The Reminder Wall

The Wall of Accurate Perception

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.

6 Comments

  1. Wendy on September 10, 2014 at 2:21 pm

    Dear Lauren,

    Such sweet honesty in this essay. Made me smile thinking of your husband standing by THE wall and making you pay attention to the various framed letters and reviews of commendation for your hours of toiling over a keyboard; creating sentences, characters, reviewing word arrangement, editing and so on for hours and hours.

    To have such doubt, as you explain, may be one of the ingredients which fuels you to try and reach the (for you) un-attainable place of feeling success in a short story or novel. Only you know the answer to that.

    While I read this essay, the thought crossed my mind about the dysmorphia of those with anorexia, who have such a delusion of body distortion when looking in a mirror. Could it be you have a form of writer’s dysmorphia? (Probably not the correct equivalent term though.)

    The image in your mind of not being the writer you THINK you are, or should be, is distorted in some way? Could the mind-set be one which began in childhood with any new attempts at writing; or in your teens, if you were writing then. Those adults around you perhaps gave you negative feedback, made you feel unsettled about the purpose of your taking a pen or pencil to paper to do what you felt compelled to do which was write.

    There will always be critique. There will always be those who crassly or cruelly, without even thinking, will state opinions which can create more insecurity in a creative soul as yourself.

    But more importantly, many of those opinions are made without knowing you, your sincere desire to write, your talent to creating marvellous stories. As it seems you are able to push away compliments, perhaps that same attitude can be adapted to those critiques which are indeed worthless, not worth a second’s thought.

    I can say with certainty of all the books I’ve read; of all the author’s I’ve grown to know through the internet connections, you are the author who I have recommended more than any other throughout my lifetime of being a voracious reader. Even speaking with strangers in bookstores, in chance meetings, if discussing books or reading, your name is the first one I will mention. My praise isn’t gushing, more about the important themes of your novels. It is my hope that after I ask folks I meet to actually write down your name, your book titles (or else I write it for them) they indeed go and find a novel of yours and enjoy it immensely.

    So, although I’m only a person who loves reading what you write here on your blog, your novels and short stories, but as a creative person, I do appreciate your having a “critic-voice.”

    Maybe though, that inner voice, (as a psychologist may add – the super ego) it may need a more gentle approach to the Lauren who strives for so many hours to create the novels folks like myself truly enjoy and remember.

    Maybe line up in your imagination, all the folks like myself who are supportive, along your wall too and we’ll shout down the voice of your self doubt. I may yell the loudest which I hope is acceptable.

    Hope the fall season approaching is bringing perfect weather in your end of the world for walks with your cute dog, time in your reading room and also hours to be the skilled writer you are and always will be.

    • Lauren B. Davis on September 10, 2014 at 2:26 pm

      Thanks for the email, Wendy, and for your continued support. I wrote this primarily to assure other writers, who I know also suffer from these pangs of doubt, that they’re not alone. It makes a difference, as does knowing we have a readership — like you — out there. Again, many thanks.

    • Shawn O'Shwa on September 12, 2014 at 9:08 pm

      Celebrate this . . when ya got it, ya got it . . and you got it!

      • Lauren B. Davis on September 13, 2014 at 9:17 am

        You are a kind man, Shawn, and a discerning one. Snort.

  2. Vicki Weisfeld on September 10, 2014 at 8:00 pm

    Such a wise husband. Burning all the negative reviews and rejections also can keep one warm on a cold winter night! 🙂 Truth is, everybody has different ideas about what’s “good,” and lots of people (reviewers and agents and publishers, too) don’t believe something’s good unless someone else tells them so. You’re solid, lady. Let them twitter how they may.

    • Lauren B. Davis on September 10, 2014 at 8:29 pm

      Thanks, Vicki. He is a wise husband. And although I certainly didn’t write this in order to elicit compliments — but rather to assure other writers we all feel the same way — I am grateful for yours.

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