Archive for January 23rd, 2008

When you are learning to write, your teachers usually blame you for any failure of communication. Considering that you are learning the craft, the assumption is often accurate. The only trouble is, you end up believing unconsciously that, if you find just the right words, you can communicate perfectly, and never be misunderstood. But, if you keep writing, and receive enough responses, you start to appreciate that, not only is perfect communication impossible, but that the baggage your audience lugs along can be just as important as what you say and how you say it. The trick, of course, is to know who is responsible for any particular breakdown in communication.

Teachers, incidentally, experience the same revelation – or, at least, I did. When I first stepped in front of a class, I imagined that I fully controlled the experience. As a result, my first semester teaching post-secondary was almost my last. I needed to learn that, while some students wanted to learn, I needed to cajole or entertain others before they would even try to absorb my lesson. Still others were either not willing or perhaps not ready to learn, or couldn’t learn from me. Even when, cured of illusions, I received consistently high evaluations from students, beyond a certain point, I couldn’t make everybody in a class learn. All I could do was provide an opportunity to learn, and tempt students to take advantage of it.

To say the least, the revelation was humbling. At times, it was profoundly discouraging, too.

In the same way, the most you can do as a writer is your best. You can articulate original or insightful ideas, choose your words carefully, and structure your thoughts in a way that would make Aristotle proud – and still, how readers receive your words will be dependent to some degree on what they bring to the experience. If anything, the possibility of not engaging your audience is even greater than with teaching, because you’re generally not face-to-face with your readers, so you can’t adjust your words to entice them better.

No matter how careful you are, some readers will dislike what you have to say because your topic is personally painful because of a trauma they experienced when they were four years old. Others will criticize you because you’ve written a commentary instead of an essay that proves your argument point by laborious point. Some will object because of what they think you said, but didn’t. Given half a chance, some will try to pick a fight with you if you’re accessible. The careless will misread what you say, take a phrase out of context, or in their minds transform what you said into something altogether different. the humor-impaired will miss your jokes. The paranoid will think you’re talking about them.

Even when you’re praised, the experience can be just as devastating. People will praise you because you are echoing something their much beloved great-aunt used to say, or because your throwaway phrase gave them the courage to leave their boyfriend. They’ll find a wisdom you didn’t intend, and make you feel stupid compared to the clever person they imagine you to be. They’ll praise an accident in your phasing, and ignore the parts you meant to be witty. And so it goes, each time you publish, until at times you’ll wonder how humans ever communicate.

The important thing to remember is that, as group therapy leaders are supposed to say, this isn’t about you. Or, not necessarily. You can never completely ignore what people have to say because at times, impartially-speaking, some of the ways that people misinterpret actually do point to a flaw in your work – especially if a majority make the same misinterpretation. But, at the same time, you can’t always give reader reactions undue weight, either. Often, the reactions will be based on nothing that you control. All you can do is write with what Balzac called “clean hands and composure,” absorb what is useful for improving your craft from the reactions, ignore the rest – both the good and the bad – and try to do better next time.

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