How I enraged 29 out of 30 readers
Originally posted August 10, 2015
Back in my late twenties, in the throes of my dreadful, long time "writer's block" period I took a creative writing class to try to get some of my writing mojo back.
The objective of the class was actually to write a novella but all we were turning in was short stories.
It was like any other creative writing class--the first two lessons are about avoiding passive voice and a bunch of timed writing exercises. You then get to pass them around for feedback. Also, we were assigned homework--write short stories that could become that novella.
I liked the teacher. The advice he gave that stuck with me was how important it was to be kind when giving feedback. If you don't like something, it is really easy to say all kinds of unhelpful things. The flip side of course was to have a thick skin because receiving feedback was part of the program--your precious darling (story) was out there and there was a really good chance that people were not going to like it--not just the technical aspects of your prose but your story, your characters, your point in general.
So one evening I passed out the xeroxes of my story and braced myself for whatever was going to come from my peers (some of them wrote really well).
As the feedback came in some of my classmates pointed out things such as my use of passive voice but what really fascinated me was how much white hot hatred the room had for my main character and sympathy for the character that was her trigger. Name calling was involved (not towards me, just my character). I could see the bristling outrage--I somehow had tapped into some odd shared experiences and identities in the classroom.
Intriguing. I had no idea this would come back.
On the bottom of the pile was one person's feedback--he got my point. He understood my main character's dilemma and the conflicted feelings/thoughts she was having and the actions she ultimately took. Out of thrity pieces of feedback, my story stuck it's landing with one reader.
I got two gifts that evening. One, the experience of having my story land home. The other more trenchant experience was of touching a nerve with so many people. It felt amazing! As I gave my reaction to the feedback I said as much (the room looked puzzled and a little afraid).
I didn't return to class after that. What I told myself at the time was "these aren't my people". This might have been a mistake. I might never have made any friends or fans there, but I lost out on the delicious experience of provoking and disturbing people around me WITHOUT EVEN TRYING.
I don't write for bland acknowledgements. I'm also not on a mission to provoke or upset people. The only intentional thing I do when I write is try to tell the truth as I know it.
Writing from the gut, going for nuance, saying things that are hard to describe (even to myself) isn't going to win me a lot of fans-I only hope I reach someone who needs whatever it is I have to share. This kind of writing can be lonely because even when something hits home, I won't necessarily hear about it.
I review my blog periodically--I can see where I was trying too hard to make people happy or to reach a broader audience. Occasionally those articles get a bunch of reads. Just as occasionally the articles that are more personal and less apologetic catch attention and I get just as many reads.
Sometimes I try to reach one audience and alienate another audience. Sometimes my writing isn't read at all.
I've been publishing less (still writing my share--just not pushing it all out). Contrary to what I'm told about keeping contact and staying in my audience's awareness, I only want to publish writing that is true. I can't do that if I am worried about "being on your mind". Also, I trust you more than that.
And in a world of seven billion people, one in thirty isn't a bad statistic.
Have a great week. May you provoke people in all the right ways.