ON PRAISE AND LONELINESS
6th October 2023
The desire for praise sinks its claws into us early. Swinging upside down on the monkey bars we squeal: Look! Look at me! With maturity, the squeals become less shrill (unbridled neediness can be off-putting) but make no mistake, the craving for praise is always lurking. Writers suffer particularly, because of the long and solitary nature of their work.
Writing a novel is akin to being a master cabinetmaker. There is an intention to craft something like a beautiful chest, with dovetail joints and secret compartments, drawers that glide open and close soundlessly. The wood is selected with care; the finish is perfected. But after years of painstaking labour, unlike the cabinetmaker, what you have is a useless, unwieldy object. You cannot even store your pens and notebooks in it, and only publishing will make it solid. It is the long process, its loneliness, that tempts a writer to show work-in-progress to a reader. But it is a dangerous transaction, fraught with the possibility of permanent hurt on both sides. Ideally, the reader will be as skilled as the writer, for a poorly tuned response to a novel in its vulnerable, half-realised state can damage that fragile belief the writer must maintain to bring the novel home.
Empty praise can be as damaging as uninformed criticism. And yet we crave feedback. For feedback, in most cases read praise. A few warm words can brighten the day, yet they do not erase self-doubt, nor should they. Without that worm of dissatisfaction, I for one would not keep questioning the work, and I have never met or heard of a good writer who is easily pleased.
Without a completed first draft, asking advice, even of other writers, is premature. Writers' workshops are meant to shore up participants against loneliness, but I always think of the old saying about a camel being a horse drawn by a committee. Creating is a personal battle. Ideas germinate in the unconscious mind, and much of the writing emerges from the same place; no outsider can guide this process. Editing is a different matter and an important one, but it comes much later.
Virginia Woolf often wrote in her diary of wrestling with the need for praise. “What is the use of saying one is indifferent to reviews, when positive praise, though mingled with blame, gives one such a start on, that instead of feeling dried up, one feels, on the contrary, flooded with ideas?” It is this 'start on' that turns most of us into praise junkies.
Writers are permanently being primed with hype: words like best-seller, film rights, two-book deal, anything to do with The New York Times. We come to believe in these as goals, but they are not the reason I started writing, not the reason I have devoted years to it. The trouble is that the desire for the work to become solid, the drive to publish, makes writers dependent on the approval of a handful of people: the agent, the publisher, the acquisitions meeting, the sales department. Second-guessing them, pleasing them, can alter what you write.
So what if one were able to subdue the desire for praise, and took a Zen approach to the need to be read. We are conditioned to believe that novels are somehow completed by the reader, but maybe it doesn't have to be right now, this week, this month, or even this year. When I pick up a book by William Hazlitt or Virginia Woolf, time and geography and death disappear: they are alive, and talking to me.
There is a simple sum that puts all of us who write in a difficult spot: unless a publisher believes a book will sell, it will not be published. But here is the question that nags at me: what would we write if we had no one we wished to please, if there was no possibility of a sale? It would be a fascinating experiment, even if only for six months or a year, to stare down all thoughts of praise and approval and settle instead for perfecting the dovetail joints, the seamless inlay. Embrace the loneliness for what it is, an essential component of the creative process. I would dearly love to hear William Hazlitt's thoughts on this. I think I can guess what Virginia Woolf would say.