Difficult But Not Impossible

I should have told you this months ago, but I have a mild neck injury. You might want to get yourself checked.

One morning in December 2012, I woke up with a stabbing stiffness on the left side of my neck. Whenever I moved my head backward or to the left, it got worse, so I ended up holding my neck in a weird hunched position. As it happens, I am an obsessive hypochondriac, and circumstances convinced me that I was suffering from spinal meningitis.

I went to the emergency room, where the doctor told me I had a mild muscle strain in my shoulder. I left with an accurate diagnosis and a bill. After a few days, the muscle strain went away on its own. It showed up again in February 2013, so I saw my regular doctor, who told me I had wry neck and prescribed muscle relaxants. I took the pills three times a day and recovered quickly. In the meantime, it has showed up on and off, but I always took a few more muscle relaxants and it would go away.

About two months ago, my neck started hurting persistently, so I decided to see a chiropractor. He told me I had a virus and some small parasites and suggested that I avoid eating corn. After that, I decided to see a real doctor, specifically an orthopedic specialist in Lawrence. He took X-rays that showed my incredibly straight neck, told me that my shoulder muscles are just strained, and prescribed 12 sessions of physical therapy over the next six weeks.

I saw the physical therapist for the first time on Friday. His office consists of several small consultation rooms and a gymnasium full of elderly people and athletes learning to use the new arms their doctors built for them out of titanium and ass flesh. The physical therapist said that my shoulder strain is the lamest affliction he’s ever seen. He didn’t say it out loud but he was clearly thinking it. Once he located the problem area, he used an ultrasound transducer (yeah) on it and prescribed a few simple exercises I have to do twice a day beef up my lame shoulder muscles. I also had to buy a new pillow at Bed, Bath, and Beyond that was neck-friendlier.

Anyway, it seemed to be doing better on Saturday, and things will presumably continue to improve as I continue the physical therapy. My neck mostly just hurts when I think about it, which includes right now as I’m writing this.

Aside from the dull throb of my trapezius muscle or something near it, I’m doing okay. I am growing steadily more frustrated with the lack of progress in all my endeavors, especially since I currently have more undertakings than a Tarantino movie (yeah). I can’t finish a story, sell a book, or even get my air conditioner fixed. The say that patience is a virtue, but the difference between patience and complacency (or complacence, I can never remember) is not easy to figure out. Am I waiting or just wasting time? More importantly, is everyone tired of hearing me bitch about it?

I’m still looking at all my different pursuits, but none of them seem viable right now. Hunter S. Thompson said that if you have eight purposeless paths to choose from, you have to find a ninth path. In keeping with that risky advice, I have decided to pursue an idea so a ambitious, stupid, and failure-prone that I refuse to mention it until it’s too late to change my mind.

Why do I always choose to do such difficult things? Not only that, why do I complain when I fail at something difficult when I could just do something easy? One reason is that I’m an exceptional complainer; the other is that there truly is value in failure. Successful people always talk about the importance of failure without ever addressing its shittiness. Failure in retrospect is kind of quaint, but failure in progress is heartbreaking. Honestly, I’m not afraid of failure unless it keeps going indefinitely. Fail me once, shame on me, but fail me a few dozen times and the shame gets kind of unbearable.

One way to address failure is by moving the goal posts, or as I like to say, “adjusting” them (yeah). Denial is a great approach, too. To quote the boss said in the Dilbert TV series, “We’re calling it a success because that’s just what we do.” In the end, no matter where I put the goalposts, the odds are thoroughly surmountable. If I didn’t believe persistence were key, I would strongly consider moving on, but I have a lot more bad ideas and plenty of failure left in me.

A Deluge of Nothing

When I still lived at home, I naturally spent most of my time in the basement, far away from human eyes. In order to give the place a personal touch, I put a plethora of video game posters on the walls. For the benefit of my occasional guests, I also installed a crappy, $5 analog clock on the wally by the window. I never checked it because I always wore a digital watch.

