Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Writers and Sensitivity

Since I no longer have original ideas, I've decided to simply steal Nathan Bransford's post titles. Why Nathan Bransford? Because everyone reads Nathan Bransford. And because his post titles are sometimes interesting. And because he'd kind of cute. No Alexander Field, but come on, who is?

So today Nathan wrote about the sensitivity of writers. You've probably already read it, so here's my personal take:

I am not, by nature, a sensitive person. My feelings are not often wounded. A large part of this is because I'm fairly oblivious to other people. Yes, I recognize their presence, but it isn't long before I'm blissfully lost in my own thoughts (most of which concern me) while mumbling affirmations ("Yep," "Uh-huh," "Sure") that give the appearance of reciprocal conversation. So when someone looks at me askance or obliquely criticizes me, I scarcely notice, much less care.*

And then there's writing. Like other writers, I am intensely sensitive when it comes to others' criticisms of my masterpieces work. Here's how something like that tends to go:

Criticizer: You know, the beginning of this story just didn't grab me.
My Head: That's because you're a flipping moron.
My Mouth: Oh?
Criticizer: Yeah. I think you're spinning your wheels here a little. The story really seems to start on page six.
My Head: Okay, but what about those first five pages? Pretty sweet, eh? Original stuff, huh? Haven't read anything like it, have you? You expect me to just throw it out, after I've reworked those pages thirty times?
My Mouth: I see what you're saying. Thanks a lot. I appreciate it.

This is where I could spend some time talking about why writers (including me) are hyper-sensitive to criticism of their writing, even when they're not too worried what others think about, say, their clothing, hygiene, or worldview, but I'm not going to because I don't really care why. Some things just are.

I think all writers are like this. The difference is some of us hide it better than others and most of us, after we've internally reacted like a petulant kindergartner**, actually listen to the criticism and do something about it. (And by "do something about it" I'm not referring to retribution against those who would dare criticize us by burning a bag of dog poo on the criticizer's front stoop, or egging their Mazda, or leaving lingerie in the backseat of the guy's 1999 Mazda Millenia, where his wife will find it because his wife cleans the backseat of the Mazda every Sunday, right after she waters the begonias. That's not what I'm talking about.)***

*None of this part is really true, but it sounded kind of good when I wrote it.
**I hate spelling this word.
***On second thought, that part up above where I paint myself with a rather selfish brush, is sometimes true. Sometimes.


Heather Lane said...

I love my critique partner, and most of the stuff he points out to me I KNOW TO BE TRUE about my writing. That being said, I still do this internal rejection of what I KNOW TO BE TRUE in the moment that I am hearing it. Minutes later I can consider it, and agree or disagree, but what is up with the knee-jerk internal dialogue? It makes me feel like a teenager. So, yes, I do it too.

Myra said...

I'm tweeting this blog post. Just try to stop me.

Matty said...

The last actual critics of my writing - other than people who refuse to read my blog - were the history professors in my bygone college days so I don't really have much to add about that.

I do on the other hand share your general lack of awareness of others and their issues. I used to work in an office for 3 years and it wasn't until I left that I learned the nearly everyday was characterized by interpersonal drama. There were meetings and behind-the-back discussions. Then meetings about the behind-the-back discussions... I just thought they were all very dedicated to their work and were being highly productive. Oh well, it saved me a lot of.... well, being forced to ignore all the drama.

Also, I volunteered in a classroom where the teacher pronounced the word 'kintergarden' which basically destroyed my hopes of ever learning to spell the word.

Ann Victor said...

Wandered over from Anita's blog.

And :):) - I did read Nathan's post! I'm terribly sensitive to other people's feelings (I cry when someone else cries even if I don't know why they're crying) and I was awfully sensitive to criticism of my work. Luckily I've developed a thick skin and can now differentiate between constructive and destructive criticism. I cope with it better these days.

I have a theory about this writer's sensitivity. Writers, as creative people, are intrinsically more sensitive then other folk. But, to have that faith in their work that keeps them writing and writing in the face of criticism and rejections and the sheer hard work of writing, also means that writers have necessarily strong egos. So, ego + creative sensitivity = lots of the easily hurt/offended people whom Nathan spoke about on his blog!

Ray Veen said...

Oh, it's on now, bud...

I'm gonna tear your MS a new one.

Unless of course, it really is brilliant. In which case I will tell you so because I'm just honest like that.

