I’ve always believed that art does not exist inside a vacuum. It’s a conversation, a dialogue between the artist, her subject, and her audience. We write for many reasons, but for those of us who write things that other people will read, our audience is a vibrant and vital part of the equation. They’re the ones who dream, engage, and experience right along with us. And if we’re lucky, they talk back.
So far in our Walk the Walk series we’ve discussed taking ourselves seriously and being a friend. Today I want to open up the conversation about interacting with our readers. Beginning with learning how to take a compliment well.
If you’re going to publish a book, I guarantee you there will be praise. True, there will be people who hate your book and think it’s crap (and post horrible reviews that make you want to crawl in a corner and die--more on that next time), but there will also be people who LOVE your book. They’ll buy it for their friends, display it prominently on their bookshelf, and reread favorite passages just to savor them again and again. That’s a bit of a surreal thought, isn’t it? Exciting, unbelievable, maybe a bit overwhelming...
I grew up in the Midwest--the Heartland if you want to be poetic about it--and chances are, just admitting this helps you paint a clearer picture in your mind of who I am and what I'm like. We have a reputation after all. And though your definition of midwesterner might vary a bit, it seems there are some things that are commonly accepted about those of us who grew up in the center of America. We’re polite, hardworking, down to earth. Hospitable, determined, salt of the earth. We also don’t put much stock in fad or fame, and if you develop a big head about pretty much anything, we’ll pop that balloon faster than you can say: “Hey, look at me!” Since teamwork is prized, individuality can sometimes be stifled. And though I could write volumes on the validity (and flawed logic) of this particular ideology, I just want to use it as a launch pad to tell you a story.
Shortly after my first book was published, I traveled to Orlando, Florida where I attended ICRS, a giant retail show that featured concerts, booksignings, and swarms of industry professionals. It was a blast, but I had a hard time accepting that I was there as an author instead of a pie-eyed attendee. In fact, when a friend of a friend introduced me to a woman who actually knew who I was and had read my book, an awkward conversation ensued.
Her: “I’ve read your debut. It’s absolutely beautiful.”
Me (cringing): “Oh, there are so many things about it that I’d change now. I can hardly read it because I see so many mistakes.”
Her (smiling a little): “Well, I loved it.”
Me: “I think it’s kind of plotless. It’s really character-driven and I’m not sure that everyone likes or understands that.”
Her (looking rather taken aback): “I like character-driven books.”
Me: “I wish more people did...”
Ugh. Don’t you just cringe? Talk about self-destructing. Sadly, I had more conversations like this. Why? Because I felt like a giant me-monster if I accepted a compliment about my book without deflecting it somehow. Even if I just said, “Thanks,” my head translated that simple word to be: “Yes, I think I’m awesome. I think my book is God’s gift to the world. Adore me.” Now, I realize that my roots and my personality predispose me to struggle in the face of a compliment, but I’m not the only author who doesn’t know how to respond to praise and attention. (We are writers, after all. A certain level of awkwardness and introversion is kind of a given.)
Let me tell you another story. At the very same retail show, some guy--a perfect stranger--slipped his arm around my waist and said, “Hey, do you like so-and-so (name withheld)?” I didn’t even have a chance to nod or demure before he swept me around and introduced me to a famous author in whose presence I was clearly supposed to swoon. Another short, awkward conversation ensued during which the famous author never once looked me in the eye or asked me anything about myself. Instead, I was treated to what sounded like a memorized, self-promotional monologue that left a bad taste in my mouth. I walked away vowing to never be so arrogant as to assume that my time and attention were a precious gift to be bestowed on lesser devotees.
But now we have a problem. We don’t want to be crotchety and snappish, but nobody likes a diva. Obviously, both extremes are problematic: so what are we supposed to do in the face of praise?
I actually think accepting a compliment gracefully is easier than we may imagine, because it's not really about us--it's about our books.
Remember the first paragraph of this blog post? If art is a conversation, instead of accepting or rejecting praise, let’s engage it.
Her: “I’ve read your debut. It’s absolutely beautiful.”
What I should have said: “Thank you! I loved writing it. Was there something in particular that spoke to you?”
What she might have said: “I loved the opening scene.”
What I could have said: “Did you know that I wrote the opening scene as a way to deal with my grandfather’s death?”
And suddenly, we’re talking. Maybe she’ll ask me about my grandfather. Maybe not. I’d prefer that she tells me what the scene dredged up for her (it’s a burial scene). Maybe we’ll talk about death or loss. Or we’ll share stories or move on to something else altogether. Whatever happens, it’s not so much about the book or about me anymore, it’s about the conversation that the art provoked. And I’d dare bet that the reason she liked the book in the first place is because it spoke to her. All she wants to do is talk back.
When someone compliments your work, don’t brush it off (that’s insulting to you and to them). Don’t nod as if recognizing your brilliance is a given. Say: “thank you.” And then: start a conversation. I promise, you won’t be disappointed.