The clock tended to be fast by at least 5 minutes (or maybe 15), even a few days after setting it. After a while, the battery started to die, so it got further and further off, until one day, it stopped keeping time altogether. The second hand had started twitching instead of making a complete rotation. It would move from the 43 second mark to the 44 second mark and immediately drop back down, over and over again. I thought it was far more interesting than a regular clock, so I just let it tick endlessly. I called it The Futility Clock.

Right now, I’m having a hard time telling whether or not I’m making progress or just twitching in place. I have a million different potential opportunities, but whenever I take a tentative step in a given direction, nothing changes. When I decided to write the novel, it was because I needed to focus my effort on one thing. Now I have to focus a little on everything to find out what works out and what fails. I’m trying sci-fi conventions, opinion letters, political essays, blog posts, short stories, children’s stories, poems, twitter and facebook updates, reddit discussions, and of course, dozens of emails.

I used to send emails to people all the time. Amazingly enough, they’d reply! My brother and I played correspondence chess via email. I even won a game once. Now, email has become the incarcerated uncle of the internet. It came from a different time and has a lot of flaws, but it’s still part of the family and everyone has to visit it once in a while. I’ve given out a lot of business cards, but I never get any phone calls. I was convinced that I had to be missing some important phone calls, so I exchanged my 4-year-old flip phone for a brand-new flip phone to be sure. It made no difference.

When you start out as a writer, your biggest concern is whether or not you’re good enough. It’s a meaningless concern, because those who lack confidence will always have some doubt, and those who are overconfident will never have any doubt. Ideally, writers should strike a balance: confident enough to sell themselves but modest enough to accept and utilize criticism. I’m always trying to find the balance, and whenever I receive a critical response, I try to make the best of it. I’m always prepared for responses, but at this point, my concerns are less about insecurity and more about ontology. Am I real enough to warrant a response? Do I even exist? Time will tell.

My goal as a writer is to communicate ideas, so nothing is more discouraging than shouting into a silent void. All I get back is a deluge of nothing. How long can my voice hold up? How many different things can I shout? I rarely quote Jesus, but here I go: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and answers the door, I will come in.”

One day, I looked up and saw that The Futility Clock was running normally again. The time was still way off, so I knew no one had changed the battery, but the second hand was going all the way around.

Crushing Disappointment

I found out yesterday that I won’t be presenting at the Life, the Universe, and Everything convention next month. Right now, I’m still deciding (discovering?) how I feel about the whole thing. (I suspect the appropriate response is “FFFFFFUUUUUU–“) Besides that disappointment, I’m also feeling a bit of relief. I have to concede that the trip was an ambitious undertaking, and while I would have enjoyed teaching about cryptography, it isn’t exactly what I want to do.

A great bit of writing advice from the man himself, Mark Twain, goes like this: “The author shall … use the right word, not its second cousin.” His advice has a wider application than just word choice. When you have a goal, one of the best ways to placate yourself is by doing something sort of similar, especially if it’s less work. You can be a roadie instead of a musician, or an editor instead of a writer. There’s nothing wrong with working your way up in the field, but you can’t trick yourself into thinking that you’re actually reaching your goal. After working for 20 years as a roadie, you might be excellent at setting up stages, but you won’t be any better at performing on them.

What do I really want to do? I want to write. It’s not the same editing, teaching, public speaking, or pitching a book. I’m exceptionally bad at that last one, in fact. The truth is, I’ve always sucked at writing assignments. I could never quite meet the requirements, because I was always a little too interested in writing what I wanted to write. I don’t know if it came from being a stubborn, contrary person (probably) or if I just couldn’t force myself to do something I didn’t want to do.

When I was told to write about a person I admired, I chose Proto Man from the Mega Man video game series. There’s a slight chance the essay kept me from being a presidential scholar, but in 2006, the president was George W. Bush, so I regret nothing. When I was told to define art, I refused to. When I was told to name a time when I was completely satisfied, I suggested that complete satisfaction is impossible. I once wrote an “environmental” essay asserting that whales didn’t deserve human efforts to save them because whales did so little to save themselves.

