What Do You Love More?

July 18, 2017 § 13 Comments


Not even her best backbend

Before I was a writer, I was an acrobat. Not the kind that flips through the air–the kind who holds up other smaller, younger acrobats who look better in the same spandex costume. A “base.”

I loved it. I loved being the one who makes sure everyone is ready, calls the move, Hup!, then adjusts while the flyer holds still. Stay straight, tight and trusting. Don’t balance yourself, let me balance you.

I loved that I could lift men bigger than me and women in acrobat class who were also bigger than me and had spent years not letting anyone lift them because they felt “too heavy.” That I could grab someone the right size and move them through a basic routine right away, as long as they did exactly what I said. I got really good at giving directions, verbal cues, nudging with my toes, letting flyers know, I got you. You can trust me. You can fly.

My last and best partner was (and is) small and beautiful and flexible enough that even circus people admire her backbend and over-splits. A pleasure to lift, a joy to try new moves with. Between shows in Canada, we stood on a stretch of lawn next to a giant parking lot and worked on a new move, one that scared her, that she’d fallen out of before. “I’ve got you,” I said. “The only thing I can’t save is if you bend forward hard and fast–there’s not enough leverage to stop you–so use your hands if you start falling.”

She bent forward hard and fast and without her hands, and her head slammed into the ground. We got ice and a shady place to sit and she said, “I’m just so scared of that move. I want to do it, but…”

I said, “Well, when you decide you love doing the trick more than you love being scared of it, you’ll get it,” which was callous and hurtful, and she was indeed hurt, and unhappy for an hour until we did the show and our routine and my hands and feet told her again, I love you, I respect you, I’ve got you.

What I said was mean. It was also true. Acrobats must love the flight more than fearing injury or literal death. Not instead of fear–just more.

My writer buddy wants me to blog about going forward after bad feedback. About what it’s like to finally put out a piece you like, that your friends have given good criticism on and said “It’s ready,” and then receive literary magazine criticism so sharp and painful it makes you want to curl up and cry and never write again. Certainly, you never want to submit again. You may even start thinking that all the strangers who criticize and reject are right and the friends who read your work are only pacifying you, saying to each other behind your back, “We’d better not let her know how bad she really is.”

I think about writing on that topic, and I think about how many rejections I’ve gotten, and the painfulness of criticism not only by email and form letter and Submittable, but also in newspaper reviews of your self-written solo show, and to your face from people who are sober and sane but still need to say how much they dislike you. I remember that time I got yelled at on Dragon’s Den and cried and me being yelled at and crying made the network season promo and is still well-known enough in Canada that people come up to me on the street and say “Don’t let anyone shit on your dreams!” Or that time Howard Stern got an entire audience to stand up and boo me, personally, in my hometown. (Reality TV, good times!)

Why did I still perform? Why do I still submit work? Why do I write deeply personal essays and send them into the world to get back the stab of “Sorry this does not meet our needs at this time”?

Because I love being published more than I love protecting myself from being hurt. Not instead of–just more.

There are tricks to make it better. Every agent rejection after a request for manuscript pages gets a one-line “thanks for taking a look!” email. When I performed in theatres, I wrote paper thank-you notes to all reviewers regardless of number of stars. To even the guy who said my performance was meh, “Thank you for taking the time to share my show with your readers!” Writing back, saying thank you, I’m a person, makes me feel like a participant in the artistic dialogue, someone with differing taste instead of a victim of judgment.

And it does get easier. The more I submit, the more likely I am to feel a brief sting and move on, like brushing against the oven door. An hour later, I’ve forgotten. The more I submit, the less any one place feels like my “dream” venue or agent. The more likely I am to think, “Welp, sorry this wasn’t for you–who’s next on the list?”

In order to keep sending out work, I have to love being published more than I love not feeling shitty about rejection. Applying this idea to writers struggling with their own rejections is cold and callous and hurtful. I feel mean when I think it or say it. But it’s also the truth, and it’s a decision we all get to make:

Publication or not getting hurt feelings.

What do you love more?

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching a Self-Editing intensive and offering one-on-one feedback meetings at Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference, September 8-10 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

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§ 13 Responses to What Do You Love More?

  • Oh, I love this. Thank you.

  • Thank you for reminding us writers to be strong when facing criticism so we can continue to do what we love. It’s not easy but you show us how through your story.

  • K. L. Romo says:

    Reblogged this on K. L. Romo and commented:
    Insightful essay for writers who get rejected – how to move on.

