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Wednesday, June 04, 2008


My boyfriend hates my books

Here's something I discovered over a long and intriguing period of years: not everyone you're close to will necessarily get or like your writing. And this is not a bad thing.

My boyfriend and I have been together five and a half years; I was in the process of writing Bareback when we first met. We discussed careers, I mentioned I worked in publishing and also was writing a novel; he showed interest in it, which was a good sign (I'd been on a speed date a few months previously and had ended up ticking yes or no purely on the basis of whether my three-minute date recoiled or leaned forward when I described my novel, on the assumption that if he thought my pet project was peculiar, there were probably a lot of other things about me that he wouldn't enjoy either). We started dating as soon as we met, and, it became clear, at some point he was going to have to take a look at my writing; it was too big a part of my life for a serious boyfriend not to know something about.

His first reaction, he tells me, was relief. He'd picked up the as-yet-incomplete manuscript with deep trepidation: what if I don't like it? How do I tell her? If it's really awful and she can't tell, can I respect her mind? His main hope, in the interests of harmony, was that the writing would be at least above the standard where he'd have to choose between tactful lies and hurting my feelings, neither of them a balmy breeze on the tender petals of a blossoming romance. So, finding it was all right, he sighed with relief: he could honestly say it was okay. Then, after a while, he found himself reading the story like it was an actual story, rather than like a favour to his new girlfriend, which was about the best compliment you can pay someone: it seemed to him like a proper book.

But as the relationship progressed and I started writing a second book, and then a third, I began to notice something. His spirits appeared to sink if I asked him to read something I'd written. If he read something and I asked what he thought, he'd reply, 'Yeah, it's good,' and say nothing else, in the same careful tone a man answers the question 'Does this dress make me look fat?' And anyone who's heard that tone - or any woman, at least - hears only one thing in it: I have an opinion that you're not going to like, but I don't want you mad at me, so I'm going to be polite and keep it to myself.

This was discouraging. We edged around, I kept asking him if he meant it until he started to dread talking about my writing at all, and finally I insisted that he give me a straight answer in return for a promise that I wouldn't get upset if he told the truth. So he told me the truth: he didn't like reading my stuff. At all.

And at that point, I was the one who was relieved.

It wasn't that he thought it was bad, he explained. But his tastes are entirely different from mine, and run less to the melancholic. His actual phrase when talking about my books is this: 'They're very good, but when I read them, I'm sort of in a state of suffering.' Sad stuff keeps happening to the characters. So if I said to him, 'Hey, could you read something I've written?', his heart sank, not because he was worried it'd be rubbish and he'd have to lie, but because there was a strong likelihood something unhappy would be going on. 'It's like having something bad actually happen to you,' he said, which is possibly the strangest compliment I've ever received, as well as one of the greatest. 'Or happen to people that I know and like.'

Though this can be an inconvenience when I'm stuck and would like to bang around plot ideas with someone, I remain complimented. It means, at least, the characterisation and writing are convincing enough that it upsets him when bad stuff happens to my characters, which, I'll be the first to admit, does tend to happen. But in practice, we had to draw up a treaty, which enabled us both to get what we wanted: he would enthusiastically support the act of my writing, and I wouldn't make him read it. I tell him how many words I've written today, he applauds, and that's it. He still hasn't read my completed second novel, and has only the vaguest idea of what's happening in my third. And we've both cheered up.

There's a lesson in this, I think. If you've just poured your heart and soul into writing something, anything but the most fulsome praise can feel like an icy shower. Writers are insecure - it's a common joke that a writer can remember every word of the one negative sentence in a single review, completely forget the praise in the rest of it and the very existence of five entirely positive ones, and come away believing they've been panned. But in reality, you can't please all the people all the time.

Even people you're close to aren't necessarily your ideal readers. That feels counter-intuitive: writing is so personal that it's hard to credit that someone you're emotionally involved with might love you and hate your work. But it's true nonetheless. The idea of a soul-mate who loves your writing because it's the purest expression of you is simplistic: your writing is one expression of you, very possibly of the part of you that you keep out of your relationships for the sake of peace. After all, a writer in their fictional world is the ultimate autocrat, telling everybody what to do, say and think; you can't run a relationship that way. A romantic partner - or indeed, a parent, sibling or best friend - may be the best person for the part of you that doesn't write. Writing is a solitary business, and whatever you need from other people in everyday life, you can't take it with you into the writing. There are no pockets in a shroud, my grandfather used to say when he was spending money near the end of his life, and there's no love-seat at a desk.

So, if your friends, family or partners don't like your stuff, it's not necessarily time to give up hope. If they think your grammar is sloppy or your characters are two-dimensional, that's one thing, but if it's just not their thing, then it may not mean your writing's bad. You just don't happen to be related or married to your ideal readers; that doesn't mean such people don't exist.

I am in a relationship exactly like this. Happily married for 20 years to a man who doesn't read what I write.

