I can still remember the first time someone complimented me on one of my online essays.
Obviously you’re a great writer, the comment said.
And I remember my reaction too. “Obviously? Obviously? It’s not obvious to me.” This was the first I was hearing of it — in this setting at least, when it came to blogging.
Sure, I’d been writing for years. Had published short stories and poems. Won cash prizes here and there. But I’d also faced plenty of rejection. There were magazines I tried and tried to get my work accepted into, ones that I submitted to dozens of times, tweaking those submissions to the editorial focus and their guidelines — to no avail.
To me, the reception to my work was spotty at best. It wasn’t consistent.
At the time, I thought that was a sign that I wasn’t all that good at what I did. And instead I’d lucked out on the occasions when I did meet with success — when I won an award or got my work accepted into a prestigious publication.
To my thinking, those became the flukes. The truth, I’d decided, lay in the rejections.
It was silly of course. And I should have known better. I worked as an editor myself; I’d been on the other side of the acceptance/rejection process and knew of many times when the writer was very skilled but the work wasn’t quite right for the issue. I had too much of X or Y. It was often a matter of timing — and nothing personal.
But I clung to the idea that I was defective. After all, if I were so good, wouldn’t my writer friends be lavishing me with praise? It never occurred to me that those same friends didn’t compliment anyone. They were critical of others’ work in a blanket way and typically only championed their own output.
It took that first stranger and my non-writer friends going, “well yeah, duh, Page,” to help me realize I might have something interesting to say and be halfway decent at saying it.
Sometimes I wonder how many people are going through something similar — laboring under the assumption that their work is mediocre when it’s obvious to those around them that they have talent and just no one ever tells them.
I think the more obvious it is that they’re talented, the less we realize we should tell them.