Navigating the Pitfalls of Praise

Almost everyone loves praise, and nobody, including me, likes to hear anything bad about it.

There is a good reason for that. Praise builds confidence. It keeps aspiring artists from giving up on days that they feel like quitting. It steers children toward their areas of aptitude. It energizes. It uplifts.

But like many good things, praise comes with a caveat: the addictive urge to keep the praise going.

If someone tells me my novel is “brilliant,” I want my next to be brilliant too. And I immediately begin to worry that it might not be.

Who knows what “brilliant” even means?

“I know,” my ego says  “Forget about writing anything new. Just rehash the old stuff that everybody seemed to like, but with minor variations.”

“Great idea, Ego,” says my praise-addicted self. I begin to probe my memory for anything that readers seemed to enjoy in previous stories.

If everyone loved my cat stories best, I might decide to stuff a cat into every piece I write, even if it I am writing about a supernova: “Supernovas are strikingly similar to cats. Like a cat leaping onto her prey from the shadows, a supernova can pounce into the night sky without warning.”

Maybe I secretly believe a supernova is more like a ferret, a giraffe, or a platypus. But nope. Readers like cats. Must. Write. About. Cats.

Actually, I too prefer cats to platypuses, but I might change my mind someday, and what then?

I strive to always write the story I want to read, but whether I like it or not, I am influenced by past responses to my old stories. If I want my writing to be fresh and original, if I want to be honest, I have to shun my rodent urge to press levers for praise pellets.

Otherwise, I may spend my life telling stories I have told before–the popular ones—with slight variations, while all around me meteors are flying, eggs are hatching, and revolutions are brewing.

Writing is worth doing for its own sake. Even if no one ever reads my stories, there is an intrinsic high that comes from finding an apt metaphor, constructing a graceful sentence, or bringing a character to life.

Praise for writing creates a different kind of high, but it is louder and brighter.

If the intrinsic joy of writing is like an apple, praise is more like cotton candy. The sugar rush of a glowing review can wash out the more complex sweetness the apple—the slow-burning reward of simply writing.

So, if getting good book reviews ever becomes the main reason why I write, I am in trouble.

Albert Einstein dealt with a similar problem. He said, “The only way to avoid the personal corruption of praise is to go on working. One is tempted to stop and listen to it. The only thing is to turn away and go on working. Work. There is nothing else.”

Although I already write every day, I think Einstein was onto something. Immersing myself in “the work” of writing alleviates self-conscious worries, especially on my best days as I dive deep and lose myself in the flow of a story.

But there is another aspect of praise that interests me, perhaps because I have bipolar disorder: praise as an emotional elevator.

When I was a college freshman, I had an English teacher who showered my essays with compliments, telling me that I was the best writer she knew. I was not sure how many writers she knew, but her encouragement sent my mood into orbit. Yet I also became anxious. At some point I was bound to write something awful. What if I disappointed her?

I was already a careful writer. I became even more careful. Because I was uncomfortable writing in class, I would go home on the day the topic was assigned, write my essay with painstaking care, and turn it in. I made a good grade in the class and left the semester charged with creative aspirations.

Two years later I took a course under the same teacher, but the rules had changed. I now had to write every essay in class under a strict time limit without knowing beforehand what the topic would be. Thus, I was unable to give my writing the painstaking attention that I had before.

After my teacher handed back one of my test booklets, she said, “Your writing isn’t as good as I remembered it. You must be out of practice.”

The criticism left me too stunned to even explain. And it stung all the more  because of all the praise that had preceded it. Not only did I feel like a bad writer; I felt like I had let my teacher down.

Only later did I reflect that the deeper “mistake” had happened much earlier. When my teacher had raved over my work, I had stepped onto an emotional elevator. Its doors had slid closed when I agreed to allow her compliments to affect the way I felt about myself.

That had been perfectly fine as long as the elevator was going up. I had forgotten a crucial fact: elevators also go down.

They all do. If they never went down they could never go up. But because we as a society prefer up to down, we call the machine an “elevator” and not a “descender.”

To stay off the “machine,” I could have simply smiled and thanked my teacher for the compliment, and then went about my day; instead, I integrated her praise too deeply. If I had stayed off the descender that I had thought was only an elevator, the jab of criticism would have landed softer, and my memory of my 101 English composition class would have remained a good one.

Artists are always boarding these kinds of elevators. Someone encourages them and they plug their self-esteem into an emotional vehicle that appears to be rocketing toward the moon. Then the machinery lurches beyond their control in a mad plunge into the seething bowels of hell. The change in venue is jarring.

If a mere compliment can propel a mood toward the stars, it is easy to imagine what fame might do. The higher you go, the farther you have to fall. The more you believe you have to lose, the greater the anxiety must be.  

Many famous artists self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, which become anchors of stability amid the lurching contraption of public opinion.

But public opinion is the wrong place to look for good feelings. Fulfillment lies in the “work” of writing, which in art often feels more like play.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying praise. But if I cling to it, or seek it as an external reward for something I already love doing, I risk becoming lost and confused as my love for writing takes second place to an imaginary need for approval.

One way of nurturing my love for writing is by doing writing exercises that only I am likely to ever see such as: “Describe a mountain from the point of view of a man who has just escaped from prison” or “Write an action scene in which the sentence rhythm matches the pace of the action.”

Such exercises allow me to make mistakes unselfconsciously. They let me forget everything I know and become a beginner again, which is how I learn best.

Even knowing that what goes up must also come down, I suspect that someday I will be tempted to dash, once again, into an emotional elevator for a fun, effortless ride toward the moon.

But I hope I will do the sensible thing, and instead of diving headlong through the sliding, doors, I will smile and wave and thank it for the offer—then turn, run like mad, and take the stairs.