The number one most important thing is that he supports my writing. Like you said, he supports the ACT of writing, not the OUTCOME. Can you imagine the horror of the reverse? That he would only approve of writing that he personally liked? Or even worse, only approved of writing that was "successful," in whatever definition of success? I have a hard enough time writing to please publishers. It is a huge relief that I don't have to write to please my family. Hubby and kids give me 100% approval, no matter what I write. It is heaven.

Actually, now that I think of it, I do know someone whose spouse reads everything this person writes. And if the spouse doesn't like it--which happens a lot--then this person has a hard time sending it out for publication. It is sad, and my friend is writing less and less frequently. How grateful I am that my marriage is not like this.
Yep, me too. Only we bypassed the reading it once stage and went straight to the 'I'm never reading a single word for the sake our marriage and my sanity' stage!

Hi, Ms. Whitfield. I'm kind of a minor poster on Fred's LB Fridays, and since I have had the pleasure of leafing through your blog archives I figured I should add to a post with which I can identify.

Although I haven't done much writing outside a diary lately, most of my friends and family have been supportive of my literary escapades.

My English 102 teacher this spring semester thought a lot of my prose style, even going so far as to call it poetic. He said I should try for a more standard approach with academic papers; that's understandable. He thought I had a skill with brevity -- that is, I could express more complete thoughts on a topic in fewer pages than other students. My only regret is that I didn't do better with my research paper; but live and learn.

My two paternal great aunts -- both from Illinois, one living in Indiana, the other in Texas -- think I have great writing talent. They used to be amazed at my drawing skills ... and I have advanced beyond scribbles at least. I even presented my Texas aunt with a gift of original poems at one get-together.

Thanks to my father's Tolkien "addiction" my older brother (middle of three) and I have always had fun working out the mechanics and storytelling of our imaginary worlds when we were younger. We still do, after a fashion.

There are many others as well. I only worry that I haven't lived up to their golden image of me. I've thought about just writing a page-a-day in a notebook; just putting together a ragtag cast and slashing something off piecemeal, worrying about editing later if I think it's anything serious. I honestly would write to please myself and, on occasion, to please certain family and friends. Does that sound like a good idea?

Anyway, a wonderful post.
Hi Abelardus, and welcome!

It's nice to be supported, but that doesn't mean you have to live up to anyone's expectations; writing is always between you and your imagination, and if other people get between, even with the best intentions, it can distract you from what you really want to be doing.

Writing to please yourself is absolutely the best way to go. I wouldn't even worry about pleasing your family and friends. If you write something that pleases you, there's a fair chance it'll please other people too - but that's kind of a side-effect. You're always your own first audience, and the time to think about what other people would like is after you've written, not at the time. Your own voice is the one you need to listen to.

As to the page-a-day - well, that's a pretty sound method. I'd recommend, if you haven't already read it, The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron, one of the few writing-advice books I've ever come across that works. She advises, and I do, writing 'morning pages' - three handwritten pages of nothing in particular every morning, even if it's just ramblings about having to fix the leaking tap, as a means of loosening up and balancing out your mind.

After that, yes, having a quantity target every day is a good idea too. It's certainly how I work: I have a daily minimum word count. Writing's like exercise: some days it goes easier than others, but the most important thing is to keep moving. And if your aim is to write X amount per day rather than to write something utterly perfect every day (you'll know better than I what a comfortable quantity target is for you; it varies from writer to writer and there's no 'right' target, just a target that feels achievable rather than intimidating) then you can satisfy your conscience much more easily - which is a good thing, because tense perfectionism makes the imagination freeze up.

If you don't have a big novel idea at the moment, I wouldn't necessarily worry about writing stuff to cobble together. Ideas come when you're in the habit of writing, and fooling around writing whatever pleases you is a perfectly good way of doing things, whatever all the 'first create a character then structure your plot on a wall chart' writing books say. (Some writers plan schematically, and most writing books tend to be written for those writers because they're easier to advise, but plenty of others just plough ahead and hope for the best.)

I'm quite careful about showing work in progress, as well. There are a few people I'll show to, but they're chosen on the basis of whether they say things that give me good ideas rather than on how much I like them. Some of my favourite people are absolutely not allowed to read stuff I haven't finished yet, because they say stuff that sends my mind in the wrong direction. Good friends and good influences can be two different things.

Just write whatever seems good to you, don't listen to anyone's advice if it feels wrong, including mine, and good luck!

:-) Kit
Well, that's pretty sound advice. I appreciate it.
You're welcome!
Interesting! I am occasionally on the other side of this--thrilled that my friends and associates are writing/drawing/singing but not necessarily turned on by whatever exactly the results of these endeavours are. Which doesn't mean I don't love them or wish them well, just that we have different tastes. So, hmm, cool.

(And at least the boyfriend doesn't EAT the books, a la Mika! ;-))
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