It takes a lot of positive reinforcement to support a writer’s ego. Flattery fades, while words of discouragement echo. It’s not that we don’t know how to take a compliment, it’s just that we lie for a living and we’re skeptical of everyone.
Praise for our writing feels like a put-on, something that dissolves upon cross examination. “What was your favorite part of my novel? What did you like most about the characters? Did you even finish it?”
Harsh criticism feels genuine, because it confirms our suspicions. “I knew that story came too easily. I should’ve outlined more. I should’ve shown it to more beta readers.”
What writers aspire to do is hard. We’re a generation trying to launch careers on Amazon while our competition gives everything away on Goodreads. It used to be that no one was buying what we were selling, now no one is taking what we’re giving.
One bad reaction invalidates a thousand compliments from family and friends, who we suspected were only feigning an interest to spare our feelings. A stranger’s insults resonate, because they have no stake in our wellbeing.
I can still quote the first negative comments I got online. They came from a message board where I’d previewed a few poems from what I’d thought was a collection worth publishing.
The first response read, “If you have a book coming out, then I’ll eat my hat.”
Enter the Anti-Muse. At the time, I had no idea how gentle he was being, that this was him on his best behavior. As I continued to share my work in public forums, the two of us became very familiar.
The Anti-Muse believes his tastes are universal. If something isn’t his cup of tea then the person who made it ought to shuffle off this mortal coil. It’s not enough for him to dismiss the author’s spark of inspiration, he needs to suck it right out of them.
Rather than leave others to separate the wheat from the chaff, the Anti-Muse burns the field down, planting seeds of doubt to spare the world from another crop of poets, bloggers, and self-publishers. When a budding author asks for advice, he tells them to quit. The Anti-Muse prides himself on his ability to quell artistic ambition.
I remember those first harsh reviews more than what I’d shared. That’s the problem with the Anti-Muse. He likes to linger.
Living with an Anti-Muse on Your Back
Once the Anti-Muse gets under your skin, he sets up shop, stirring up intrusive thoughts, flooding the imagination with bad memories. He needs your self doubt on hand so he can reference it at a moment’s notice.
The Anti-Muse has you writing slow, editing as you go, making you so self conscious about what you’re working on, you’re forgetting crucial details about the story to come. He has you overworking for simple statements, second guessing every line of description.
At first you worry your descriptions are too poetic, then you worry your verbs aren’t evocative enough. You use exaggerations to add emotional weight, catch yourself doing it, then resort to procedural accounts like you’re writing a police report. Your purple prose turn beige.
The Anti-Muse has you over researching your subject, then wondering if your dialogue is too technical, as if you dropped all this knowledge just to prove your knowhow. Then he has you gut every plot line that required any level of expertise.
When your imagination suggests a bold new direction, the Anti-Muse keeps you pressing on a familiar one. You play it safe, making sure everything you write feels familiar. Your characters speak in tired clichés, not because you lack an ear for dialogue, but because you lack the confidence to write your own.
Rereading your result, the Anti-Muse has you wondering if you should even bother editing. That’s his function. He’s a demon, sabotaging creative endeavors until the artist is ready to throw the towel in.
Dismissing the Anti-Muse
The good thing about encountering the Anti-Muse online is that he makes himself easy to identify. Like a desperate lawyer who knows the law isn’t on his side, the Anti-Muse makes appeals to emotion. He hates your art without offering a clear reason he thinks it’s wrong.
In some cases the Anti-Muse doesn’t know enough about the medium to offer constructive criticism, literary theory eludes him, he tears you down, because he doesn’t know how to tell you what to fix. He may not know art, but he knows what he hates.
In other cases, the Anti-Muse knows too much, but refuses to share his wisdom. He’s failed to make it on his own, now he resents anyone with similar aspirations. If he can’t be successful, why should anyone?
Either way, the Anti-Muse’s hostility is easy to dismiss, because you know there’s no sense in reasoning with it.
When I’m online, I tune the Anti-Muse out at the first signs of name calling, profanity, or the words “Sheesh” and “Bro.” I don’t put a spotlight on him when he’s heckling, because I know he only speaks in zingers.
Exploring forums on writing, there isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t see an angry know-it-all, who is only there to put newbies in their place, trash talking like the conversation is a match of Call of Duty. Examining their comment history, I find they’re terminally toxic, self-congratulating, flame war veterans.
Some people come across as the Anti-Muse by accident. They know their stuff, but refuse to cushion their candor. They’ll grade your writing, without a professor’s kindly classroom manor. They don’t have the patience to pay you compliments. They spot problems and dive right in.
Before you go dismissing critics based on their tone, see if they’ve gone to the trouble of citing examples. Did they use terms that seem like foreign jargon? Look up their lingo to see if they touched on tropes you use too often. Did they give suggestions for taking your story in another direction? If they hadn’t come off as smug, would you listen to the advice they’ve given?
Every screenwriter that came to speak at my school said the same thing about getting notes from producers: if a suggestion was based on an abstract feeling, the screenwriter ignored it. If a producer touched on something specific, their advice was always considered.
When it comes to taking criticism, developing a thick skin isn’t a writer’s only responsibility. Developing an ear for good feedback is more important.
A critic’s ability to articulate is what separates assessments from reactions.
“No one cares about you, so why the hell would they want to read your memoir?” Isn’t feedback worth paying attention to.
“Every character speaks with the same voice, same dialect, and same pop culture references. You need to make them more distinct so we know which one is talking.” Is feedback you can use.
Just remember, your work will never be universally loved. You will always be a hack to someone. Accept it and keep writing.
There’s a reoccurring phrase characters on Lost always shout when someone tells them that something is impossible:
Something about that stubborn declaration has always resonated with me. I find myself thinking it, every time someone tells me there’s no future in fiction, that I shouldn’t even bother, that I should leave the storytelling to some old Hollywood producers recycling the same franchises year after year.
“Don’t tell me what I can’t do.”