It’s easy to lock yourself into one view. “This is how I will succeed. If I don’t do this, I will fail.” My views are still very traditional: “find representation, then a publisher, then market the book, and after a while, start writing another one.” The strategy might be a bit archaic. If nothing else, traditional publishing will take a great deal of time, and I’m fairly sure I can spend that time in better ways. And yes, self-publishing is one of my options.

Last week, I heavily criticized writers who self-publish. Does that make me a hypocrite? Yes, sort of. My biggest concern with self-published authors is that they take an unpolished first draft, slap a generic cover on the manuscript, and throw it on amazon.com. I can self-publish and still hold myself to higher standards. This book will be well-edited, and I will hire a professional illustrator to do the cover. Am I settling? Maybe. Then again, I need to create my own definition of success, even if that does involve rationalizing away a few of my concerns.

When it comes to publishing, my current goals are to 1. expose myself and 2. make money doing it. If self-publishing will allow me to focus on writing while I do those things, it might be the best option. After all, instead of queries, I would rather write more books, stories, and poems. I may only be a so-so essayist and pitcher, but I’m far better at writing other things. If I’m being completely honest, this novel might not be cut out for mainstream success. It’s light, fun, and short. I believe it will make people laugh and (hopefully) think. Even if it could be a mainstream success, I don’t want to spend 2 years trying to publish this one book before anyone reads it.

So I’ll probably publish Favor as an e-book. Naturally, I’ll let everyone know when I do. After that, I’ll attend a few other conventions and try to meet people. Like Boxer, the ill-fated draft horse, I will work harder. I don’t need a break when I’ve had so many. I don’t need any luck when I’ve had so much. I just need to keep writing as much possible.

And no matter how I publish it, I’ll make it good.

(“–UUUUUUCK”)

Ideas, Impatience, and Agnostic Prayers

Some people think that the hardest part about writing is getting ideas. I disagree, primarily because I’ve always had ideas (even a few good ones). Furthermore, I know the best way to get ideas: thinking. Bill Watterson said it best: “Shutting off the thought process is not rejuvenating; the mind is like a car battery – it recharges by running.”

Think about anything you want, and the more you think, the more ideas will show up. If you’re a little lucky, they might turn out to be good. If you don’t get any good ideas, stick a few mediocre ideas together in the meantime. If you don’t get any ideas at all, go do something else, but don’t stop thinking. If you only get a stupid idea, it’s better than nothing.

Then you write. Writing will produce more ideas, which will help you write, which will produce more ideas, and so on. Writing, like all art, is a combination of ideas and effort. You can’t just wait for ideas to show up, and you can’t just wait for a novel to write itself.

So I wrote a novel. Like most novelists, I only had a vague idea of what to do next. First, you have to find a literary agent. Then, the agent finds a publisher. Then, something. The process is crystal clear. I wrote a query letter, which is essentially how authors pitch their books to agents. You pitch the book to a multitude of agents, and if one of them finds it interesting, they’ll contact you and offer to represent you. (By the way, if any literary agents are reading this, they should feel free to contact me.)

In the past couple of months, I’ve sent out about 45 emails and 6 letters. I’ve gotten a couple dozen rejections, which I expected. I don’t mind the rejection, because I know how to deal with rejection. It’s the same way I deal with acceptance: action. Action is my greatest ally, largely because inaction has been my greatest adversary for more than a decade.

I hate the waiting. Most agents take at least 6 weeks to respond to a query, for better or worse. I keep thinking of a line from FLCL, my second favorite anime: “Each day we spend here is like an entire lifetime of dying slowly.” It’s a bit melodramatic, but I like it. I can’t shut off my brain while I wait I wait for responses, so ideas keep coming. Some of the ideas are good, of course. I write them down.

But some of my ideas are actually horrifying questions that sneaked up on me. What if the book is terrible? Am I pitching it correctly? Is there an audience for it? What if the ideas aren’t compelling enough? Has it been done before? Will it stand out from the thousands of books that don’t get published?

