In my office I have a wall on which My Best Beloved has hung various highlights from my career as a writer. Great reviews, awards, newspapers articles, photos from meaningful events and so forth. At first, I didn’t want him to do this. It seemed like boasting. I feared if anyone saw it, they would assume I was full of pride, perhaps arrogance.
But My Best Beloved, who is often wiser than I, said, no, it isn’t about boasting, it’s about a smack on the back of the head when my droopy nature gets the better of me.
He is a very enthusiastic person, My Best Beloved, and prone to bouts of cheer-leading, which can occasionally be unsettling, particularly for someone like me whose default attitude never includes pompoms, at least not for myself.
I tend to agree with people like Mavis Gallant. We shared tea once, at the Hotel Lutecia in Paris, and she told me that one must burn all negative reviews. This sounded wise, since such venom can be crippling. The idea of collecting the positive ones seemed, however, a bit self-indulgent.
But perhaps My Best Beloved is right. Perhaps there is a purpose.
The truth is that I am a writer who lives in a neurotic sea of corrosive doubt. This is inconvenient, since I am also compelled to write, and remain faithful to my belief that when writing I am doing what I am intended to do. Also, as I’ve said before, I am saner when I write than when I don’t. Nonetheless, with every short story, every novel I write, I hit a point when I’m sure it’s all garbage, it’s all crap, it’s a futile endeavor and that it’s quite possible I am an utter fraud.
At this point my head thumps onto the desk, which is, I admit, preferable to sticking it in an oven. The critic-voice in my head shrieks about how the futility, the hopelessness and I sob that I just can’t go on, that I’ve been fooling myself all this time.
That is the point when My Best Beloved directs my gaze to The Wall of Accurate Perception. He reminds me of that lovely starred review. He points out the personal letter from the CEO of a large publishing house, in which he tells me how much they believe in my work. He taps the glass of the photo of me with my agent, smiling fit to burst the night a famous critic devoted a televised evening to one of my books. And so on. He reminds me that my perception of my worth is inaccurate. He reminds me I have produced work some people have found worthwhile. Then he tells me to go back to writing.
I gaze at the wall for a moment, well aware that there have been bad reviews (remember that one, my inner critic says, when the young reviewer thought the novel might, MIGHT, have made a decent short story, but failed as a novel? Of course I remember that. It’s tattooed on the inside of my eyelids), and people who’ve written to tell me they didn’t like my book. (Thanks so much for that.) But, thanks to My Best Beloved, there is also evidence to support my continuing on.
“Go back to work,” says My Best Beloved.
And I do. The truth is I have no trouble remembering my work has displeased some people, has been found wanting, isn’t nearly as good as many other writers, and that most of the time no one is more disappointed by it than I am. However, it is also true I have had more success than many writers, which is as much down to luck as talent, I’m sure. It is also true I still feel compelled to write. Having a reminder that my work has reached a person or two, given someone a moment of pleasure, made them think, or recalling there are people in the business who support me, gives me just the little encouragement I need to go on, at least a bit longer.
All creative people live in that place of doubt. I now tell my writer friends a modified version of the advice I received from Mavis Gallant: 1) go on, burn the bad reviews, for sure. You might as well, since the chances are you won’t forget them, and they might just provide you with a smidgen of truth you can apply to the next work, and 2) Save and celebrate all reminders of positive moments in your life as a writer. They are few and far between, so store them like a squirrel storing nuts. Take them out and let them feed you during the harsh winter when the soul is full of doubt.