Years ago, I shattered a stubborn case of block by deciding not to heed writing advice anymore.
The trick to ignoring the “authorities” was to pretend I was ten — a time before I had learned to stutter out dry, self-conscious prose for teachers. I had never blocked as a child when I was penning exuberant stories featuring my dog as the hero. For a while I had fun flouting every rule I knew. I could now be silly, trite, or sentimental if I felt like it.
My new attitude quieted the voice of criticism inside me, and playfulness nudged its way back into my art.
But my epiphany only carried me so far. Right after I shared my writing, my inner demons would break out of their cage and howl. Why did you have to complain so much? Did you have to reveal so much about yourself? No one has responded yet. Something is wrong! You should worry deeply about this! Deeply, I say!
Writing was one thing; sharing was another. What was safe to say in private seemed risky to say in public.
I kept sharing my writing anyway. Freed from block, I published two more novels and three anthologies of short stories.
But my anxiety about sharing never went away. After letting my work go, my dread of criticism always rebounded. I would doubt my choices and sink into insecurity.
It was maddening. I needed a psychiatrist. Brain surgery. Electro-shock therapy. A fairy godmother.
The internet seemed to offer simpler solace. Google was teeming with self-help articles that instructed readers how to stop caring what others think of them, so that they could become their “fully realized, authentic selves.”
Although these articles were not directly related to writing, they seemed to apply to my problem, since I identified myself so much with my writing; in my mind my writing was me.
If you Google “Stop caring what people think of you,” a plethora of articles and self-help book ads will pop into view. I scoured through a number of them.
I gave particular attention to an article called “Taming the Mammoth: Why You Should Stop Caring What People Think” by Tim Urban.
Urban says there was a point in human evolutionary history, during the heyday of the wooly mammoth, when caring what others thought of you was an essential survival skill; if no one liked you, other tribe members would banish you from the tribe to die alone in the wilderness. The unpopular members who were allowed to stay failed to leave offspring.
The author argues that the antiquated brain is at fault because survival no longer depends upon anyone liking you, so caring what others think should have gone extinct with the wooly mammoth. He says that in the modern world, fears of rejection just keep you from getting what you want; he calls pleasers “cowards” for hiding who they really are. Urban draws cartoons featuring an insecure mammoth as a symbol of ancient fears that are no longer useful.
Urban encourages his audience to honor their “authentic voice” instead of trying to impress or please; besides, he adds, people will like you more anyway if you insist upon being yourself, and even if some people still dislike you, that’s okay, because sooner or later everyone whose good opinion you seek is just going to die anyway.
The final argument especially intrigued me.
Using my inevitable demise as a source of social freedom sounded exciting, but I wondered about the wisdom of forming a philosophy based on what will happen after you die. It seemed like a slippery slope to nihilism. Was I willing to accept the belief that nothing temporary matters just so I could feel less anxiety about sharing a blog post?
There was another point Urban made that troubled me, which was that, once you stop caring whether people like you, they are bound to like you more. He claims that people will be irresistibly charmed by your honest authenticity.
True or not, my problem with this tip is that it summons the very motivation — to be liked — that the author urges the reader to avoid indulging. It is as if he is saying, “Here is how to become someone you should not want to be.”
If I try to stop caring what people think of me mainly because I want people to like me, then I have already failed.
I also questioned the main premise of the author – his belief that the brain is acting on antiquated genetic instructions when it induces fears of what others think about us.
All it takes is a glance at the news to see that those fears are still warranted. Not everyone in the world lives in a healthy democracy where speaking your mind is safe. Even in the United States, freedom of speech is eroding. Here – and in many other parts of the world — “being authentic” really can get you killed. Brutal dictators execute critics. Thuggish bigots issue death threats to those who disagree with them, and sometimes they carry them out.
Amusing as it may be to think that our silly primal brains are misleading us, at the very least, workers can lose their incomes for what they say and how they act.
That is one reason writing or speaking honestly even when you know many people will strongly object is courageous. The risk is real.
The “stupid brain that needs to get with the times” argument shows up repeatedly in self-help literature, but it needs more critical examination.
My final problem with “Taming the Mammoth” is that the author argues that you “should” not care what others think.
Whenever a writer pairs the word “should” with any emotion, I bristle. Does anyone ever feel anything genuinely because someone shames them into feeling it? Does love, hate, or sadness ever arise from moral obligation?
I never feel the way I should. I have felt sad on some of my birthdays and impatient rather than cheerful at weddings. Once I even felt grumpy at Disney World. On that July day, a parade stranded me in the sweltering heat with no shade in sight.
A costumed Mickey Mouse was waving at the crowd and dancing joyously. Sweat was pouring down my back as the trumpets shattered my eardrums. Everyone was cheering and confetti was falling as the sun slowly incinerated my face. I had never hated anyone more than I hated Mickey Mouse that day. If any of the gift shops had giant mouse traps, I would have given the shirt on my back and all the money in my purse to procure one.
My emotions have their own inscrutable rules. I am unable to adopt new traits. I can only strengthen or weaken the ones that exist in me already.
That was the knowledge that actually gave me hope.
On one particularly rough day in which one of my favorite stories had gotten a lukewarm response from a friend, I was sitting in a fast food restaurant feeling melancholy and watching the sun begin to set through the glass walls.
The sun warmed my face and glanced off the tables. Everything around me looked luminous. Seemingly out of nowhere, I thought, I feel happy. All my worries had vanished, and for no apparent reason except for sunlight coming through a wall.
After that day, I began to notice that even on days I published my writing, there were already many moments in which what people thought of me was the last thing on my mind.
During those times, not fearing criticism was not some far-off inconceivable enlightenment. It was a reality, and one I already experienced most of the time.
It was only immediately after sharing my writing that my whole life seemed to hinge on its positive reception. But that was not a problem of caring what others thought; it was my difficulty in seeing beyond the moment.
On my normal days, I needed to pay attention to all the moments when I was already not worried, the times I felt content for no good reason. I needed to zoom in on those moments, until they filled the entire screen of my imagination.
My belief that I had to stop caring what anyone thought had only made me more self-conscious. I had ended up dwelling on my fears, augmenting them instead of simply letting them disappear on their own.
As long as I care about my writing, I will always feel some anxiety over sharing it. I will probably always enjoy praise and dislike criticism. And maybe after I publish anything, I will always feel tense and crave a glowing response.
But I love writing too much to depend upon praise as a condition for sharing it, even if sharing hurts sometimes.
Albert Einstein said, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”
If I keep my writing in the harbor of my desk drawer, it can never do what I built it for, which is to reach out to others. And if I know no one is ever going to see my work, I am less motivated to get it just right. Sharing my writing makes me a better writer.
If I want to hide my writing, I can keep a diary. But ultimately I want to communicate. Writing is the reward of writing. But sharing is a big reward of finishing.
No matter the response.