I can live for two months on a good compliment.— MARK TWAIN
When I was a kid my mom would hang my school art projects on the refrigerator door.
She would tussle my hair, look down lovingly at me and tell me how great my art was. How it brightened up the kitchen. How I was such a creative boy, destined for creative fame.
In fact, 32 years ago, mom had a picture I drew in kindergarten glazed onto a plate. To this day, she still eats off the plate.
Thanks to Ikea, my wife and I continue the parental tradition of displaying and praising our children’s school projects. We have a decorative steel-wire clothes lines near our kitchen table where we show off all the finger paintings and paper-mache’ Christmas trees.
Praise and affection should not be reserved for children. Adults need praise and affection too. They are fundamental human needs. They strengthen our self-esteem, they help to refine our self-worth.
The best-selling book The Carrot Principle examines a 10 year study revealing how boss-to-employee acknowledgement and praise were the two most important and persuasive factors regarding employee retention, production and satisfaction.
Good parents acknowledge and praise their children.
Good bosses acknowledge and praise their employees.
But what happens when someone acknowledges and praises the work of a hopeful writer?
Last year a colleague told me that her aunt was a big fan of my blog.
How her aunt looks forward to a new post every Friday. How my writing makes her laugh and cry and think better about her life.
I was flattered. Honored. Proud.
Someone, not my mom, was a fan of my work.
I was building an audience. Creating a buzz. My writing was going places. Like Mark Twain, I floated on that compliment for months.
A few weeks ago the same colleague told me that her aunt doesn’t read my blog anymore.
“What do you mean she doesn’t read my blog any more?”
“I mean, she doesn’t read your blog anymore.”
I smiled. Laughed it off. Said, “oh well” and went about my day.
But I was bruised. A once avid reader decided that my words were not a valuable use of her time.
I spent the following days in a bad place.
I was edgy. I didn’t want to read, write or teach. The kids were bringing home drawings of snowmen and gingerbread men they made in school and I didn’t care.
My work felt cheap. As if instead of hanging my work on the refrigerator, mom balled it up and threw it in the trash and told me to give up.
I felt sorry for myself, which is the dangerous first stroke in the messy art of self-sabotage.
I know my colleague’s aunt was not the first reader to stop reading but it was the first one I heard about which made it feel real.
I sulked and did the immature thing of equating one person to everyone.
Why am I sacrificing so much time writing things nobody was reading?
I thought about canceling the upcoming Write-a-thon. An event which I’m unapologetically proud of.
I doubted my abilities as a writer.
Why should anyone listen to me? What qualified me to offer my voice and writing knowledge?
I guess, in a weird way, I began feel like a real writer — questioning the value and necessity of my work.
Days later a different colleague gave me a Christmas card.
They told me how much they enjoyed reading my writing. How my words were making an impact on people.
Later that day I confirmed a date for the Write-a-thon (January 19, 2018!) and even later, I went home and began writing this post.
As 2017 unfurled, I had some nice successes. Received some nice recognition.
But it was in the cold, final week of 2017 that I began to understand the polarizing power acknowledgement and praise.
I learned that if I’m creating work just to hang it on the refrigerator I’m not a real artist. I’m just another glory whore in a world filled with glory whores.
I’m glad my colleague’s aunt isn’t reading my work anymore. Her dumping me was one of the best things to happen to me this year.
Writing is a contradictory experience.
Writing is more about the reader then the writer. Yet the fate of the relationship is solely the writer’s responsibility. The writer has to sacrifice and bleed and refuse compression for the relationship to work.
There were times in 2017 I didn’t bleed for you. Sometimes I winced. I wrote for clicks and likes and shares. I wrote easy. I was a glory whore.
In 2018 I resolve to do a better job writing for myself. I need to write hard. I need to bleed for me. Not for recognition. And not for you.
This is not to shut you out.
I need to be more selfish, more self-examining to engage you on a more honest, more visceral level.
In 2018 I promise to work on me so that we can work on us.
Together I hope we find better ways to appreciate our lives, to tell our stories so when the time is right–we may find our way back to each other.