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On the Need for Affirmation (and its Dangers)

As a writer, you’re better off NOT needing affirmation.

At least, that’s my going theory.

It sounds calloused, I know. Perhaps it’s a result of my upbringing. I learned to survive without praise. If I waited around for pats on the back and encouragement, I wouldn’t have gotten far. I’m better off today having NOT been coddled, raised with the endless accolades and superficial flattery predominant in today’s child-centric culture. Now I’m a firm believer in Neitzsche’s dictum: “That which doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger.”

And harder to kill the next time.

Which is probably why I cringe when I sense a writer is fawning for praise. Much like the spider poised on its web waiting for the slightest tremble, many a writer covets affirmation, prepared to rush forth and devour it the moment it’s uttered. Without an occasional attaboy, they will emotionally starve.

For writers, it’s a terrible dilemma. On the one hand, we need affirmation to keep going. On the other, we must keep going even without affirmation. We want to write the stories of our heart, to ply our craft and craft our voice in spite of the naysayers and critics. As long as I like my story, we say, that’s enough. Or to put it more piously: I write for an audience of One. Nevertheless, without affirmation — acknowledgement from an industry professional, a good review, a nomination, an award, a special mention, a fan — how can we know we’re really accomplishing anything?

Some may misunderstand this as a minimization of affirmation. It’s not. Some of the funnest, most fulfilling parts of being a writer is hearing from readers who appreciate your stuff and take the time to say so. My point is: We should not write to be affirmed. Yes, I am thankful when accolades come. But even if they don’t, I must be secure enough in my talent and work ethic to keep writing.

Addiction to affirmation is potentially far more dangerous than the absence of affirmation. I mean, must people tell you your writing is great in order for you to continue doing it?

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{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Brandon Clements January 20, 2012, 8:42 AM

    I agree that this is a major struggle for writers and I know I struggle with it. Thanks for the thoughtful post. Hopefully we can all grow in this.

  • Kessie January 20, 2012, 8:49 AM

    Or, as they call it on deviantart, “comment whoring”, when you make art just to get comments on it.

    Know what that produces?

    Crappy art.

  • Beth K. Vogt January 20, 2012, 9:49 AM

    It’s one thing to know something is true.
    It’s another to want something to be true.
    And it’s something all together different to live as if something is true.
    I should not write to be affirmed.
    I know that’s true.
    I want that to be true.
    Living that way? Striving for that. It’s becoming more and more how I function as a writer.
    And now that you provided me with that whole spider-poised-on-a-web analogy, well I’m running for that goal!
    I hates spiders.

  • Jill January 20, 2012, 9:53 AM

    This is true what you say. As somebody who’s had little affirmation throughout my life, I mistrust it when it comes my way. A lack of affirmation is a good thing, I think. When affirmation comes, especially at too young an age, it can put the halt on the struggle and determination that makes an artist great. Why keep pushing forward if you’ve already received your reward? This is a biblical concept. But, you know what? Affirmation feels really, really good, even if I bask in it one second and mistrust it the next. And sometimes I wonder if my childhood would have been better with just a little more–not affirmation–but EXPECTATION, and a little less belittling. So as an artist, I guess that’s what I want, too–I want somebody willing to say, “You’re writing is crap, but you’re capable of so much more.” I want somebody in my life who will expect great things from me and be very, very disappointed that I haven’t delivered greatness yet.

  • Rosslyn Elliott January 20, 2012, 10:16 AM

    Interesting post, Mike. Affirmation can be a product of love, and in that way, it’s a good thing. The exchange of loving support with the intent to “build others up” is a Christlike action, and doesn’t necessarily involve any falseness or ego-pumping.

    The perception may not always be accurate that authors are fawning for comments specifically because they want affirmation, but I have no way to tell unless I see which post you find to be ‘fawning.’ (Love that word, by the way. What’s more harmless and cute than a fawn, and yet the word is so negative! I’ll have to look up its etymology to see if they even come from the same root.)

