In the seven years I’ve been broadcasting commentaries for Vermont Public Radio, I can’t tell you how many people have reached out to me by phone, email, or in passing, to tell me how much they liked one my pieces they heard. Often, I’ll post a link to a commentary on Facebook and friends will “like” it; sometimes, it will even be shared. Occasionally, strangers I meet treat me like a celebrity because they’ve heard me on the radio. The attention is very flattering, of course, and I’m genuinely pleased when someone praises me for saying something unusual and/or unpopular. That’s when I feel I’m doing my job, being a writer. Why then, do I remember exactly the number of emails I’ve received taking me to task?
That I can remember these listeners’ complaints practically verbatim but can’t remember the details from the hundreds of listeners who’ve emailed me with kudos tells me how much harder it is to hold on to praise. It also tells me how penetrating anger can be.
There’s no question: I hit a nerve, causing two listeners to hit their keyboards and spit venom at me. I tell myself that’s good, that I ‘got to them’ and isn’t that the purpose of writing? Maybe. But it burns.
In retaliation, I’ve parsed these letters and found gaping holes in logic and grammar, and located the places where they’ve misunderstood what I said, misrepresented it, or simply disregarded it. I’ve worked over my poison-pen replies (never written, never sent), and churned and burned in anger and disdain. In time, however, the anger dies down, leaving me to wonder why it is that criticism smarts in far greater proportion than praise.
I’ve received a thousand-fold more praises for my work, but I’ve given them less attention. Why is that? Why is it that I give negative sentiment more weight than positive feedback?
The only answer I can come up with is: That’s the way I’ve been trained.
And if it’s just a matter of training, then I can be retrained.
The need to retrain myself, to really pay attention to what my readers and listeners have to say became apparent when Into the Wilderness came out. Strangers wrote me personal letters, sent me emails, told me their stories and sought my advice. That experience taught me how wonderful it is to reach an audience I’m only vaguely aware of while I’m head down at my desk, trying to channel my thoughts into words against deadline. As a result, I vowed that when I read something that moved me, I’d send the author a note.
I also vowed to thank readers who’ve taken the trouble not just to read what I write, but to tell me about it – tell me what I wrote made them think or feel, maybe how it gave them hope or inspiration. And I’m no longer speaking of praise just for my radio commentaries, or my novel, or my newspaper columns, but also about the feedback I get from this blog. I’m generally and genuinely overwhelmed and overjoyed by the replies to these posts.
Ultimately, what thinking about my disproportionate reaction has been to criticism versus praise has shown me is that I must reverse how I respond to the two and give more attention – and more acknowledgement – to praise.
Deborah Lee Luskin is a novelist, essayist and educator. She lives in southern Vermont.