Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Why Thank You is the Creative Nonfiction Writer's All-Purpose Response to Critics and Admirers Alike

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.
Images: Flickr Creative Commons - top, Steven DePolo; Bottom: Katharina Friederike


Kate Cone said...

Nice post, Lisa! I'll remember this when my beer book is finally done and I'm reading the reviews!

Lisa Romeo said...

Oh, Kate. Well at least you could also just have a beer and forget about it!

Unknown said...

I agree (although it's sometimes difficult not to respond in more detail). I do think it's important to listen to thoughtful comments based on actual reading. It's not uncommon for people to criticize without having read the work, and I'm inclined to think those comments require to response at all. But you're right -- if someone reads our work and offers feedback, we should listen, say thanks, use what's useful, and move on. Great post, Lisa.

Tonette Joyce said...

I'm afraid that responding "Thank You" over and over might be taken as sarcasm or worse, not caring about the person's response to what you wrote.I can't imagine anyone who has a complaint , especially a friend with whom you have regular contact or a relative, being stopped by that. Not MY relatives, anyway!

sheri levy said...

I agree. If someone has taken the time to read my book, I enjoy hearing what they have to say. I ingest the parts I think are helpful and think unemotionally about the others. I do make an effort to let them know how appreciative I am for their time in reading and commenting.
Good information and thanks for posting!!

Laurie said...

Thank you.

drew said...

I'm with you on this, Lisa. "Thank you" -- at all times and all turns -- is gracious, professional and kind.

Thank you for this reminder. :)

Nina B said...

I think this is solid advice, lisa!