Then the worst question of all: What if it doesn’t matter? What if there’s nothing I can do to succeed?

I want to act! If the novel sucks, I’ll write a better one! I have the ideas! I’ll make the effort! I don’t know what to do!

I need this.

Of course, there’s always self-publishing. I could self-publish my novel without too much trouble. Then another question sneaks up: If the novel doesn’t interest agents, will it interest readers at large? The evidence suggests otherwise. Setting aside the notable successes of self-publishing (all four of them), I can see that amazon.com is flooded with unfinished and uninteresting novels by tens of thousands of aspiring authors. They weren’t ready for primetime, so they settled for public access.

I’m not ready to settle yet, so during my waiting period, I took action. Next month, I will be lecturing about cryptography and steganography at a science fiction convention in Provo, Utah. It’s called Life, the Universe, and Everything (www.ltue.net). I’m not sure what specifically I’ll be doing, because I’m still waiting for an email response. Sigh.

Anyway, sharing ideas is the central reason I became a writer, and sharing mathematical ideas still counts. I’m looking forward to teaching this material, and hopefully I’ll encounter a lot of people who share my interests. I’ll probably meet some agents and other writers face-to-face, which will be a valuable experience.

As I wait, I’m worrying about the winter weather, the car trip, the expenses, and a million other concerns. If it all falls through, I can at least play 52 Pickup (actually, 100 Pickup) with the business cards I ordered. In the meantime, I’ve been checking my email far too often. Any response is better than nothing, right?

I also wanted to share a coping mechanism with the other agnostic waiters of the world. It doesn’t matter if anyone hears them; the value comes from saying them.

Steven’s Three Agnostic Prayers:

1. I don’t understand.
2. I can’t control everything.
3. I’m not sure what I should do.

For Fear of Emo

It finally happened: I was truly offended by South Park. I must be getting old or something. This week’s episode about Goth and Emo kids hit me a bit hard because it reminded me of high school, and not in a good way. I guess the basic concepts are still prevalent today, but I’ll explain them for the uninitiated.

Goth subculture has been popular with teenagers since the 80s. It’s all about black and white, particularly when it comes to clothing, make-up, and attitudes. The culture is about despair and futility, coupled with a little bit of resentment for the system. Cynicism abounds. The whole movement is often associated with punk rock, but that part’s kind of optional at this point.

Emo subculture is a little more recent. It has been around for almost as long, but it never gained ground until the late 90s. The name is appropriate, because it’s all about embracing negative emotions, including depression and self-loathing. Much like Goth culture, it started with Emo music, another form of punk rock.

There’s a ton of subjectivity in the definitions, of course, and there isn’t much difference between the two groups. The fashion and attitudes are both quite similar. Of course, black has always been cool (and slimming!), so that explains part of it. Both groups greatly appeal to teenagers. The concept of teenage angst isn’t new, after all. It’s all a reaction to the establishment, which always includes adults. Whether you’re disillusioned with the world or yourself, it doesn’t matter. You wear the clothes and listen to the music and maybe even fit in a little bit.

I was a half-assed Goth/Punk kid in high school. Amongst the Goths, there were two insults: Poseur and Emo. Poseurs just pretended to be Goth but were really just trying to fit in. Emos were pathetic, weepy, and lame. Goths were supposed to stand tall in a shitty world without getting the least bit affected, so being called Emo was a horrible insult. It also meant that discussing negative emotions could get you labeled Emo. There was a fine line between contemplating futility and succumbing to it.

I remember when Good Charlotte’s song “Hold On” came out. It was an Emo (technically, Screamo) song about teenagers who committed suicide. I remember thinking that it was over the top and only appealed to Emos. I also remember thinking about how I had already attempted suicide at age 13. It struck a weird discord in my brain. The fear of being Emo got mixed in with the many misconceptions I had about depression, and I never talked about it once. Six years later, I attempted suicide in earnest, and the rest is history.

