Last week, a few students in a nonfiction class I teach for Bay Path University, were discussing handling fallout, mainly from relatives and close friends who read personal essays and memoir, and aren't too happy about what they find on the page. And aren't shy about telling the writer so.
This put me in mind of the elegant way one guest writer at my own MFA program once advised responding.
At first I thought it sounded too glib, but I can assure you that after putting it into practice, it holds up.
Here it is: The only possible response to any feedback / criticism/ judgment / complaints is to reply: "Thank you."
That is all.
This will more or less confound and halt the critics, who expect you to engage in a defensive debate or to be contrite, and who likely have a bunch of arguments lined up ready to unleash on you. Mostly, they will instead stay silent (fuming maybe); or they might spew the negativity anyway; and if they do, you can again simply reply, "Thank you." Or perhaps Thanks, I appreciate your reading it. or Thanks for sharing your reaction. or Thanks for the feedback.
As for those who heap praise on the work, the answer too is also simply, "Thank you."
That is all.
That's not all. This is also a good response for those who are in the other camp, who want to tell you how much they agree with what you wrote, about how you got it so right, how well you portrayed them on the page. But again, that is their conversation, not yours. A simple, heartfelt "Thank you" is enough; or Thanks, I appreciate your reading it. Or Thanks for sharing your reaction. or Thanks for the feedback.
I don't mean to suggest that we ignore what others have to say, that we dismiss the negative and neglect to appreciate the positive, that we make our friends and loved ones feel as if we don't care about their feelings. Listening is healthy, and often the loving and respectful thing to do; but caring about others' feelings is different than worrying about their opinions about our literary work.
The only thing that makes "thank you" work is that we writers must mean it when we say it. We must truly be appreciative that someone we care about has bothered to read our work, and wishes to express an opinion. We need to actually be thankful for both the claps on the back and the slaps on the wrist.
Seems counter-intuitive. Until you try it.