The Many Faces of Praise

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I wasn’t praised much as a child.  I’m not saying that to gain sympathy; I’m just stating fact.  Having no experience with it means I’ve no idea how to deal with it when it comes my way.  I’ve been decidedly mediocre my entire life and until now, I’ve been okay with that.

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl.  My parents, perhaps well-intentioned or perhaps just spiteful and mean, always discouraged me.  They said over and over again:  “You can’t.”   I never believed anyone who told me I couldn’t write; however, as for being a writer, I wasn’t so sure.

Fast forward to present day.  I’ve finally summoned the courage call myself a writer.  Writing is every bit as necessary for my well-being as  breathing.   Of course, being a writer as opposed to just writing involves putting it out there.  Exposing my words to light and air has led to criticism, rejection, and a funny little thing called praise.

Highly suspicious of praise, I am always completely shocked when it finds me.  I kind of expect criticism or rather, I’m never surprised by it.  Outright rejection, although painful, doesn’t make me sweat the way praise can.

If someone praises my work, my first instinct is to question their mental health.  Or their eyesight.  Historically, I’ve only shown my work to my friends who were steadfast illiterates – those who would be impressed just by the sheer number of words on the page.  Praise, even from these people built much needed confidence. Then, I started showing my work to people who could not only read and write but to some who did it for a living.

Opening up my work to a wider audience has exposed me to the many faces of praise.

There is sincere praise, false praise,and premature praise.  There is lukewarm praise.  There is uninterested praise.  Every story I’ve shown my teenager gets uninterested praise whether it’s a poem or a tragedy where the entire family is murdered in their beds by a clever, unusually dextrous poodle – her response is always a dreamy-voiced, “That’s good, Mama.”  There is unsure praise, under which exists the subcategory of Spousal Praise: ” It’s good, honey….but…”

The praise that scares me the most is well-intentioned bullshit praise.  It sounds and looks beautiful.  It is large and ebullient; it towers over you.  For the briefest of moments you are so impressed by it; worse, you are impressed with yourself for garnering it.  This type of praise is like the perfect wave – awesome in its beauty, its size, its potential.  It’s the ride you think you’ve been waiting for until you get slammed onto the beach.  If you survive, you still spend the next few hours rinsing coarse sand out of crevices you didn’t even know you had.

Praise can hurt.  How?  Praise is rarely universal. What one person might feel is a literary triumph is to another person, a literary train wreck.  So should I take all praise with a hefty grain of salt?  And should I do the same for criticism?

A writer friend of mine, after hearing me confess my mistrust of praise, tried a different approach.  He told me I sucked as a writer. He told me that every word I wrote emitted a stench so foul that it would surely melt my keyboard.  Or words to that effect.  His diatribe went on for awhile – longer than it needed to, thank you very much.  But I think it worked, that old reverse psychology thing…that is what it was, wasn’t it??

Maybe…writers have to be able to ride good waves and survive the ones they should’ve stayed away from.  Somehow, we have to believe in the instrinsic value of ourselves and our work.  I have learn to appreciate praise when it comes my way but not let myself get carried away on it.  Maybe some surfing lessons would help…

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