So where does South Park fit into all this? This week’s episode was supposed to show that Goths and Emos are the same: kids affecting sadness to fit in. In the end, it’s all just teenage angst. (Actually, the Goth kids in the show are supposed to be preteens.) Anyway, these Goth kids start becoming Emo for some reason, and their anger at the world turns inward. Now they engage in suicidal thinking and self-harm instead of lashing out at their parents.

I’m a huge fan of South Park. None of the previous 240 episodes have offended me. This one did.

First of all, it wasn’t funny. Where’s the humor in a room full of preteens cutting themselves? When did that become okay? Well, the show is satirical, after all. This is an exaggerated depiction of a subculture for humorous effect. But Molly Ivins said it best: “When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel — it’s vulgar.” Second, there was just no reason for it. What is the social ill being skewered here? What are Matt and Trey trying to tell the world? And who gives a fuck if Goth kids and Emo kids really are the same?

On the other hand, I do have a reason for being offended. This might seem hard to believe, but suicidal teenagers are still suicidal. They really do kill themselves. Furthermore, kids never cut themselves to fit in. They do it alone. In fact, all the cutters I knew kept it completely secret, because if other people found out, they’d have to stop. Those teenagers had so much trouble confronting their depression that they literally tore themselves open.

As for me, I remember one of the phrases that stung the worst at that age: “they only do it to get attention.” Whether it was repeated self-harm, a suicide attempt, or even just a suicidal threat, it was always “just for attention.” As for me, I never wanted the slightest bit of attention for my depression, and that’s exactly what I got. Here’s the reality: People who are contemplating suicide or committing acts of self-harm always need attention, but that’s never the real reason.

In short, teenage angst can kill. This is the very first time I’ve watched an episode of South Park and felt worse afterward. Forgive me if that sounds a little Emo.

A Veterinary Discourse or: Shoving Your Hand Up the Horse’s Ass

When I was but a lad of about 6, I had a meager dream: I was going to be a veterinarian. I came to the decision after very little thought. Basically, I liked animals, so why not be around them constantly? I guess I imagined that I would be swarmed by puppies and kittens with cute ailments that I could immediately fix. Either that or they would look sad and sweet in neck cones, doggy splints, or little casts with pawprint signatures for a few days. It would be awesome!

I shared this dream with my friends and family. (My auxiliary dream was to be a music teacher, because the one we had was a babe. Ah, Heather…) Oddly enough, my friends were quite enthusiastic. In fact, a great number of them shared my dream. As it turned out, other kids liked animals, and they also wanted to be around them constantly. My elementary school was going to produce a cadre of veterinarians in just a few short years.

My family was more realistic. My mother sort of smiled shook her head, refusing to take it seriously without being too discouraging. Dad took a more blunt position. “Veterinarians have a gross job. They have to do surgery on horses and deliver baby cows, things like that. That’s why a lot of them just have dog and cat clinics. You know, for house pets.”

I had two responses to this. First, I was going to have to have a dog and cat clinic, and second, I would never do anything horse-related. In fact, I’ve always hated horses, and I refuse to work with them to this day. They would only hold me back.

Anyway, my veterinary dream persisted. I would think about it on and off when I wasn’t reading books. When I was 8, we finally got a dog. Mazie was awesome most of the time, even if she had some rather annoying (and intelligent) behaviors. For instance, she knew how to steal the TV remote so we could only change the channel if we chased her to get it back. Whenever we played fetch, she would bring the ball back once, and when I threw it again, she’d give me a look that said, “hey, I got it last time.”

Besides intelligence, her other significant trait was sickliness. She had allergies, joint problems, hepatitis, and a thyroid condition. It got to be pretty gross and complicated. I was also the family member charged with scooping her poop, so I got to appreciate that aspect. Our current dog Jetta has several health problems, though not as many as Mazie did. Yet. Fortunately, I don’t have to scoop her poop.

