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.