I got two of the best reviews ever yesterday. I’ll tell you about them in a minute.
I’ve been having this long-ranging discussion over the past few weeks with a number of writers over the utility and feasibility of avoiding the reviews for new book headed on its inexorable journey into the wide world. I love this idea, and I would love to say that I am capable of such a thing. Alas, I know I am not. I am a glutton for punishment.
I read everything. Goodreads, Amazon, random blogs. I read it all. And it destroys me. And I’m trying to change that.
Here’s the thing about reviews, and this may seem counterintuitive: even the good ones hurt. In fact, the good ones hurt more. No one warned me about this. When The Mostly True Story of Jack came out, the reviews were, well, good. Really good. Way better than I expected. I had starred reviews coming out of my ears and a glowing write-up in the L.A. Times. And what I felt was nothing. No. It was worse than that. What I felt was paralyzed. I was in the middle of doing the re-write of Iron Hearted Violet, and I was utterly, utterly paralyzed. The work that I had been doing in silence, the work that I had been doing in secret, the work that I had carved out on my desk from 4am to 6am each morning before waking up my kids and sending them to school – well, it was public. And it was loud. And I felt exposed in a way that I did not expect.
And I felt suddenly thrust into a space where I couldn’t make mistakes.
And I felt suddenly that the only thing I could do at that point, the only thing, was fail.
And I felt that I no longer had the freedom to totally suck.
I take great pride in my ability and willingness to write sucky, sucky fiction. Indeed, I feel that by embracing The Suck, we are able to wrap our arms around the gooey ooze of human experience, and slowly, slowly mold it into something true, something real, something with vision, muscle and heat.
It isn’t that the reviews took this away from me – clearly they didn’t. I did it all on my own self. I am infinitely adept at making things difficult in my life, let me tell you. And it was a dark time.
When Violet came out, the reviews were much more mixed. And while it didn’t help to ease the crushing fear of failure (that wolf at the door for most artists that never really goes away), at least it didn’t get in the way of the creation of new work. The new work continues apace. This is a good thing.
I had a conversation with a graphic designer friend of mine (Jeff Johnson of Spunk Design Machine) who told me to lighten up already. “Critics make nothing,” he told me. “The only thing that matters is art you make and the work you do. Quit worrying and make something. Then you’ll feel better.”
He was for sure right about the second bit. It’s much easier to turn off the din of reviews when you’re in the throes of a new novel. And making something new? Well, it’s satisfying. And it eases my wretched soul. So I focused on making new work, and that was good.
But he was wrong about the first bit. Critics do make something. I appreciate criticism, and as a consumer and lover of art and books and movies and whatever, I love reviews. The purpose of the critic is to pin down the experience of art – to clarify and unpack the relationship and the meaning that transpires between artist and audience. And I do think that it matters. And I do think it is something.
It does nothing for the artist. It does not form new work, nor does it inform new work. It is utterly separate from the creative process – and worse! – when artists allow themselves to get caught up in any of it, they are actively subverting the creative process. And they are hurting themselves.
When people ask me for advice for their first book coming out I tell them this: “Be aware that you’ll be a crazy person for at least a year,” and “When you’re reading reviews, pretend it is for someone else’s book. And if you can, avoid it all together.”
And particularly for those of us who write children’s fiction, our reviews are written by folks who aren’t even our primary audience. I love teachers and librarians and parents with my whole heart and soul, but, in the end, it is not their opinion that matters the most to me. The only thing that matters is what the kids think.
Lately, I’ve started getting fan mail. I would get little bits from time to time – little cards given to me when I would visit a classroom, or a little note handed to me at a reading. I loved these desperately. Lately more have come by email or by mail.
Yesterday, at the elementary school where I am teaching right now, a fourth grader came up to me and said, “Um… I just wanted to say. I mean. I wanted you to know. Um. You see. I wanted to say that….” she trailed off and sighed. Finally, she just threw her arms around my waist and whispered, “I’m just so glad you’re here.”
That was a friggin’ awesome review.
The second review came by email:
My name is Violet and I am five years old. My daddy is reading me your new book, ‘Iron Hearted Violet’. I really like the book. It’s adventurous and scary and there are so many stories in it. Violet is my favorite character.
I hope to meet you someday.
Thank you for your book,
She included a picture of herself and her dad, and they both wore pirate costumes. Which is awesome. This is how I replied:
Beloved Violet,Thank you so much for your letter. I cannot tell you how much it meant to me. You are lucky to have a daddy who reads books to you. My daddy used to read to me, too. I hope all those books are feeding your brain and building brand-new stories that the world has never heard before. I hope those stories are wiggling their way into your heart and hands and eyes and mouth, and that you are drawing lots of pictures and playing lots of imagination games. And I hope that one day you write those stories down and share them with the whole world.Have a wonderful day, dear Violet. And I hope that yours is as wonderful as you have made mine.Best wishes,Kelly BarnhillP.S. Your pirate costume rules!
This is the only thing that matters. Kids reading stories. Artists making work. Hard work is good for the soul. So go out and make something already.