In a roundabout way, I’m saying that animals are actually kind of gross. Dealing with grossness is a veterinarian’s bread and butter. At some point, you might have to reach deep within a horse’s ass and pull out a tumor or blockage or something. It’s all part of the job.

Looking back, I could have been a veterinarian. I would have needed a lot more biology and chemistry (so I could get all those awesome veterinary drugs), some animal anatomy (animanatomy?) and a practical experience or internship before I could open that dog and cat clinic I mentioned. But I’m not going to do that. No, no, no, I have claimed many times that I am going to be a writer. So what does veterinary science have to do with anything?

Well, being a writer is a common desire. In some ways, it’s the college student’s version of the veterinarian dream: easy to picture, simple in concept, far more difficult in reality. College students spend a ton of time writing, after all. They write essays, term papers, exams, and the occasional break-up text. It’s second nature to assume that they could do the exact same thing and make money doing it. And once you graduate, you can write whatever you want, instead those group presentations and apology emails.

A college graduate’s usual approach is THE NOVEL. There are a number of genres and a wild variety of ways to approach them. If you write one that’s really good (and why wouldn’t you?), then you just have to send it off somewhere and get MAD MONEY for it. Be the next Harry Potter! Or Twilight! Or Fifty Shades of Grey! Or Orange Is the New Black! If you aren’t able to write a novel, you can work your way up to it with short stories or novellas, send them off somewhere, and get slightly less MAD MONEY for them.

In fact, writing a successful novel is such a common aspiration that hundreds of thousands of people spend the month of November trying to do it. National Novel Writing Month is an incredibly popular affair in which a vast number of people try to finish a novel of at least 50,000 words. After all, that volume of text is easy for most people to produce if they just type a whole bunch. If you don’t have any original ideas, just jump on the current bandwagon. No problem.

And when you’re finished … your book isn’t very good. Hm. Well, that’s okay. At least you showed yourself that you could do it, right? I mean, you just typed out 50,000 words, and that counts for something. Worrying about the quality or editing as you went would have slowed you way down, and you’d never have finished by December. Hell, you might never have finished. It’s better that you just crossed your fingers and went for it.

Except you didn’t go for it at all. You typed up a ton of sucky words that you’re going to toss in a drawer and never examine. How is that better than crawling through something, thinking and improving it as you go? It isn’t. It’s just a fantasy, like playing with puppies and pretending you’re healing them.

The reality of writing is more akin to pulling the tumor out of that horse’s ass. It’s going to take some time and effort, and you’re going to get dirty. You might even get kicked. If you like, you can just marvel at the horse’s ass and contemplate its innards. Perhaps you poke a finger in to examine, but the tumor is much farther up there. You’re going to have to ask yourself, “Do I really want to do it? And just how much?” If you still want to get it, you’re going to have to have to grit your teeth and shove your arm in right up to the shoulder. You have to grab that tumor and yank as hard as you can.

Now that I’ve overextended that metaphor, I’ll start talking about myself again. I realized that I have to focus my attention and redirect it into a single project. Trying to do a multitude of exciting things at once is a bad idea. In short, I have decided that my first project (ahead of the graphic novel and the animated series and the animated short and the dozens of other ideas in my head) is going to be a novel. A novel? There are millions of them. And here I just talked about how everyone tries to be a novelist! My hypocrisy knows no bounds.

On the other hand, I don’t want to do it because it’s popular or seems like a neat idea. I have my own reasons, and chief among them is getting noticed. I am going to have something I can point to and say “Hey, I wrote this book. Help me draw the next one.” At least, that’s the plan. I am going to reach within the horse’s ass of my mind and pull out the shiniest damned tumor I can find, even if I have to really root around for it. Then I’m going to polish it to a mirror shine, and the glint of that tumor will attract agents and publishers from all around.

Put more literally, I’m not going to give up. I’m not going to stop until the novel is good, and it will be good. I’m going to keep typing and more importantly, I’m going to keep thinking. But I have to acknowledge the difficulty. No matter how much I hate horses, I have to do what’s necessary.

