By Emma J. Stephens
Author of For A Dancer: The Memoir
I once attended a movie premiere with my friend, its director. The success of his independent film hinged on good reviews, so I was surprised to learn that he had no intention of viewing them. His reasoning was, “People will tell me the good ones.” I assumed being an artist required the courage and understanding that not everyone will be a fan (which is probably why I gravitated toward subjects in school with definite answers like math), so his behavior seemed a bit fragile. Now, after the release of my memoir, which was not just an exposure of my writing ability but also my life, I realize the damage that can be done to one’s creative spirit if their work is disliked. This fear of disapproval is what keeps many from embarking on the vulnerable journey of self-expression.
I lack the discipline to prevent myself from looking at reviews of my book, and I also believed – (past tense!) – the assessments would help me grow as a writer. However, I ended up more confused with each one. Some readers claimed to be inspired and uplifted, while others called it whiny and self-indulgent. Supporters compared it to classic literature; attackers pointed out misspellings and made accusations of dishonesty. The nontraditional essay style was both applauded and scorched. I wondered why were they so polarized, and which ones was I supposed to believe?
For starters, critics are interesting creatures. Their goal is not necessarily to give helpful feedback nor to be fair, but rather to establish themselves as an expert with a believable, influential opinion. I was slightly comforted by the discovery that my most antagonistic reviewer gave full stars to underground science fiction and vampire novels. By that, I do not mean such interests discount one’s analysis, but it forced me to consider the unlikelihood that the same reader would be moved by my soul-bearing reflection on life. Not everyone is on the path to self-actualization. This begs the question why my title was chosen in the first place, but the curiosity ended there. We cannot know the personal experiences that shape our critics’ subjective criteria, and this brought me to a place of recognition that all of the reviews are true. Just as my story was true for me, each person has a truth of their own in response to it.
I must contradict this statement in one respect. A particular blogger stated that my book needed more work before it was ready for publication. This is a common prejudice in an industry ruled by gatekeepers, especially as the advancement of self-publishing (including blogs) continues to threaten that power. Nevertheless, given the very natural human fear of inadequacy, a comment like that may have discouraged me from putting myself out there. What a relief that I trusted myself, since unimaginable doors have opened up for me as a result. With any luck, this will be looked back upon as my “amateur” work, and every piece will be better than the last.
So how does a writer of memoir keep it real? How can we reconcile the conflict between inspiring versus provoking our audience? I think it was clarified beautifully by Joan Didion in her celebrated essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” in which she asserts the purpose of writing:
“Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.”
If you can fulfill that, the message of your story will find those who need to hear it.