  • K. L. Romo says:

    Love this essay Allison! Ditto everything you said. It IS very true.

  • Jan Priddy says:

    Oh Allison, I guess I do not know just now. Many years ago, a poet friend (a famous one) critiqued a story of mine as a personal favor. She hated the story. It was pretty bad. “Keep taking classes,” she said.

    Three hours later I had recovered enough to share the bad news with younger writer-friend.

    “Well,” my younger friend said, “what did she like about the story? She must have liked something!”

    “Nothing,” I said. “I listened hard for something good. She didn’t like the way it began or the way it ended. She did not like my dialogue or characters or voice or plot or anything. She argued that my point of view character should be wise and was not wise at all. She did not like one single thing.” And then I laughed.

    I was younger then.

    My work still goes out. It is still rejected. Sometimes I am disappointed. Sometimes a peer or an editor gives specific, hard details about what did not appeal instead of the general “does not fit our needs” response. I always, always, always revisit after that. Even when the critique is cruel and harsh, I look again at the story to see where I can make it stronger. Sometimes I can.

    I have submitted stories dozens of times before finding a home for them. My best stories, ones that have won awards, often take the longest. But it still hurts when someone important or knowledgeable shakes their head. My certainty shatters and I become a mouse who thinks it should be enough to enjoy the process of writing. Sometimes that is all there is.

    What an amazing person you are! I need reminding sometimes that “publish” is the final step in writing. Sharing our work is a part of the process unless the writing is mere therapy.

    [And thank you for sharing your tip about thank-you notes. I was never sure if that is appropriate, and now I will consider it yet another of my process.]

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Jan I love that we are gradually getting to know each other through the comments section – thank you for so often taking the time to engage so meaningfully!

      I think famous people can also be bad critics – they may be used to running in a circle where people don’t need a boost, or they may have not given feedback in a while and they forget how much it sucks to get all negative feedback! Giving feedback is a skill, too, and it takes practice and a desire to do it well, to make sure that the writer walks away resolved to write more instead of discouraged.

      With you on the process – I’ve been submitting a lot less and focusing on finishing another book right now. I’ve also been (shhhh) questioning whether literary magazines are the right place for my work – I read a great piece by Annette Gendler about switching her focus to more mainstream media, and it really rang for me.

      http://booksbywomen.org/the-year-i-gave-up-submitting-to-literary-magazines-by-annette-gendler/

      Happy writing!

      • Jan Priddy says:

        Allison, it is always delightful to find a new essay by you or a response from you to my comment. I feel honored by the latter.

        I think “famous people” have sometimes succeeded because they have successfully pushed all doubt aside and soldiered on. They know what is true for their writing and perhaps not so well what might be true for others’.

        Writers should tell the story they want to read, and perhaps the lesson is that we should also only submit to the journals we read. I try to do that, rotating subscriptions and then submitting to the ones I enjoy best. I am ridiculously partial to journals with covers I like—probably from six years and two degrees in studio arts. (A journal published an essay of mine last month, and the cover is so awful I do not even look forward to my contributor’s copy.)

        Ten years ago my MFA advisor asked, “Who reads all these literary journals?” And I had to admit, if only to myself, that even I do not read them. I read P&W and Brevity, I read novels and nonfiction and memoir. I know what makes me impatient and what I enjoy.

        In the mean time, I write what I like.

  • Mary Fiorenza says:

    Allison, I love the story about being an acrobat. To be an acrobat, and a writer, and an editor — that seems a good life. Thank you for re-framing the risk of sending work out into the world. It’s a good question I will keep asking myself: “What do I love more?”

  • I hope to comment more coherently on this essay later, because all I can say right now is, “Wow!” Fantastic. Fantastic. No rejection from me!

  • Great post and excellent comments. So glad I came across your post so I can now follow your blog. Thank you for life-wisdom of the practical realities we all face, and should at the very least take an earnest look at. As for what one loves more … The and/and (or as I sometimes think of it as “the and, and the-and-plus-a-little”…)–it is a fabulous yardstick. Thank you!

  • I have the same thoughts on fear. After my divorce I was scared to let anyone in my box I put myself in. Finally I realized I had to over fear itself. Enjoyed this!

  • I love to write. I live to write. Yes, those punches and scratches can sting and hurt, but they also heal and scar over. The scars remind me my skin is thick, and that fear dissipates over time, and I have never given up no matter how many scars I count, or how much fear I have had to face.

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