It’s an overused saying, but I always seem to come back to it:
“To avoid criticism do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.”
Apparently, obscurity has its benefits. It’s only when you step into the spotlight that you risk being voted off by the judges. Don’t want to risk humiliation? Then don’t enter the competition. It’s as simple as that.
Perhaps the biblical equivalent is
Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent (Prov. 17:28 NIV)
It’s an instant IQ boost! If you really want to avoid being criticized or counted a fool, you need only… shut up.
But shutting up is a problem for us writers. Opening our mouths — at least, putting words and ideas and stories out there — is our stock in trade. Which means it’s inevitable that criticism and charges of “foolishness” will come our way. It’s true of all artistry, every attempt at craft or speech. You cannot publish a book, paint a picture, record a song, write a blog post, produce a film, or audition for a play without someone thinking it’s utter garbage and you’re an idiot for trying.
This is where courage comes in handy.
Now, I’ve never really associated courage with being a writer. Firemen need courage. Soldiers need courage. The bomb squad needs courage. But writers? We sit at a computer and create fictitious characters. How much courage do you need to do that?
Nevertheless, we writers manage to fear and fret over umpteen things:
- Can I really finish this book?
- Will anyone really care?
- Did I over-reach with this story?
- Will anyone come to my book signing?
- Do I act professional enough?
- Does this headshot make me look fat?
- Do I have a big enough platform?
- Am I too outspoken?
- Do I have to give public interviews?
- Did I really deserve a one star review?
- Do I even have a chance for a contract extension?
- Will I ever get a contract?
- Am I doomed to the backlist?
- Will I be exposed as an untalented, boring idiot?
- Is writing a novel really worth all this headache?
And on and on and on.
“The artist lives in an atmosphere of perpetual failure,” said novelist and playwright Harry Crews.
Go on, take a deep breath.
So my second novel is soon to hit the shelves. It was a grueling process that second book, full of angst and second-guessing. It’s an odd feeling knowing that readers will be soon dissecting my words, scrutinizing my characters, dissecting my prose. Will the book be liked? Will it be hated? Will it prove me to be the fool and farce I know I am?
Arthur Miller was right: “The best work that anybody ever writes is the work that is on the verge of embarrassing him, always.” I think I’m on that “verge”? But the only other option was to “do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.”
And that’s too big a risk to take.
“All one can do is to achieve nakedness,
to be what one is
with all one’s faculties and perceptions,
strengthened by all the skill which one can acquire,
And then to stand before the judgment of time.”
— Stephen Spender
That’s it. You need courage to create, to be always on “the verge of embarrassing” yourself. Courage to “be what one is,” to “achieve nakedness.” Because if you’re really called to be a writer, the biggest risk is not saying something. It’s shutting up.