Deafening Silence

I gave an early draft of my first ever manuscript for a novel to my then girlfriend to read. She’d asked to read it; was quite enthusiastic about reading it, in fact. But when she brought it back to me a few days later, she told me that she was breaking up with me. Her reason: she felt that I could never love her as much as I clearly loved the girl in the story.

I took that as a win.

Not that I had wanted to break up with her. Far from it. Nor did I imagine that the girl in the story would suddenly spring to life and we would live happily ever after in a fictional world. That simply couldn’t happen because she was a composite character, based on two different girls that I had known and would almost certainly never see again, plus a photograph I’d clipped from a magazine, and a whole lot of other stuff that I’d just, made up. I mean, that’s the whole point of writing fiction, isn’t it?  You get to create an ideal world and populate it with your own, ideal characters. Even their flaws are perfect because you have expressly created them. They are perfectly flawed. Your characters’ flaws have a raison d’etre, unlike your friends and family whose flaws often seem random and senseless and quite frankly, a pain in the ass. But in fiction, the frog can turn into a prince, and he and the princess can live happily ever after, if that’s what you want them to do. Or he can be knocked down by a giant cockroach riding a Vespa and spend the rest of his life in a clinically induced coma on the hospital planet of Shaktar. It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.

So, that’s why I write fiction. It’s a sort of helpless and generally harmless form of megalomania. But why do I publish?

The obvious answer to that is because I want feedback. And why do I want feedback? Well, yes, when people say nice things about the stuff I’ve written I feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I’m only human. But there really is another side to it: I want to be a better writer; and the only way I can do that is to understand what I’m doing well and what I’m doing not so well (or badly, if you really want to put the boot in). I used to say to my son, when he was still young enough to want to listen to me, that compliments make you feel good and motivate you to keep going, but it’s criticism that makes you grow stronger and be better at what you’re doing. Of course, it’s easy to say those things when you’re not the one being criticised. But I do feel that criticism is the most important part of improvement. So, I publish hoping for compliments but also being prepared to accept criticism. But what confuses me is silence.

My mother used to tell me: If you can’t say something nice about a person, don’t say anything at all. You’ve probably heard that too. I’m sure she learned it in Mothering 101. My mother was pre-computer; pre-Internet; pre-Social Media; and yet, although she is no longer with us, the advice she gave seems designed specifically for the age in which we now live because, in Social Media etiquette, apparently silence is the most prevalent form of criticism. Where you really want to say: “This piece you have written, (or photograph you have taken, or song you have recorded), is so bad, so poorly conceived and executed, so utterly uninteresting to me, that it is not worthy of comment. So there!” what you actually express is: deafening silence.

The problem is that the deafening silence could also be attributed to:

a)      I’ve been away on holiday (lucky me) and had no time to check your site;

b)      I’ve been snowed under with work this month; busy, busy, busy;

c)      I’ve been too sick to even think about logging on;

d)      Exams !!!!!

e)      I just need a break;

f)        I’ve got a new girlfriend/boyfriend/car/boat or other distraction;

g)      I died on Monday, unexpectedly;

h)      My computer died on Monday, unexpectedly;

i)        I won the lottery and don’t have to do this anymore;

j)        I decided to get a life.

And it’s that uncertainty, that inscrutability of the silence that troubles me. Does the silence represent an opinion, or an absence of opinion? And if it is the former, do people really hate my writing that much? And if that is so, why?

Just recently, I enrolled in an online Creative Writing course because I really do want to become a better writer; and in response to the first assignment I submitted, the tutor pointed out a weakness in my writing style. I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t crestfallen. My immediate reaction was: “Good! Now, I’m getting somewhere.” And I expected to begin a dialogue with the tutor as a result of which my shortcomings would be addressed, my style would be reshaped and the writing I produced from that point onwards would be sharper, more lucid and more powerful than before. But unfortunately, the only advice I was given was to “Google” my problem to find a solution. Having worked in IT for 30 years, I’m familiar with the business model: “build one, sell many” but the course was not cheap and I had expected more for my fees than a piece of trenchant criticism followed by deafening silence.

So where does that leave me? Well, I still like writing. I like the act of writing, of seeing the words appear on the page as I write them, or on the screen as I type them (as I am doing now) and wondering where they have come from. Sometimes, they seem to appear magically, from nowhere; at least, nowhere that I’m conscious of. This is my favourite part of writing. But I also like the crafting, the shaping of the initial draft, smoothing out the rough parts, polishing the words, making the piece shine (at least to the best of my ability). That part satisfies a different need. And I do like it when people write back to me and tell me that they liked the piece; and even more especially, when they tell me what they particularly liked about it. Of course, that’s partly vanity; but it’s also the notion that I have connected with someone, that I have provoked a reaction from them; that I have given them something, however small or inconsequential, that even just for the briefest of moments, they have valued enough to respond to.

