This is what my husband said as he walked into the living room with a mug of Sleepytime tea.
“It’s chamomile. It’s supposed to smell like apples,” I countered as I drew near to sniff the offending liquid. It smelled exactly how it was supposed to smell. Like yummy, soothing herbal tea.
My husband is not a tea drinker, and is especially not an herbal tea drinker (why bother if there’s no caffeine?) but he was going to muscle that poultice tea down anyway. The night before he had not slept at all. Not one blessed minute. So this night he was doing everything he possibly could, piling on all the useless advice he’d heard over the past five years, in a desperate attempt to trick his mind into shutting down for the night. Magnesium, valerian root, sleeping pill, sleepytime tea, and a few other things I don’t recall now. As he rattled of the ingredients to his sleep-inducing cocktail, I remarked that he was probably the world’s foremost connoisseur of insomnia cures. Much good that did, though, as whether they worked or not seemed to be a bit of a crap shoot.
He did sleep that night. But insomnia is not really what this post is about. It’s about perception. Specifically, perception of writing. Your writing, perhaps.
I thought the tea smelled fine. My husband thought it smelled like it had just been extracted from the germ-infested seeping wound of some filthy Dark Age peasant. I like tea. My husband does not.
In writing, as well as any other field that seeks to involve other people’s senses, desires, prejudices, and emotions (think advertising, movies, music, just about any media you can imagine) a stark black and white sense of reality does not matter, and many would argue it cannot be determined anyway. What matters is how people perceive what you’ve created.
In other words, if I write something I think is unique but others think is commonplace, it is commonplace. If I write something I think is edge-of-your-seat but readers put it down because they don’t feel the drive to keep reading, it is not edge-of-your-seat. If I write something I believe takes on deep issues but the reader dismisses as shallow and sophomoric, it is not as deep as I think it is.
Ouch. Criticism reveals our writing’s most persistent flaws. It’s hard to take at times, just as it was hard for my husband to swallow that tea. But criticism, even the mean and spiteful criticism, can strengthen our writing if we apply it correctly. Even a tirade can be turned into constructive criticism if we read it with the right spirit and thick enough skin.
But here’s the kicker. You are a writer. You are an artist. And even if people do not receive your work as you hoped they would, you have a message and a vision. While properly applying criticism to our writing does produce better writing, there is such a thing as too much compromise, when your writing and your story become someone else’s because you are trying to please too many people.
If you are confident that an element of your writing is right for your story, that it serves your story in a way that it would not if you changed it (perhaps the way a character acts or your point of view or the style in which it is written) then leave it alone. Sometimes people criticize things because they are not exactly like everything else they’ve read. Sometimes they criticize because they had a really crappy day and they need to lash out at someone. Sometimes they criticize because they are trolls. Be courageous. Be willing to be different. But only after you have truly and honestly considered your reader’s opinion and have a good reason for disregarding it (and there are many legitimate reasons to reject other’s opinions).
When I initially gave my novel manuscript to a few friends and colleagues to get feedback, there were a couple things that everyone said I did really well. And there were a couple of things that were distracting flaws. I had to choose how much of those perceived flaws I was going to change. If only one reader mentioned it, I might leave it as is. But if almost everyone mentioned it, I knew I needed to think hard about how to address it. And then I had to decide if I had really addressed it adequately once I did make changes. (I’m still not sure.) But I also had to decide if I was willing to sacrifice something I felt was necessary to retain the style of the storytelling.
Perception is reality for the reader. You can control the reader’s perception up to a point, but you cannot change the lens through which they read. So do your part to make things understandable. Do your part to create and mold the perception. But accept the fact that another reader may see your work differently, may catch your vision in a way the first reader didn’t. Maybe every single reader isn’t really the right audience for you. Maybe you’re happy with a smaller audience that truly understands and appreciates your writing for what it is because you are all looking at it through similar lenses.
I’m the tea drinker in our family. My husband will never like tea, no matter how many different kinds are out there, no matter how much sugar, no matter how it’s dressed up. He is not the “audience” for tea. And tea growers don’t grow for him. They grow for me.
Who is your audience? Your real audience. Write for them.