Being kind dignifies our lives. But it’s not always easy or simple. Sometimes we find ourselves in the firing line, whether it’s because what we write stands for something that isn’t popular or because we inadvertently appear to be in in someone’s way.
When we face criticism or opposition, perhaps especially when it appears to come out of nowhere, it’s so easy for our shadow sides to spring into action. We can lie awake at night thinking of reposts and rebuttals, but the truth is that our wounded egos are not what need saving. If what we are writing matters, then it’s so much more than ego that we need to defend, but not with cruelty, which only ever demeans everyone involved.
The writer as negotiator
The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard understood this. He noted in his diaries that critics and bullies generally act out of envy or fear. Yet he also understood that showing some kindness, even a small remark, could puncture the tension because the other person feels involved, feels him or herself as a participant. He observes that the same people who bated him one moment
… would be happy to cry bravo for me if I merely addressed a friendly, let alone, flattering word to them …
In a later diary entry he writes:
Showing that they don’t care about me, or caring that I should know they don’t care about me, still denotes dependence… They show me respect precisely by showing me that they don’t respect me.
Under pressure of criticism, a writer can feel overwhelmed, but Kierkegaard is right. It’s when people ignore our writing that we should worry, not when they protest about it. Indifference is a much worse fate than antipathy.
And some of that antipathy might be converted to something more positive with a little kindness.
The writer as rebel
But whether we convert or antagonise, we have to stay true to our voices and to what we want to say. Radical writing that advocates for the planet, for social justice, for lives of integrity isn’t about self-defence or point scoring. Truly changing the world can mean being in the firing line, something that Albert Camus clearly understood when he wrote The Rebel.
What is a rebel? A [wo]man who says no, but whose refusal does not imply a renunciation. [S/]he is also a [wo]man who says yes
… a complete and spontaneous loyalty to certain aspects of himself.
When we know our values and stand by them, we won’t always be popular, but we will develop integrity:
Not every value entails rebellion, but every act of rebellion tacitly invokes a value…
Why rebel if there is nothing permanent in oneself worth preserving?
Such integrity is not about defending the self but about being writers who care about the world:
The affirmation implicit in every act of rebellion is extended to something that transcends the individual … An act of rebellion is not, essentially, an egoistic act … When [s/]he rebels, a [wo]man identifies [her/]himself with other [wo]men and so surpasses [her/]himself, and from this point of view human solidarity is metaphysical.
Rebellion, Camus notes, is profoundly positive in what it defends. There will always be injustice in the world. There will always be suffering. But writers can always be those who show outrage in the face of this. Outrage that joins with Dostoevsky’s character, Dimitri Karamazov, in demanding “Why?”, but doesn’t join with cries for revenge.
Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.
Camus wrote of Simone Weil, whose act of rebellion was to refuse to eat more than the ration given to Jews in Nazi-occupied France, when she was very ill with tuberculosis.
But rebelling against the status quo, whether in an act of solidarity or by writing something that stands up for the planet or the multitudes of suffering, can bring unwanted attention.
The writer as a creation
However we choose to negotiate with those who are threatened by our message and however we choose to take our courage in hand, attacks on our writing can still be deeply unsettling. One of the reasons for this is that what we write and create and who we are, are intimately entwined.
On one level we have to stand back and be philosophical. We also need to be able to distinguish between destructive attacks and constructive criticism. The latter is gold dust to any serious writer and having coleagues brave and generous enough to engage critically but supportively with our work is an enormous gift.
On the other hand, if your art is attacked, it’s human to want to lash out in return or to launch into self-defence with full operatic score and three-part harmony. But this is rarely, if ever, edifying or productive.
It’s always much braver to be a creator than a destroyer. Something that Bertrand Russell was keen on noting. When random or unjustified disparagement comes our way it may be because our ideas are perceived as threatening. The best response is often not direct engagement but to go on making good art; to persist.
F. Scott Fitzgerald says this with inimical humour, writing in his journal.
Who in hell ever respected Shelley, Whitman, Poe, O. Henry, Verlaine, Swinburne, Villon, Shakespeare etc when they were alive. Shelley + Swinburne were fired from college; Verlaine + O Henry were in jai. … [yet] the merchants and messiahs, the shrewd + the dull, are dust — and the others live on.
The Rosseaus, Marxes, Tolstois — men of thought, mind you, ‘impractical’ men, ‘idealist’ have done more to decide the food you eat and the things you think + do than all the millions of Roosevelts and Rockerfellars that strut for 20 yrs. or so mouthing such phrases as 100% American (which means 99% village idiot) …
The writer prevails
Writers persist. There’s a wonderful line in an Anne Carson poem when the persona’s life is falling apart — her relationship has broken down, her father is suffering from dementia, her mother seems anything but sympathetic — and yet there’s a beautiful, wry and poignant moment between them after the poet’s persona has recently fallen on the carpet in a heap, sobbing:
It isn’t like taking an aspirin you know, I answer feebly.
Dr Huw says grief is a long process.
She frowns. What does it accomplish
all that raking up the past?
Oh — I spread my hands —
I prevail! I look her in the eye.
She grins. Yes you do.
Writers can be kind, even in the face of unkindness, because we are doing something of quiet enormity. And we prevail. We can be kind without being walked over, knowing that most invective comes from fear and also strong in the sense not of our rightness but our amazing calling.
This includes persisting in becoming the story you want to live with integrity. No one can tell you who you are. As mathematician and musician Vi Hart puts it:
Your greatest creation is yourself. Like any great work of art, creating a great self means putting in hard work, every day, for years.
Most criticism is not meant to destroy you, is not nearly so thought out. And for the occasional critic who really wants to wound, it’s not attack or defence that wins the day. It is simply going on making time for what matters to you, writing what you must and being the story you want to become.
An invitation to become your story
Thank you for reading — I’d love to help you as you transform your story.
Sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life. On the website, you’ll also find free courses, Giving yourself time to become a different story and Finding the rhythms of your different story as well as tasters for the paid courses so you can dip in and see for yourself.
Marina Sanchez says
Thank you as ever Jan for a thoughtful blog.
Yes, I think there are many ways to respond to circumstances as human beings, for example, I recently saw Good Vibrations, a wonderful film that deals with one man’s response to the troubles in Derry with a very individual imagination. Though Terry Hooley, the main character, is a flawed and complex person, his contribution to his community has been life-affirming at a time when young people faced only violence and despair.
I agree that as writers, the world we live and write in is increasingly tricksy and demands all our imaginations and craft.
I would also add that anger can be a fuel against injustice and powers us to stay the course and get things done.
Thanks again, Jan