Deep in their egomaniacal hearts, most writers like to believe they have talent. But it’s not enough to *know* you are gifted–the fact of it must be confirmed and validated by others. It’s the reason they seek publication, the reason would-be novelists and aspiring poets foist their work on their unsuspecting friends, loved ones and even perfect strangers on the Internet. “Read this” they implore, but the unspoken end to their plea is always this: “And tell me it’s great.”
People like to say “I’m writing this for myself and no one else” but if that were true, they would be perfectly content to keep their words penned up in a diary under lock and key. The truth is, we write for ourselves but others as well–half of the joy of creation comes from the knowledge that what has been wrought is also loved. Thus, every criticism is a rebuke, every rejection notice a blade to the heart. Yet this kind of pain is preferable to the soul soothing balm of deception, the well-meaning compliment uttered “to be nice”.
This past summer I entered a writing contest to finish the ending to Roger Ebert’s short story “The Thinking Molecules of Titan”. When the site began posting the “winners,” my entry was nowhere to be found. As I stared at the screen, I honestly felt depressed. Had I really written so poorly? Were my ideas really so trite, so dismissible? I had secretly flattered myself into thinking I had written the perfect ending. I had been careful to follow the threads of the original story and character development, and in “losing” I was being told that I had, in fact, gotten it all wrong.
I accepted the failure and choked down the disappointment, only to learn, weeks later, that ALL of the entries to the contests were going to be posted. We were all winners, it seems–each brimming with talent and insight. And yet…I can’t quite believe that is true. The editors of the site do not believe it either, and have unleashed the entries, four at a time, to be judged by popular vote. This, to me, is a mixed message, the oddest kind of feedback a writer can receive. “You’re a winner! We’re ALL winners! But some of us are more popular than others and have a lot of friends who will vote and therefore, are more of a winner than others.”
I almost wish the editors had had the bravery to choose their favorites. That would have been useful information to me. You always see a few unfortunate souls, puffed up by false praise and well-intentioned encouragement, auditioning on television talent competitions despite their utter lack of talent. The last thing I want to be is a writerly version of those people, suffering from some bizarre delusions of grandeur.
My ending to Ebert’s contest can be read here:
Vote for me if you’d like to, or not. After all, the best feedback a writer can get is the honest kind.