.

And learn the art of ignoring. Those of you with children should be familiar with this tactic. If Aunt Ruth hates your personal essay on the Thanksgiving Turkey she burned because she enjoys her reputation as the family’s own Martha Stewart, well, learn to shrug it off. Not everyone will like your work. Consider the agenda of your critic before getting too caught up in what she’s saying.

I just worked with a lovely woman on a history project. We were on the phone after the first draft and I was asking her questions, dissecting what worked and what didn’t work, when she suddenly paused and said, “Gosh, I hope you’re not taking any of this personally.”

Actually, I was taking notes when she said that, mentally planning my attack on the next draft. She was a great collaborator, able to articulate what she wanted. I reassured her, “Oh no, don’t worry about that. I don’t take things personally. I can’t.” Years after Client A, I now understand what that really means.

If you’ve let yourself be angry, defensive, or bitter about criticism of your work, let it go. Keep writing and remember that YOU are more than your words. Let your words be what’s rejected, not you.


Ritergal said...

Wow, Terrisa, you put this so eloquently. This is such a hard lesson to learn.

The editor of my first book, Meetings: Do's, Don'ts and Donuts must have exhausted two or three red pens in the process. He'd return manuscripts that looked like they'd been retrieved from a battlefield. I doubt that more than a dozen sentences in the whole book were printed the way I originally wrote them.

It's not that the book was poorly written — it was simply too wordy and informal for a book geared to business people — not sufficiently "professional" in tone.

The first time I saw one of those manuscripts, I nearly fainted. I always took pride in high grades in school, and this was like being handed a D-! But then I saw the learning opportunity. I began looking forward to those marks.

When we did a second edition four years later, the new material needed little editing, because I had learned those lessons well.

Red ink is a writer's best friend — if you don't take it personally.

TH Meeks said...

I grew up listening to my dad saying, "Never take things personally," and not until all these years later have I realized what a profound piece of advice it was! You are so right that red ink is a writer's best friend, once we learn to see it as a learning opportunity instead of an attack.