Yaya' s Changing World said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog entry. In fact, I got a couple of good chuckles to start my day. Thank you.
And I'd like to thank you for being a teacher, as well. My guess is that you are a well-liked teacher, one who has earned love and respect from your students and your associates.
Keep your dream of being published out in front. You do have a real talent and I'm sure you'll make it. Or, perhaps I speak out of turn and you are already published?
~ Yaya


Monica said...

i am too sensitive. I try to hide behind a facade of humour... sigh... do you have a tissue?

ok..i'm good... i'm ok. no... really, i'm ok.

On the other hand, i have this lack of awareness of things going on around me. Like my neighbours, who divorced after 12 years of marriage. I thought they got along just fine.

PMM, sounds like your brain/mouth filter is in check. i get in trouble sometimes, when i don't engage the filter very well.

Tina Lee said...

I think the whole Nathan Bransford thing has been really interesting because, although we writers are a sensitive bunch(btw are you mad at me?) there is that whole subjectivity thing that has to be balanced in. I read tons of those paragraphs until they blurred in front of my eyes and submitted my own which was blurry as well and I wouldn't probably have chose the ones he did. And I also would not have behaved as some of his commentors had when their rejected hackles were up. As writers I think the only way to operate is to be willing to learn as much as we can(there was a huge amount to be learned from the torrent of entries that contest got), listen as carefully as we can, so we can use our words as effectively as possible. Then you have nothing to do but choose the effect--of course if the only thing you want is that someone likes it, there is that subjectivity thing. Oh, and then there is all that writing. And then the painful feedback. And then revising.

Paul Michael Murphy said...

Nope, Tina, not mad at all. Your feedback was awesome. Given the amount of time you spent on it, I feel like you deserve a thoughtful response, which is why I haven't emailed again. But I will. Just as soon as I'm feeling thoughtful again.

Tina Lee said...

No rush on that. Just being a mostly joking, partly sensitive writer responding to the timely-ness of you blog post.

chris said...

Note: I am not sensitive at all about my writing. I know many writers say this, and deep down they really are still sensitive, but for me this is not the case. I really, truly, completely am not sensitive about my writing. You could tell me my writing is the worst thing you've ever read, and then pee on it, wrap it in plastic, and mail it to me and I wouldn't blink an eye. In fact, I'd probably think it was hilarious that you hated it so much that you actually took the time to pee on it and wrap it and mail it - during which you most certinly got some of your own urine on your hands. For me, it would go like this:

You: I think your book sucks. All copies should be burned immediately. Please, please don't ever write again, because I think you seriously might give somebody brain damage.

In My Head: That's pretty funny.
What I Say: -- Laughter --

You: Why are you laughing?

Me: ...

However, I am quite sensitive in general as a person, otherwise. For instance, I swerve to avoid gophers even when driving 80mph. I cry during those insurance commercials when the dad and his son are seen, via montage, fishing and walking a hiking trail and riding bike, etc. etc.

What does this mean for me? Am I still allowed to sneeze at night? Can I not wear two of same colored shoes? Do I still get to eat blueberries that haven't been washed? Can I not still write long and rambling blog comments that make very little sense - yet still amuse me for some reason that only my naked dog truly understands?

Anita said...

I thought you were calling me a moron, Jessica Fletcher.

But, seriously, after years of freelance writing (some day I'll blog about the "job"), I don't get defensive at all. It's a little harder with the personal/manuscript writing, but for paid stuff I'm just thinking, "Are you paying me if I change what you're asking? Yes? Consider it changed. Thank you. Please call again."

Amy said...

Wow. I'm the antithesis of you, Paul! I'm quite sensitive/aware of others and their feelings. I think that helped make me a good nurse. I do have people/readers I listen to when it comes to my writing, but I don't get defensive and upset if they don't like something I've written. I have to say that submitting and learning to be rejected (all over the place!) has toughened my skin a bit.

Tracy Edward Wymer said...

Writing is a life-long learning process. None of us will ever master it, but if we can improve little by little, some of us might come within a moonshot of doing so.

Not likely, but you never know.

Tracy Edward Wymer said...

I can't wait to pee on Chris's book and send it to him.

MG Higgins said...

Alexander Field is really cute. He looks sensitive. I bet he cries when he sends rejections.

Paul Michael Murphy said...

I like to think so, MG.