Bad Advice Wednesday: Learn to Take a Punch

categories: Cocktail Hour


                 Writers are sensitive.  If they weren’t they wouldn’t be writers. 

                 I mean the good kind of sensitive here, not sensitive/touchy but sensitive/aware of certain currents that most people aren’t.   The trouble is that in most people the good kind and bad kind of sensitive are all mixed up.  And the reason that is trouble is that most writers, with very few exceptions, will stop writing unless they learn to be tough as well as sensitive.  Or as Hawthorne put it:

                It is requisite for the ideal artist to possess a force of character that seems hardly compatible with its delicacy; he must keep faith in himself while the incredulous world assails him with its utter disbelief; he must stand up against mankind and be his own sole disciple, both as respects his genius and the objects to which it is directed.   

                Which is a long way of saying that writers need to learn how to take a punch.

                What kind of punch?  Lots of kinds it turns out.  The sleeper punch (years of non-publication), the belly punch (first rejections), the series of rabbit punches (workshop responses), the blow to the head (close to publication but rejection from an editor one has grown close to), the wild hooks (bad review), the battering punches of post-publication (worries about sales, attention, general failure), and the knockout blow (the doors of publication feeling like they have closed shut forever).             

                It may be that people in other professions endure similar beatings.  I don’t know; I didn’t choose another profession.  But I do know that how we respond to these blows determines, for all but the very luckiest writers, what I will call, without overstatement I think, our fate.  And it’s more complicated than the fact that to keep writing we need to keep going.  Toughness isn’t only endurance.  It is enduring in a way that we believe in, “as respects his genius”.    One thing I have noticed in myself and others is the temptation of moving, in a kind of Darwinian adaptation, toward writing that we know will be accepted.  “Accepted” can mean being praised in a workshop or getting published or many other things.  Which is fine if that is also the writing that you feel you should be doing.  Not so fine if it comes out of cowardly retreat in the hope of approbation.      

                So that’s toughness too.  A kind of complicated, sensitive toughness.  The question is: how to endure, in one’s own particular way, in the face of the incredulous world?  And to that question we all come up with our own answers.

P.S. I guess there is a kind of irony in my offering this Bad Advice a couple of days after I responded defensively to a critic.  But maybe that’s Bad Advice for another day:

                The counter punch.

  1. Rachael Hanel writes:

    One thing that has helped me wade through the punches is to see the personal and the writing as separate. This is sometimes difficult because I write memoir. But when my writing was rejected by agents and editors (notice I said “my writing” and not “I”), I tried to see it from the craft/business/marketing angle. Rejections may have a good point and we can learn something from them.

  2. Alise writes:

    “The trouble is that in most people the good kind and bad kind of sensitive are all mixed up..”

    This. One thousand times this.

  3. john lane writes:

    “The Vale of Soul-Making.”

  4. Debora writes:

    Dave, you’re such a beautiful writer–perceptive and right-on-articulate. Your phrase “sensitive/aware of certain currents that most people aren’t” clarifies my experiences exactly. If only my counter punch carried the speed and necessary oomph that say, Serena showed us on the court the other day…

    As it is, I need to suit up and head over to the Lupine trail for a good long mountain bike ride. It seems my “awareness of certain currents” caused me to buy a pair of size 27 Toothpick Jeans from this really sweet and helpful guy at J. Crew. He was so sure he had selected the correct size for me and so pleased that the fit was exactly as it should be–the rule of thumb being, as long as you can zip them (and he clapped his hands when I did)–that I didn’t have the heart to even suggest that I try the 28’s. As a consequence of this and the fact that I live three hours from Denver and the nearest J. Crew, I am now required to complete a grueling climb up the mountain three times a week, so that I don’t have to stuff myself into my pants. Believe me, the pain of that is as sharp and lingering as those rejection notes.

    The good news is that while I ride, I can sort out the kinks in the essay I’m writing. I guess my J. Crew guy was right that those 27’s were going to do me some good. And I suppose if I don’t end up with a great essay, I can counter punch by having a great ass–which is at least good for arousing a bit of attention on a Friday night. It’s shameful, I know, but a little insouciance, shaky as it might be, helps me walk across the room while I endure the lack of notice for what I consider to be a fairly good set of writing brains.

    Anyway, I really loved your Bad Advice, all the way through.

    • Dave writes:

      I am very jealous that yout get to work through your essay biking up Colorado mountains while I figure mine out biking through Carolina swamps. But I greatly appreciate the kind words!

      • Debora writes:

        Oh, how very interesting–a man of many words, a man of many miles, a man of many mosquito bites. I am very jealous of that terrific counter punch to the Mr. I. review. Keen, clean writing. I would have simply cried. But I’m practicing my counter punch–and jump roping, eating raw eggs…

        • Tommy writes:

          Debora, I am admiring your ass (and not your prose) from across the room. Dave, on the other hand, is admiring your full-suspension, disc brake bicycle. But brains? Brains are the sexiest part of the anatomy!