the ambivalence of being reviewed

Being a writer involves intense and maddening dichotomies. The work of writing requires isolation and withdrawal from the world, a retreat into obsession, both in the act of writing and in the months and years of deep imaginative work while the book takes mental shape. It is a job for an introvert. The process of publishing requires a schizoid opposite, as the work that has been nurtured in the safe, protected space of the computer (or the notebook or the typewritten page) is turned into a commodity…  The sensation of handling stacks of printed galleys of my book was at once deeply satisfying and strangely terrifying. To see the book become more than one – to see it become multiple, reproduced – that was very weird…  And then, with the reviews, comes a different experience: what was produced in seclusion had become subject to public scrutiny…  What surprised me most was how excruciating it was to be reviewed at all. It was an extension of the weirdness and ambivalence that came with seeing my book in print, for sale….

 – Kirsten Tranter, “Go, Little Book“, Overland, Summer 2014.

I read this fascinating essay by Tranter in the wake of reading a few short reviews of my book “the thin bridge“, and it seemed to make some sense of the swirl of enigmatic and contrary feelings I’d experienced. Reading reviews, I found myself scanning the page for negative words and impressions. I read implied criticism into ambiguity, a nonplussed tone into what was actually mere description. I swelled at the unambiguous praise and felt the reviewer must be insightful; they really “got it”. I read these reviews a second time, carefully, expecting both condemnation and celebration. Somewhere in my nerves, I was a genius and a fraud, and I just knew the review would uncover either or both of these truths. It’s analagous to standing naked in front of a doctor, or a mirror. Awkward, heightened, nowhere to hide. But the thing is, is there any “truth” to be found there? Doesn’t it depend on what we’re looking for?

signing the thin bridge

Hundreds of scientific studies from around the world confirm our negativity bias: while a good day has no lasting effect on the following day, a bad day carries over. We process negative data faster and more thoroughly than positive data, and they affect us longer. Socially, we invest more in avoiding a bad reputation than in building a good one. Emotionally, we go to greater lengths to avoid a bad mood than to experience a good one…  People – even babies as young as six months old – are quick to spot an angry face in a crowd, but slower to pick out a happy one; in fact, no matter how many smiles we see in that crowd, we will always spot the angry face first.

– Jacob Burak, “Outlook: Gloomy“, Aeon, 4 Sept 2014

The human mind generally – the writer’s mind, certainly – latches quickly and strongly onto anything that can possibly be considered threatening. For those of us who are physically different, this default position is even more fraught and complicated. A glance from a stranger can feel like judgement, a stare can feel personal.

How can we writers counter our negativity bias? The answer is to give up seeking the singular answer, the definitive resolution to the old question, “what am I worth?”, or “what is this writing worth?”. As Kirsten Tranter says, “for every reaction there was an equal and opposite reaction… The image of reproducibility I’d seen in those stacks of printed books, all identical, the mass of them, was a mirage. The book meant something different, lived a different life, for every reader.”  My book is even more multiple and un-pin-down-able than I am.

Writers have to keep ourselves grounded in whatever ways work for us. For me, a regular workshop with trusted friends and writers helps me recognise my blind spots, but can also re-energise my own creative compass. When I get rejections from journals, I send the poems back out somewhere else. And I also think it’s important to remind myself of my achievements (on my own terms/goals) – they’re easily forgotten or overshadowed. And all this is not at all about “positive thinking” – it’s realism, a combination of techniques aimed at ensuring that what has objectively happened is subjectively felt, and can therefore build momentum.

Above all, I want to make sure I’m investing energy not just in writing, but in life itself, in the people I love, in place and cause and spirit. And if all else fails, there’s always the sky. To gaze openly at the sky is to remind ourselves that clouds are ambiguous; weather, unpredictable and changeable. And we are part of all this.

beechworth jan 11 017

PS. Here’s the reviews so far. Feel free to look them up and see things in them I didn’t see.