Wednesday, November 28, 2007

On The Contrary My Dear Fatso

Once I was sitting outside of a Starbucks when this incredibly fat woman came out drinking one of those giant whipped mocha caramel things that are the calorie equivalent of putting several cheesecakes in a blender. As she sipped her creamy artery grenade and headed for a van with a special door designed to handle her girth, I thought, 'She will not live long enough to drink all of that. Pathetic. There ought to be a law.'

Then two other people sitting nearby saw her walk past and turned to one another and said something along the lines of, 'Can you believe that? It's awful. Pathetic. There ought to be a law.' My next thoughts were pure reflex. 'Who are these two idiots? This is a free country, she can drink what she damn well wants. If it weren't for people like her, who would buy these specialized vans? You want a bunch of union guys to lose their jobs?'

The important thing to note here is not that I can see both sides of an issue, it's that when anyone is certain about anything I become certain about exactly the opposite thing, even if it means contradicting what I said five seconds before. It's called being a contrarian. It means you love a band or a song until everyone else does and then you think it's lame. It means you tell all your friends about a restaurant, and then when they start going you stop. It means you want everyone to agree with you right up until the moment they do, at which point they become idiots. Along with my cynicism and cheapness, it's one of the traits I hope you guys don't inherit from me. Of course that pretty much limits my potential contribution to a propensity for wearing the same clothes for weeks at a time, but I suppose I have to give you something.

I've been sending out the book chapters as I finish them to a small group of individuals, mostly to make myself feel obligated when deadlines roll around. Today one of my readers called to essentially say that reading them had been painful enough to injure her brain. She had clear and well thought out ideas about what had gone so wrong, which I will boil down for you by saying that she didn't care for the characters, story, structure, or execution. The font however, was presumably aces.

Not that I'm new to this. Remember the short story award that made me cry and earned me a free sandwich? Well, after I'd gotten the good news I continued to receive rejection notices from other places I had submitted it to for months. Most of the time a rejection slip is just a form letter, but a couple places took it upon themselves to provide feedback. One just wrote 'nonsense' on the slip and another told me in great detail why it was not just bad, but offensive. You would think, award in hand, I could just write these people off as cranks, but it doesn't work that way. You won't have to become writers (let me start pushing you towards law school right now) to know what this feels like. At some point you'll go to a party, meet ten people, hear that nine of them loved you and one thought you were an asshole, and all you'll be able to think about is that one. The words 'You Suck' have a way of sticking while 'great job' goes in one ear and out the other. Everyone will tell you that it's the other way around, but everyone will be wrong.

When this happens, you'll do exactly what I did, try to obtain overwhelming evidence in your favor. Long before I heard you two were on the way and got back to the book, the first few chapters had been circulated by my agent and met with positive feedback. Today, I suddenly wanted him to get all these people on the phone. Why did they like it? Were they sure? What did they like? Did they like me? Would they mind writing that down and swearing to it on a stack of bibles? Could I just stop by to have them pat me on the head and tell me I'm good?

But in the end, there aren't enough people in the world to convince you you're good if you don't believe it yourself, and no amount of positive feedback will restore your faith in your work if you don't have it yourself. When someone knocks you down you don't get up because a survey says that enough people think it's worthwhile. You get up because eventually we all get tired of being down.

Being a writer is the only job you just announce you have. You can't just decide you're an airline pilot or a nuclear physicist. There are rules, tests, qualifications. The only qualification for my job is access to pencils. This means that there's a lot of us who should be doing anything else. I've had jobs reading awful scripts, and if I could have gotten the authors on the phone and begged them to stop I would have. When you give someone a bad review, you don't do it to injure them, you do it to help, to save them from themselves. You're telling them it's bad. You're trying to keep them from making it worse.

But when people get bad reviews, they all tend to discover their inner contrarian. Tell a friend you hate their spouse, you practically guarantee they'll see their fiftieth anniversary. Tell them they can't sing, they'll do it louder. History is littered with people who stormed out of rooms saying 'I'll show you'. Most of them never do. I realize that putting Matt Lauer and a talking beaver in a manuscript is probably not something anyone would describe as 'wise', but I'm honestly comfortable with what I've written and what's to come. If I wasn't I wouldn't dare to put it in front of anyone. Whether that's because it's good or I'm an obstinate jerk only time will tell. What I think we can be assured of is that long after you two get here I will still be receiving rejection letters, some of which will inevitably include the word 'nonsense'.

Novel - Nonsense
Dunking - Wk7
French - nunucheries

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