Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Work is Not Me

For reasons that will be clear to anyone who goes back a few days and reads the comments, I've disabled anonymous commenting for the foreseeable future. I don't much mind the trickle of commercial spam, but harassment spam is too tiresome to deal with. Even the effort of deleting it seems like too much reward for the person seeking attention through it.

At first blush, this looks like a hazard of publication, but that's not, in fact, the case. I've been dealing - or, more accurately, failing to find a way to deal - with this kind of person for my entire life. I've never been in a school, or a workforce of more than six people, where I didn't attract at least one, and I won't pretend to understand what motivates them, but none has ever found me through the medium of my published work. Some responses to that work have been problematic, but they have all been relevant to the work, and most are unambiguously positive.

And yes, I'm including negative reviews in that tally. As long as a review focuses honestly on the work (rather than on the reviewer's cleverness or the personal life of the author/performer/artist/whatever or some other nonsense), a negative review is better than no review, especially from a reviewer well-known to the audience. Some of the most useful movie reviews I've ever had access to were written by a local journalist whose taste differs so radically from mine, and so distinctly from my husband's, that a bad review from him was better than a rave from someone with whom we were not familiar. "Bob Polunsky hates this movie and thinks the twist ending makes no sense. Let's go!" Conversely, if he had no fault to find, we'd stay away, saving ourselves from an hour and a half to two hours of tedium and the movie from the bad word-of-mouth we might otherwise have given it. Since we stopped seeing his reviews movie-going has been a lot more of a crapshoot.

And honest negative criticisms of your work have value; either by pointing out a real weakness that you had overlooked, or by forcing you to think consciously about your choices. Far fewer conscious choices go into my work than you'd think from reading this blog, when I am necessarily in cool mode and deconstructing a holistic process. And though some unconscious choices are gloriously right and much better than I could have made had I been thinking about it, others are simply lazy habit and need to be questioned. Even a criticism which, in the end, I decide is invalid from the perspective of the target audience may give me an insight into the peripheral audience that will prove useful later.

As for personal contact with the target audience - if you keep it in perspective, that can be glorious. In the literary world especially, the celebrity stalker is far rarer than the nurturing and enthusiastic fan. It was cheering to go into my reader this morning and see Kathleen Duey's response to those who have been responding to her recently. Kathleen is an excellent writer who deserves all good things, and who has labored far too long and too hard in relative obscurity, so it is good to see her audience feeding her spirit.

The person who pretends to be the audience in order to attempt to poison the spring of well-being is, thank goodness, an anomaly at the professional level. At the amateur level, alas - at the level of Tumblr and fanfic and the platform-specific communities arranged around particular interests - they are all too common. But that's not a function of publication with these various platforms, but of the nature of human community.

You cannot build a snake-proof garden. If a person wants to be a jackass, he'll find a way to be a jackass; but work interests him not at all unless he can find in it an avenue to damage the workman. He has some personal agenda, some (usually imaginary) status to build and maintain, some toxic self-image that demands to be fed the bad feelings of others. Work done in a professional spirit (and one may do amateur work in a professional spirit; it is not the exchange of money that governs this) insulates the author as a person, so their hunting grounds are offices and playgrounds, newsgroups and social networks, clubs and classrooms, where they can manipulate the environment and take best advantage of the social virtues - patience, kindness, the desire to be fair - to corner their victims.

I have seen people who shrink from rejection of the work as if it were this kind of personal assault; and I have met people who hesitate even to seek publication for fear of - who knows what. I can't tell you how to avoid personal bullies, since I obviously haven't learned how to do it myself, though at least they can no longer hurt me, just waste my time and try my patience. But I can tell you that you needn't fear them getting at you through your work. Your work is not you. It is important, and it's made of pieces of you, but it is not you. Surgically remove your ego from the process, and you will soon find that, rather than exposing you, it shelters you.

Mind, that surgical removal may be difficult at first, but you'll never get past a certain point till you do it, no matter how brilliant you are. And your work will improve, because when you stop seeing the excision of your excess adverbs as the excision of part of your soul it gets much easier to go through with it; while ceasing to fear the exposure of your deepest self enables you to touch the hands of people you will never meet and make them feel less alone.


  1. Peni,
    Glad you've got this handled. I've seen different author-bloggers handle it in different ways. Whatever works.
    Seems like everyone deals with this to some extent and those who do it always justify themselves because they're 'helping you see the light' or some such, usually with a complete misunderstanding of what and why you're doing what you do in the first place. My impression, from those I've dealt with, is that they have very little self-confidence, and require instead group approval. They then can't accept or tolerate the existence of someone who doesn't need the approval of whatever group it is they see themselves of being part of. This behavior is so common, maybe it's a remnant of something that helped us function as small tribes?
    Best wishes to you--and I hope you know that if you ever should find yourself up my way, we'd love to have you (and Damon, of course) to dinner.

  2. We don't travel much, and less since Health Crap started, but tell me where you are and I'll bear it in mind. The health crap makes us a bit of a pain to cook for, I'll warn you now.

    Like most dysfunctional behavior, cyberstalking is a variant on normal human behavior, and that this has survival value even in societies that officially deplore it can be seen by looking at the careers of various politicians and corporate administrators. If you choose the right targets and harass them in the correct ways in the correct contexts, you can enhance your own status in certain group at the expense of people who accomplish things, without the hassle of doing productive work yourself.

    But it weirds me out that anybody could imagine I'm the correct target at this stage of my life, in this context or that of the newsgroup. There is nothing to gain by annoying small-time internet participants, except certain personal psychological satisfactions, which you'd think would be nullified by the knowledge that you were making a jackass of yourself for no real benefit.

    Where there is everything to gain - pleasure, satisfaction, emotional security, occasionally even status enhancement and money - by doing the best work you can.

  3. Sorry, I thought you knew where we are, up in Southeast Idaho. (At one point you had my address: you sent me 11,000 Years Lost.)
    Since I cook for a cardiac patient/diabetic daily, mostly from scratch, food issues don't scare me.
    One of the interesting smaller reasons why people home school is severe allergies, actually, so I think we encounter food problems more (even though we don't have them ourselves) than others would.

  4. Yes, I did, but that made it into my memory as "sent a book to Sunbee" rather than "sent a book to Sunbee in Idaho." Hmm, I bet Idaho's a grand place to be at a certain point in spring migration. If I ever get my birding mojo (and my binoculars) back.

    If you're used to cooking around allergies then I guess neither a hypoglycemic vegetarian on a low-sodium diet and a carnivore who won't eat nuts or crunchy vegetables would be too difficult. It's feeding us both at the same time that's a pain in the butt.