Friday, February 19, 2021

Dealing with Rejection Close to Home: When Family and Friends React to Your Writing

A reader sent me a poignant email a few months ago. She's writing a memoir and happened to show segments to her family--for all the best reasons. She wanted her sister and brother to verify facts from their turbulent childhood. She wanted them to validate what she remembered. And she, naturally, wanted their support as she went forward with the book.

It's a hard story to write, and support would be so very welcome. But instead of confirming her memories, this writer's siblings reacted strongly against them, horrified that she'd open the vault of family secrets.

Another writer wrote me this week about her own family rejection--she'd put together a group of her stories and created Shutterfly books as holiday gifts. They were lovingly made, with photos tucked into the narrative. But she received only silence from most of the recipients, just one acknowledgement. That hurt!

I've heard similar stories in my classes, experienced it myself. I was once married to an editor, like myself. When I showed him my novel-in-progress, he took great care to mark all the punctuation and other errors in his trademark red pen, then handed it back to me. I asked him what he thought of the story itself, since that's what I was really after. "I don't read fiction," he told me. And I knew that. So why did I expect differently?

I've come to believe there are two main reasons we decide to share writing with those closest to us.

One reason is to get their feedback, blessing, or approval if we are including them in our stories in some way (even fictionalized or with identity mostly hidden). That's reasonable and often wise. A recently published memoirist worked with me on this very issue when she was writing about a mentally ill brother. She sought unofficial release from him, his permission, and he gave it. It relieved her immensely to know that at least she'd done her best to include him in the decision. Another writer I worked with carried a completely different view: her writing was nobody's business but her own, her story was hers to tell, she needed no approvals. You have to find your own side of this line.

For me, I decided to get signed releases from those whose stories I included in my memoir/self-help book years ago, and I'm glad I did. A few years after publication, one of the contributors wanted his story removed. I approached the publisher but the book was not able to be reprinted on just this request alone--too costly. And I had the signed release. I went back to the contributor and shared the news. Not entirely what he wanted, of course, but nothing he could do about changing their decision.

On the other hand, I didn't run family stories by my siblings before including them. Neither sib was mentioned in the story--only our grandmother--but it still caused friction for about a year after publication. All's well now, but that was a good lesson. I don't know if I'd have done anything differently, though. I leaned towards the "this is my story" when I made that decision, and I stand by it now.

The other reason we share our writing with those closest to us is as a gift. Like my reader who made the Shutterfly books, we are giving something from our hearts to theirs. And writing, given as a gift, is precious indeed. We expect, even if we haven't said it even to ourselves, some reaction, some thank you, some praise. We want our beloveds to love it as we do.

In my experience, this rarely happens. Sad to say. I am extremely choosy about who I share my writing with now. I learned from my ex (the editor mentioned above) that praise is not automatically granted even if we're married. I've also learned from sharing with close friends that they can be bewildered by my expectations and not really know how to react. Whether they love the writing itself or don't, it's a bit like someone painting a picture for another person and giving it with the expectation that it'll be appreciated. I also remember doing this with a dear friend, many years ago. Gifting her with one of my paintings, then never seeing it hanging in her house. Eventually I asked. She said it wasn't her taste. We remained friends but I learned a hard lesson there.

My choosiness now, around sharing my writing, means I have a group of writerly friends and colleagues. I share with them. If I share writing with a friend, I make sure they know what I want from the gesture--I tell them directly what kind of feedback I'd like, if any. That helps them. I also tell them that if they'd prefer not to give feedback, to just let me know. A big relief for everyone.

My spouse is a working singer-songwriter. We have discussed this topic so often, because it impacts both of us. When to share, with whom, and what to expect. Sometimes, one of us wants to share just because an exciting milestone has been reached--a gnarly lyric completed, a hard scene. We've given each other feedback for works-in-progress in the past, very usefully and with goodwill. Now, we tend to wait until something is show-ready. In fact, I haven't even shared a word of my current novel, wanting my agent to comment first.

There's something good about waiting. I call it creative tension. In my early career, I had very little of it and shared with everyone. I'd find the energy or good tension around a project collapsing fast. I learned to wait, let the tension build, let it generate momentum. More got finished.

There's no single right way, in my opinion. You find your own side of the line. But just one small piece of advice: be sure, before you share, why you're sharing and if the people, those dear to your heart, are the best receivers.