    The fact is, the new social media relationship between authors and lay readers is still evolving. It’s weird territory for authors. We’re all learning how to handle it. I’ve only once posted something to a reader that later struck me as an attempt to win approval rather than a sincere comment based on my appreciation for her support. I regretted it, but we all make mistakes in internet conversation and learn from them, just as we learn in real life. All authors relate to readers in different ways, and I think what’s important is to understand that and try to be true to our own sincere impulses about how to be honest and authentic. If I try to act like my friend who is a very motherly presence to her readers, or my other friend who has this natural Midwestern ordinary-girl appeal, that wouldn’t be me and wouldn’t be real. I can’t meditate about how I *want* to come across–only focus on others instead of my image, and that will result in sincerity.

    I find it far more troubling when people fawn to power and ignore the little people than when they want affirmation.

  • Jessica Thomas January 20, 2012, 11:03 AM

    I would distinguish “confirmation” from “affirmation”. While lack of confirmation may not mean the writing is bad, it sure helps to know that when I think I’ve written something great, someone else thinks it’s great too. Otherwise, I’m left to wonder if I have an unhealthy distorted view of myself.

    We can’t write in our own little vacuum. We need feedback from others, whether is be criticism, affirmation, or confirmation. All these things make us stronger, I think. Even affirmation. Receiving copious amounts of gushing praise is a character building experience in it’s own way. As a writer, am I going to buy the hype, grow a big head and slack off? It would be very easy to do. Learning how to stay grounded and focused in spite of it all would require one heck of a maturing process, I imagine. To be honest, I’m not sure I’m up for it.

  • Katherine Coble January 20, 2012, 12:46 PM

    I don’t know. There are different kinds of people…and they are all motivated by either a stick or a carrot. The stick of poverty or stigma is not a fun way to write and can make your writing come off as hack-y. The carrots of money and affirmation are nicer ways to get a result and usually get a better result.

    But there are so many kinds of affirmation; reading all the comments here about star-ratings on books and how many unfair 1-star reviews* are out there was eye-opening. I can’t believe how many people consider a 3-star review to be BAD. If I got a 3-star review I’d be tickled pink. I’d be affirmed by that 3-star review. Heck, I’d be affirmed by the 2- and 1- star reviews. Just knowing that a) my work is out there b) someone took the time to not only read it but think about it and take more time to write about it…that’s affirmation. To me.

    So maybe the danger isn’t in writing for affirmation (because, after all, pay is pretty darned affirming) but in writing solely for affirmation.

    (*Few mentions were made of how many unfair 5-star reviews there were in the same pot. )

  • Bob Avey January 20, 2012, 2:20 PM

    I understand what you are saying. However, I believe writing is intended to be a form of communication, and writing for an audience of one would not qualify.

  • TC Avey January 20, 2012, 3:07 PM

    “Addiction to affirmation is potentially far more dangerous than the absence of affirmation.”

    Great post, really like the above quote. I think it sums up an overall problem plaguing many in America. Since when do we all need a trophy in order to play a sport? We play/work/write/whatever because it’s fun or because it’s who we are, not because we need praise/trophy.

    Like you said, praise is nice but we shouldn’t need it in order to push ahead.

  • Heather Day Gilbert January 21, 2012, 1:18 PM

    “Must people tell you your writing is great in order for you to continue doing it?”

    To a certain extent, yes. Readers/agents and publishers have a way of sorting out the wheat from the chaff in writing. Just because you love to write doesn’t mean your writing is good, same as if you love to sing but then make a spectacle of yourself auditioning on American Idol. There’s nothing wrong with the desire to write, but if you’re not good at it, by all means, limit it to an audience of one (not talking about you here, Mike, of course).

    I believe that God uses affirmation by those beta readers/crit groups/agents to push you the right direction if you are truly talented at writing. And truthfully, what are writers’ blogs for, if not for putting our writing abilities on display for others?

    I do agree with you that the ADDICTION to affirmation is bad. It stunts our writerly growth, our ability to integrate new techniques into our writing. And for extended periods of time, we may have to plug away at that novel, not knowing if it will be well-received by agents or publishers. But if they all hate it and cannot affirm anything about it, maybe we need to start a new novel. Or even a new line of work!

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