As some of you may know, I’m coming out with another book in the next few months. The theory was I’d come out with it last summer, and after binge-writing over my between-jobs vacation, I was almost there, but it needed some work, so I shelved it for a bit when I realized I was about to run out of money and really needed a day job.
I eventually picked it back up, with some trepidation. It’s an essay collection, and the fact is, most essay collections that anyone’s heard of are by people with long-established careers in journalism or some other kind of writing, so this is going to be a tough sell at best, and having the same birthday as Michel de Montaigne isn’t going to help, much as I keep wishing it would. But I started it, and I’m going to finish it, because I’m not very good at finishing things and it always bothers me when I add another entry like “book” or “graphic novel” or “movie” to the todo list I’ve had since 1998, especially when that list has things I was supposed to do for people who are now dead.
After I started working on it again, I was describing it to my friend Erik, and saying something about how essay collections can be big sellers, what with Chuck Klosterman, David Sedaris, and Tucker Max. Then this happened:
Erik’s a good friend of mine. He’s an excellent critic and enjoys my work. I know I’ve nailed a piece when he grants his highest praise: “That was actually kinda good.” He certainly meant no ill will, and was just pointing out what I already knew, so I took it in stride and got back to work.
Hah, seriously, this was me for the next three days:
The entire edifice of my ego had crashed to the ground. One of the reasons I started keeping a journal was so I could tell myself, hey, at least I wrote something today, and that was because I hadn’t written a word for a month after this thirty-second elevator conversation.
I know how to take all kinds of criticism. There’s helpful criticism of particular points and details, to which I listen attentively because it might make me a better author. Some people point out errors in my research or reasoning, and there’s no arguing with that. There are people who give me backhanded compliments because they think they’re smarter than me or that some styles of writing are lesser than others and all the good writers are dead, but that’s fine because I think I’m smarter than them and we can go our cheerfully smug and separate ways. There are a lot of people who have told me I’m a faggot that should die, and that’s fine because those people are both crazy and vastly outnumbered by thousands of strangers who love my work.
Authors are often told by their publishers and agents not to read the criticism and definitely don’t engage. I’m pretty good at not engaging, but I do read a lot of the criticism because I want to get better at what I’m doing, and occasionally there’s something useful, but I understand why authors are told this: every even semi-negative comment is agonizing. When my last book was published, a dozen people managed to track down my email address and wrote to me saying I’d changed their lives. I keep and appreciate these emails, but what do I remember every single day?
This person gave me five stars. People found her comment so unhelpful, three of them made a point of saying it was unhelpful. It’s a vague note from somebody who apparently gives people funny looks and tells them they’re interesting with a pause timed to imply Edwardian condescension. Named Goddess. This person has only helped me sell books and I absolutely should not care why. She probably recommends it to friends. Yet at least once a week, I see an image of a middle-aged hippy surrounded by feng shui guides saying “Peter’s not a great writer” and wish death on her.
This is all ridiculous. I will never please everyone, I don’t need to, and I shouldn’t try. Since I know this, I can drink away the critics without undue disruption to my work.
But Erik wasn’t criticizing me. Erik was breaking the fundamental illusion a writer has to maintain by pointing out the obvious: I’m nobody. In order to eventually become famous, I have to maintain the idea that millions of people actually want to hear what I have to say, but that requires slogging through the period where I can’t even get close friends to read my book because there’s no cultural consensus convincing them it’s worth their time. This is the central fallacy of the writer: he or she must absolutely believe something that is not true in order for it to become true, and this is what Erik unintentionally shattered.
Worse, since the bulk of my work is about what it’s like to live my own life, and written in a very relaxed conversational tone, I not only have to believe my writing is interesting and entertaining, I have to believe that I am interesting and entertaining. Breaking the illusion that my writing already matters also breaks a lot of the illusions I use to get myself out of bed in the morning and stay sober through most of the day.
Fortunately, I’m practiced in self-delusion, and was able to pull myself together. I’ve maintained the illusion for a decade, while I worked my way from a handful of family members occasionally checking out my myspace page to tens of thousands of strangers at least recognizing my blog. Most of them seem to like it, so I write on. I’m documenting this for anyone else struggling with the writer’s fallacy and who doesn’t have the benefit of being genuinely delusional. It’s not crazy to maintain this fallacy, it’s just weird and difficult and slightly irrational, and part of the job.