October 22, 2014

The Writer’s Disconnect from Praise

I was listening to the podcast Two Guys on Your Head, which is about psychology and neurology, and their discussion of how people perceive praise was very interesting. Give it a listen.

The fundamental idea is one I’d heard before: when you want people to really take your praise to heart, you should praise the difficulty it took to do the thing they did, not an innate quality that made doing the thing easy for them.

For example, if someone spends twenty minutes solving a difficult math problem, they don’t want to hear, “You’re so smart!” even though it’s technically praise. That’s because “being smart” is separate from the work they did: it implies this inherent quality of theirs – their “smartness” – made the problem solvable, but it doesn’t acknowledge the process or the effort that went into solving it. It ignores the blood, sweat, and tears that really got the work done.

Actually, this sort of praise puts MORE of an onus on the person you’re praising, because now they have a label for themselves – “smart” – which implies that they’ll be good at anything that smart people should be able to do. If they come along and find it difficult to do something that a “smart” person ideally should be able to do – say, a harder math problem – then they feel disappointment and self-doubt. “I could do the other thing that smart people could do, but not this!” they say to themselves. “Am I actually smart?”

This is the issue with the Entity Theory – “I possess an entity that makes me good at X, Y, and Z” – which is discussed quite well in the podcast mentioned above.

The Darling Wife brought this up to me when we first had our son: research showed that you weren’t supposed to say, “You’re so smart!” but rather “Hard work!” or “You paid attention!” or “You did a good job of remembering!” These sorts of praise acknowledge action, difficulty, and effort, and these are the things that will help them in the future.

But while I was listening to the Two Guys on Your Head podcast, I wondered: is this why writers often have a hard time with self-doubt and “impostor syndrome,” that creeping feeling of falseness?

Think about it. How many reviews say, “This was hard work, good job!” to the writer? That’d be infantile, right? For one reason, it’s because reviews are for readers, not writers, but the other reason is that readers often have no idea how much work went into writing. The experience of a story is wholly separate from the writing of it.

Sometimes the writing I thought the least about has the most impact on a reader: I’ll just toss something off and they’ll praise it, to my confusion. And frequently the crap I agonized over – “I have to cut this entire scene, but how will I make the plot work?” – is wholly invisible to them. They have no idea I wracked my brain trying to make it so they never see something in the final product. How can they admire the work behind something that isn’t there?

This is because when readers talk about stories, they aren’t discussing or praising the amount of work that went into the writing: they’re praising their experience of the story. But not the writing process, IE, everything the writer is actively doing.

This means that a reader’s praise oftentimes is not the sort of praise that we, as human beings, are hard-wired to want. A reader’s praise doesn’t acknowledge the process or the difficulty, just that they liked their experience of it. So even the most ecstatic praise from a reader – “I absolutely loved this!” – isn’t necessarily tickling the spot inside our brains we want it to.

I once had a discussion with a writer about how it’s always briefly weird to have someone praise you for your old work. “I wrote that ten years ago,” they said. “When people randomly get excited about it, there’s a moment where I kind of say, ‘What? Oh yeah, that.’” And psychologically, I think that slowly wears on you: hearing praise for work you did a long time ago and aren’t thinking of is a little bit like getting praise for tying your shoes or combing your hair – you no longer value the effort that went into it as much as you once did, so when you get praise for it, it feels weirdly false. It starts to dilute your value of praise.

This paints a pretty bleak picture for the writer. If present praise isn’t necessarily hitting that psychological sweet spot, and if praise for old things dilutes your concept of praise, then how the hell is someone going to enjoy being a writer?

One big piece of advice (hat tip to Ferrett Steinmetz)  is to stay in contact with and talk to other writers. Other writers are your lone sympathetic ear in this whole thing. They are aware of the disconnect, and they’re aware of the work, so they’ll value the work you did way more than nearly anyone else. Even if they haven’t read your damn book, they probably value what you did solely because they went through it themselves. That means that they’re coming to the table with some value for your hard work even if they have no idea of who you are or what the final product looked like (unless they’re total assholes).

The second is a much harder process: decoupling your own worth from praise. When someone praises your books, I think you should mentally position yourself so it feels like they’re actually praising a friend of yours. And really, for the reader, you are not the writer – their idea of the writer is someone who is not you. Because they don’t know you, and you know they don’t know you or what you did to write this book. That means it’s hard for you brain to interpret praise from them.

So imagine that this praise is really going toward a friend. Then when you hear the praise you get to feel good about it, but you don’t get that weird sense of disconnected disappointment from knowing that they’re not actually praising your hard work.

And one thing you should not do is take the labels they give you to heart. If someone says that you’re an extraordinary worldbuilder and you take it to heart, then that sets the standard of your self-perception going forward. When you go onto the next thing, you’ll think, “Would an extraordinary worldbuilder do this? Would an extraordinary worldbuilder have these problems?” And that’s not what you need to be thinking. You’ll be like the kid who was told was smart, sitting in front of a hard math problem, wondering why they can’t figure this out.

Your self-identity needs to be flexible, modular for what you want to write and what you want to do.  Everything that readers or reviewers say about you is wholly separate from who you are and the work you’re doing. You can’t pin all of your self-worth on their praise. Don’t forget that.