March: On Praise.

In some ways, this is a sequel to my January post: a sheepish admission that as much as I wanted to insulate myself from reviews, I was unable to do so.  It’s been easy enough to avoid my bad reviews, because no one has yet addressed any of them directly to me.  But my publicist quotes the best reviews in her weekly reports, people include my @-handle when they say nice things on Twitter, etc.  So while I’ve done well at avoiding the bad stuff, I find it physically impossible to insulate myself from reader enthusiasm.

This should be good, right?  But for me in particular it’s dangerous in a couple of ways.

Danger #1: Complacency.  I have an unfortunate tendency to define myself by others’ opinions of me.  When you combine this with the internet’s tendency toward hyperbole (everything we like even a little becomes the BEST THING EVER), there’s a danger that I might start to think myself more skilled than I actually am.  Confidence is all well and good, but it’s uncertainty and insecurity that have always made me view my first and second drafts as “too boring” and driven me to try just a little bit harder.  Well-managed insecurity is what impels me to study and improve.  Growth comes from health, health comes from balance, and it’s hard to stay balanced if you have a steady supply of tempting, sugary praise with which to feed yourself.

Danger #2: Backlash.  Public praise is like a rubber band: every good review pulls the band a bit tighter, raises expectations a bit higher, and eventually the tension bursts as that first person explodes, “THIS IS GARBAGE!  I’VE BEEN LIED TO!”  Soon the internet is awash with “THANK GOD IT’S NOT JUST ME.”  The higher the praise, the louder and more vicious the backlash — and the higher likelihood that the author will be targeted directly with it, because people assume that anyone who has been hearing nothing but “brilliant!” probably needs to be knocked down a peg or two.  Unfortunately, for me, it only takes one “garbage” to cancel out eleventy gazillion “brilliant”s, because my personal demons seize gleefully upon even a single negative opinion as THE TRUTH ABOUT YOU, UNVEILED AT LAST.  So the continuing backlash, meant to “even things out,” actually becomes overwhelming and blots out any trace of joy.

I like to think that the effort I’ve made in therapy etc. has turned my life around, that I’m in a much more solid mental health position than I was, say, three years ago.  But a miscalculation in my favor could be catastrophic or even deadly, so I have to be constantly vigilant.

This is an entirely new kind of problem after decades of desperate, vain efforts to write something that would get an iota of attention (I was actively seeking publication from the age of six onward).  Like anything new, this change is stressful.  My familiar, well-practiced cognitive tools have helped me to cope, and so has the deliberate decision I made in late 2013 to focus relentlessly on the positive.  The real positive here has nothing to do with attention or lack thereof, but with something far more intimate, more personal: the fact that after a youth spent being a pain in everyone’s ass, feeling like an emotional and financial parasite who needed others to support me in every conceivable way just to survive, I have finally given something.  People are reading something that I not only conceived of but persevered with and completed, and it pleases a great many of them.  This fact alone is so potent that I can cling to it like a raft in a stormy sea.

I did a thing.  There is a reason I’m alive.  I’m not obsolete now that I’m (probably) finished producing excellent children.  There are still things I can offer, things that can improve the lives of others, mostly fleetingly, but occasionally in much deeper, more lasting ways.  So, thank you.  I owe a great deal to all of you who took the time to write kind things about my book.  Every author loves good reviews, but for me they’ve awakened me to an entirely new paradigm: a world in which I might have infinite capacity to be of value.

But that capacity will shrink the minute I actually believe any of the things any of you are saying.  I’m straddling a peculiar paradox, and I’m fascinated to find out how well it holds up in the long run.  But in the meantime, you all have my sincerest gratitude, and I will enjoy this feeling for however long it lasts.

2 Responses to “March: On Praise.”

  1. Cody

    Just ordered your book after reading an excerpt from it and then researching your background and bio. You are really inspiring and your words specifically regarding the mental health piece and being a positive example of someone with BPD is heroic. I paddle much harder underwater too in a similar way and can’t wait to read more from you! Thanks Mishell!

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