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The difficulties of accepting praise

PraiseArtists and creators are often their harshest critic – especially when it comes to prestigious accolades. Hanne Blank ponders on why she finds it difficult to accept praise.

14 August 2011

I have problems with praise.

I was thinking about this earlier this morning when a little automated internet robot informed me, with the cheery efficiency such things exhibit, that someone had left an anonymous morsel of praise on an equally anonymous piece of (whisper it!) fanfic I posted under a pseudonym some while ago, and thus instantly and markedly improved my day.

A four-line email telling me that someone whose name I will never know appreciated a piece of highly silly, more or less illegal, derivative piece of fiction I wrote more or less on a dare put a spring in my step and a smile on my face and made me all chipper and perky.

By contrast, I have been left downright glum by good reviews of my books in respected newspapers. I have reacted with surliness befitting a 14-year-old to praiseful comments on my work from some of my colleagues in the publishing industry.

My private and inward responses to even the best-intentioned praise of my work are sometimes grumpy — “that’s nice, I’m glad you liked it, even if you don’t seem to have read the same book I thought I wrote” — or in some way dismissive.

I do try, in fits and starts, to do better with all this. It would be more appropriate. I theorize that it might also be gratifying. Alas in addition to being less than diligent, I have a rubbery, impervious, ungrateful little brain.

I do not, I find, trust praise very easily.

I suppose it is in part an aspect of being one’s own harshest critic, which of course every artist must, in all honesty, be: no one else can see your work with your eyes, hear it with your ears, touch it with your fingers. No one else knows whether what you’ve created comes close to being what you intended it to be.

A teacher, a mentor, an editor can give you an opinion. They can look at what you’ve done and tell you what they see, and you can gauge from their reaction whether you’ve gotten enough of what you wanted that it’s worth putting it out into the world at all.

Sometimes you don’t, you know. Sometimes you realize that you didn’t get close enough even for horseshoes or government work, and you scrap or shelve whatever it was and start over.

And you yourself have to be both the first and the last line in that vetting process. You have to know whether it’s got enough of whatever it is that you’re even going to show it to your teacher, your mentor, your editor, your trusted friends.

Then you have to know whether or not to trust your gut about the worth of the piece, regardless of what your mentors and friends and editors have to say about it. It’s going to go out into the world as an emanation of you, after all. You have to make the call. No one else can. Or will. Or should.

It is rare that any of us put anything out into the world that we think is genuinely good, that is, genuinely what we wanted it to be. Really nailing your art — getting it absolutely 100 percent right, and knowing that it’s absolutely as right as it is ever going to be — is glorious and rare and

I don’t know any artist who does not do what sie does more or less for the sole reason that if you do whatever it is that you do enough, some of those religious moments will come your way and you will, for brief blazing moments, be 10,000 bulletproof feet tall, blasting laser beams made of pure refined sex electric awesome out of every radiant pore, leaving swirling puddles of infant universes in your godlike footsteps.

Most of what you or I or anyone ever creates is not that. It’s good enough. But that’s all it is.

This is part of where the infamous and soul-sucking condition known as Impostor or Charlatan Syndrome comes from, of course.

Yes, yes, the perfect is the enemy of the good, and sometimes good is the enemy of done. But as a creator, you know when something could’ve been better. You know when it was just okay.

You know when frankly, you didn’t have the chops to make it into what you wanted it to be. You know when your eyes are bigger than your stomach. You know when you just dashed it off and let it ride because there were other more important things on your desk.

You know when you just didn’t have any more time, when there were too many deadlines. You know when, oh just fuck it, it was done for values of done that include the relevant people signing off on it and telling Accounting to cut you your check.

You always know what it could’ve been. What it would’ve been.

Which is part of, although at least in my case definitely not all of, why I don’t, or maybe can’t — or maybe both and neither and other things besides — necessarily trust people who try to tell me that something I did is good.

(I have observed similar things in other artists of my acquaintance. But I’ll refrain from assuming they are as ungracious and incapable and pigheaded as I, and not attempt to say that we’re all coming from the same place or thinking the same things.)

And yet.

And yet a nameless person on the internet can anonymously click a little box that says “I liked this story,” on a piece of unsaleable and technically only quasi-legal writing whose author’s name they do not know, and somehow I get notified that they did, and I end up beaming like I just won a prize. The kind of prize I probably wouldn’t trust if it were given to me by someone in a suit, shaking my hand at some ceremony of the sort where people make speeches and there are canapes after.

Somehow, it feels more real. I wrote a thing. Not a perfect thing.  But it gave someone else pleasure. I don’t know who that person was or why they liked what they read. They don’t know who wrote it and it doesn’t matter. They just knew — I only know — they liked it enough to say so.

It seems clean and honest and sweet. I don’t know any more. I don’t need to know any more. I don’t want to know any more.

This praise, I know what it is. And I know how to take it. Thank you.

Hanne Blank is the author of numerous books on topics at the intersection of bodies, sex, and culture.  An independent scholar and the author of the cultural histories Virgin: The Untouched History (2007, Bloomsbury) and Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality (2012, Beacon Press).

She has been Scholar of the Institute for Teaching and Research on Women at Towson University and has been a visiting lecturer, instructor, and speaker at numerous colleges and universities including Brandeis, Tufts, Johns Hopkins, and Harvard.

She lives and works in a 200-year-old stone mill cottage on a dirt road in the heart of Baltimore, Maryland.

This article first appeared on Hanne’s blog, Filling a Much-Needed Void. For more information on Hanne, visit her website.



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