Yet, there are times when I feel like giving up. Not the writing part. I don’t think I could ever give that up. But the publishing part. But not yet. Not while there remains the possibility of making that connection with another spirit, out there, in cyberspace.

They say that, in space, no one can hear you scream. I’ll settle for the occasional whisper.

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4 thoughts on “Deafening Silence

  1. [Whisper.]

    A wise friend once told me that the opposite of love isn’t hate — it’s indifference. I think of that every time I post something and get only deafening silence. Sometimes the loneliness and sense of futility are such that I’m tempted to quit blogging.

    But eventually I remember that I’m not writing for other people, or for approval, or even to improve my skills. I’m writing for the sheer joy of it … because it makes me *happy*. And I suspect that’s why you write, too.

    For the record, I love your writing. I love your style, your characters, and your stories. And I especially love that you’re always seeking to grow.

    I offer meager qualifications as a fiction editor, but if you ever want to send me a draft of something you’re working on, I’ll gladly offer my thoughts. I’ll promise to be honest — if you’ll promise to consider the source.

    PS: I died on Monday, unexpectedly. But I got better. Ha.

    • [Twist and Shout]

      Your comment; this is why I write; this contact with another living being; this connection with another spirit; this earth, this realm, this England! No, that’s wrong. This is why I publish. You see, for me, writing and publishing are two different decisions with two different objectives. No, that’s not completely accurate either. Writing is not a decision I make. As you suggested, it’s something that I am driven to do. An idea comes and I start writing. If I have pen and paper handy, or a computer, I use them. If not, I write in my head and hope to blazes that I can remember what I have written when I am in a position to make a record of it. I write, as you said, because it makes me happy; gives me a sense of accomplishment or achievement or something like that. But the point is that the reward is immediate; and if I’m not being rewarded, if the writing isn’t working, or it falls in a hole, or it runs out of steam, I stop. I am not writing on contract, I’m not writing to a deadline, I’m just writing; like I’m just breathing.
      But publishing is a whole different kettle of fish.
      Unlike the writing itself, publishing carries with it expectations; and doubts. Is what I’ve written as good as I think it is? Obviously, I withhold from publication the pieces that I don’t feel are good enough to be shared; but in so far as the published pieces are concerned, I have expectations for them. Will they be well received? Do they get the message across? Do they entertain, or provoke, or enrage, or whatever the subject matter did to me to cause me to write about it in the first place? But there is a deeper reason for publishing; one with an imperative that rivals my need to write. I need to know that I am not alone.
      In my flesh and blood circle, for want of a less-gory distinction between them and my ethereal cyberbuddies, there are few people who look at my photographs and there is no one who reads what I write. In fact, most of them are quietly appalled at the way I fritter my time away taking photographs and writing when I could be using it to do something productive. So cyberspace is my refuge. And yet with all its billions of inhabitants, the silence is sometimes deafening.
      Today was a good day. I not only received your welcome comment but also one from a Flickr contact in Spain on my previous post; and the joy these epistles brought is something that I, with my supposed skill with words, struggle to express. It is the reassurance that I am not alone; that there is at least one other person in the universe who knows who I am; who I really am; and that’s what makes it worthwhile. That’s why I choose to publish.

      [PS] your PS gave me another idea for a story

  2. Okay, we must be connected somehow, because you’ve just written about the niggling guilt I have about not commenting upon your piece, Va pensiero.

    If one doesn’t have something nice to day, one shouldn’t say anything at all. And that’s something I try to follow. But it can be less than constructive. I’m not sure if I know enough to be constructive, and that insecurity lets me avoid the situation.

    Back at flickr, I won’t be the one to suggest this, or that. I’ll try to find something in that person’s image that I think is well done, and comment upon that.

    Or if I really do have a constructive suggestion, I’ll send the person an email. And so, be on the look out for an email from me. I won’t try to put hopefully constructive comments about va pensiero here in a blog.

    • I look forward to your constructive criticism, John. I suppose that, since I publish in the public arena, I should be prepared to be criticised in the public arena. After all, as Nietzsche pointed out: “What does not destroy me, only makes me stronger.” But only a very few people (and I am not one of them) actually crave humiliation so I appreciate your discretion. And a comment is a comment is a comment, regardless of whether it is made publicly or privately. The medium may be the message but only insofar as it reveals something about the person who chose to use that medium. (Sorry MM).

      In the end, however, it’s all just a game. And I do often feel moved by the things that people say to me. I’m flattered by the compliments that do come my way from time to time. But I am really moved by the realisation that what I have written, or the image I have created, has connected with someone. That, for me, the pinnacle of achievement. Being recognised for what one has created is gratifying; but being accepted into someone’s heart is bliss.

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