Over the years I’ve had comments directed at me that have been less than supportive. What surprised me wasn’t the comments themselves, I’m sure most of us can think of at least one unhelpful remark that has come our way, but from whose mouths they were uttered.
‘You’re never going to really make it big as a writer, are you?’ was dropped into a conversation about tax, from a lovely (mostly!) friend of decades standing. And, in response to a remark I made about deciding to attend a poetry class, a close family member dismissed it in a moment with, ‘Oh, nobody reads poetry!’.
Before, I would have considered myself fairly thick-skinned and protected by a nascent self-belief confirmed by a little encouragement, not least by the wonderful editors of this very magazine, but these two observations floored me. They came from people I’d always thought to be on my side; they hurt and left me smarting. But at least they were private hurts and not in public from some anonymous naysayer, and because they were said to my face, I had the option to respond in some way that might help me continue with a relationship that I’d rather not disrupt.
I’ve written before on self-belief and how confidence in our own creativity can be a fragile beast. Likewise, we can be knocked sideways by thoughtless criticisms made in a trusted environment such as a workshop, a critiquing group, or perhaps someone has disagreed about a book or author that we hold dear. Negativities like these are an uncomfortable part of life and experience tells us that, if we create something for public consumption, at some point we’re going to have to deal with those who might simply dislike what we’ve made.
General advice is to consider if the opinion is from someone whose judgements we respect and, based upon that decision, either shrug it off, or even if it could have been framed more positively, bite the bullet and take it from there. The ‘you’re never going to make it big’ comment, I accepted as a clumsy, but realistic, observation that I probably would never need to worry about making a VAT return, but ‘nobody reads poetry’ I knew to mean ‘I don’t read poetry’. Even though it felt like a slap in the face with a wet fish, I knew it was a fallacious remark, so decided to ignore it.
However, sometimes lack of support comes in a form that’s far more destructive. There’s been much in the news about Twitter trolls and Facebook hatchet jobs. There have always been gainsayers and arguments in the public eye — witness the two Hitchens brothers — but the venom and murderous aggression, combined with the uncontained numbers that join in these brutal internet attacks, has left victims reeling. Depression, trauma, social withdrawal, and occasionally far worse, have all been reported as a result.
We could be forgiven for deciding any creative self-esteem we may have acquired along the way shouldn’t be volunteered as target practice for those who don’t care diddly-squat about us or our hypersensitive, umbrageous feelings. Plus, I don’t know about you, but when I was at school too many years ago to think about, we were firmly squashed as soon as we tried to blow our own trumpet. It’s very tempting to keep our heads down and let others find their own way to our door.
Except they don’t. It seems that blurting about ourselves and our opinions is pretty much required behaviour if you want to progress and build a career as a writer, and the way we’re encouraged to do this is by embracing social media. Yet, all that baggage and childhood training makes having a digital presence online feel quite uncomfortable.
And then, not content with a bit of self-promotion, we’re told that posting and tweeting may not be enough. We’re expected to write a blog too. In addition we must read other posts, tweets and blogs, and add intelligent comments to show that we have …as well as absorb the journals we subscribe to, the poetry pamphlets bought at readings, books recommended by friends, or those prescribed by our book group, must-have books on the Booker, Costa and Orange Prize lists. And we’re expected to build a ‘shelf’ of reviewed books so that we can share our opinions with all these other time-poor writers and readers out there in the mega-sphere. It’s exhausting, and given all this public over-sharing, it’s not surprising that occasionally we slip up and drop something that injures someone’s toes on the way. I made an innocent comment when I was new to Facebook some years ago, and the relatively small number of furious ‘shouts’ I received was enough to keep me off Facebook for months.
When I was advised that, as a writer, I really needed a more public platform and couldn’t do without Twitter, I approached it with all the enthusiasm of a sparrow being told the only way to the tastiest morsels was through a cat flap. Remember Jeanette Winterson and Bunnygate? I really didn’t (still don’t) want to become a tasty morsel myself.
I envy my daughters. Aged 30 and 27, they grew up on the cusp of the internet. They had all the advantages (my opinion!) of an almost internet-free childhood, but came to the digital world early enough to be totally savvy and unfazed in their use of social media way beyond Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Google+, Flickr and Twitter. In effect, they are bi-lingual.
I definitely struggle with another language; my French and German is pedestrian to say the least, but it doesn’t matter because I don’t have to use it much, and when I do make mistakes, I make my howlers in front of a very limited audience. Putting your profile out there feels very exposing, you have to take your baby steps in full view; there’s no way to practice in privacy.
It took me a while, but I leapt into Twitter a few years ago with Daughter No. 2 as my Technical Support. The person who said that I couldn’t do without Twitter was almost right; it is perfect for writers. I surprised myself and have taken to it as the proverbial duck…I splashed about within its waters, come back onto dry land for a while to take stock and read Twitter for Writers by Rayne Hall (excellent at the time although probably superseded by now), then jumped right back in again.
To my surprise, I discovered that it doesn’t take up too much of my writing time. Twitter is immediate and a great place to connect with writing buddies, contact those we admire, discover new homes for our submissions, find solutions to problems, promote our writing and to have a laugh. Sometimes we even find a fan.
Of course, media of all sorts has the capability to be a force for good or destruction, and it can be incredibly powerful in the right, or wrong, hands. I can’t guarantee that I’ll never again attract censure, but I’ve learned not to be so afraid of being blind-sided by taking control of my output. Having been on the end of some comparatively gentle, but still painful and anonymous criticism, I’ve made ‘generosity of spirit’ my watchword. I might be playing it safe, but I’m in no hurry to be a sparrow for the big cats lurking out there in the long grass.
In my short Twitter life, I’ve found it to be enriching, useful and frequently fun. I like sharing the good things, and I’m working on making it more a part of my writing life. I’d love you to join me, especially if anyone is still a Twitter novice and wants to make the journey with me, or perhaps you’re ahead of me and are happy to be a guide. Do drop by, say hello, and please mention we’ve met through my website.
This article first appeared in Brittle Star Magazine
You can follow me on Twitter @Sarahsarie, and Brittle Star on @Brittlestarmag