So I’ll wear some gloves.

The Hardest Words to Write

Embarking on a creative career is risky for several reasons. The barriers to success are many and the advantages are few. For instance, you get to set your own schedule, but there is no guarantee that you aren’t wasting your time. Even if you do create something good, you have to draw attention to it. If it gets attention, you still have to turn that into further opportunities and (hopefully) money. Just attempting to be a creative writer requires a great deal of creativity. Ostensibly, being a writer is simple; you become one as soon as you write. What makes a good writer different from every other literate person with a keyboard?

Success as a writer is completely based on one thing: People have to read your work. It’s entirely possible that the most talented writers in the world have never had their work read by another soul. If that’s true, they certainly aren’t successful, and not just because they aren’t making money at it. A good writer has to involve other people, because improvement requires feedback. Every reader and every bit of honest feedback is helpful. In other words, the proof of the writing is in the reading.

So what are the hardest words to write? They always start the same way: “Will you read … ?”

I can almost hear you groaning from here. After all, I just asked you to do something potentially boring and you might have to admit it. I get roughly the same response from everyone: “Yes, but not right now.” It’s nice and diplomatic, but deceptively negative. Much like getting “Ask Again Later” on a Magic 8-Ball, it doesn’t help very much.

Am I imposing? Absolutely. I know you’re busy, and when I ask you to read something, I’m requesting your undivided attention. Ew. Reading is a homework assignment! It’s horrible! You’ll procrastinate, I’ll pester you, and we’ll both have to figure out how to share it online. How can a friendship survive a sudden, obnoxious jolt into a teacher/student relationship?

Then, after you read it (or just skim it), I’ll want feedback. Chances are good my work was unpolished or stupid. I may have completely wasted your time. But time is ticking, and you have to say something! A positive response is the safest approach. It’s a compliment, right? After all, what could be worse than negative feedback? Easy. Dishonest feedback, or worse, no feedback at all.

And that’s the problem. What I’m really asking is for you to be my friend by being a total asshole. You aren’t criticizing ME, you aren’t dismissing ME. You are reacting to my writing, and as long as you’re doing that, I’ll be just fine. Only hold back if your suggestion is that I stop writing altogether and cut off my hands for the good of humanity. At that point, it stops being constructive.

Once you’re done, I will put your feedback in my brain for thoughtful consideration. Most of the time, I will change something. Sometimes I won’t, and sometimes I will consider what you suggested and deliberately not do it. Who’s the asshole now, right? However, my reaction to criticism is never “Screw you! I like it!” or “You just didn’t get it!” I know better. When someone criticizes your beliefs, it doesn’t usually change them, but it almost always reminds you why you have them. Sometimes it will reinforce them. Other times, it will nudge you ever so slightly toward a new viewpoint.

Now that I’ve said all that, I will say this: It really is okay if you don’t want to read my writing. There are plenty of reasons to say no. I won’t hold it against you, but be honest about it. Don’t try to shut me up by saying you’ll read it eventually, because I’m persistent enough to ask again and again.

I have been on both ends of this exchange, so this is as much an admission as an admonishment. I have this dilemma any time I’m asked to proofread something. If you want me to read your work, I will. I’m a copy editor; I don’t pull punches and I don’t guarantee niceness. On the other hand, I know there are two kinds of writers: the ones who want honest feedback, and the ones who only want to hear nice things. It’s the difference between improvement and encouragement, but why encourage someone who doesn’t want to improve? Art is risk. I can’t tell you what will happen if you share your work with the world, but I can tell you what will happen if you don’t: absolutely nothing.

When someone asks you to read something, take a second and think about all of the things you read today, at home, at work, on your phone, on the internet, on TV. You probably spent a lot of time reading. Was any of it important? Did you always know what to expect? Did you enjoy it? If not, you might as well try reading something completely new.

And what else did you read today? You read this, and that was nice of you. If you have nice things to say, I’ll appreciate them. I’ll appreciate the mean things just as much.