Dani Shapiro
July 16, 2009

On Self-Protection

I’ve heard it said that writers have one less layer of skin than most normal people. We walk around just a bit more of ourselves exposed to the elements, to snippets of overheard conversation, to something we see on the street, to the remarks of perfect strangers. Really, it can’t be any other way. That sensitivity is also where the work comes from. But sometimes the sensitivity can be hard to take, especially when it comes to dealing with the response to our work out there in the world.

Lately I have been thinking of my new book as a very young, unprotected child–perhaps a child just learning to walk–shakily moving away from me. It’s still many months before publication, but I can feel it: the way it will be come something separate from me, something other, something that people will have opinions about, will weigh in on. It won’t be for everybody. Some critic will take a swipe at it. Recently, there was a kerfuffle on Twitter about a writer who publicly lost it after receiving a negative review. The immediacy that Twitter allows, combined with the possibility of a brief public melt-down going viral, created a big mess for her. But I’ve got to say, I know how she felt. A bad review is a little bit like a kid being mean to your kid. When I have seen a child be even slightly cruel to my son, I hate that kid. I want to kill him. And not to take the books-and-babies metaphor too far, but it’s a bit like that with a piece of writing. It’s something close to the writer’s soul, something nurtured and protected until ready to see the light of day–and then–SLAM. Wow. How to avoid feeling vulnerable to that?

A few months ago, a writer who had written the single most vicious review I had ever received–over ten years ago it still stings–friended me on Facebook. No note, no nothing. Just a friend request. I stared at it for a few minutes, the words of his review as fresh in my mind as if I had received it that morning. (A universal truth for writers seems to be that we never remember a single word from our good reviews. Only the bad ones stick.) Eventually I did accept him as a friend. Why? I don’t really know. Maybe enough time had passed. Maybe I was trying to be a bigger person. Maybe I wanted to show him that I didn’t care.

But I do care–we all care. Whether it’s a review or a remark or a misunderstanding or even perceived indifference, we do care more than most people. To go back to the Martha Graham letter I quoted from the other day, we writers do walk around experiencing that queer, divine dissatisfaction. Someone once said–I think it was Valerie Martin–that there are three kinds of dispositions: a good disposition, a bad disposition, and a writer’s disposition.

So what are we to do with our dispositions? How are we to protect ourselves, our shivering, naked selves from our sensitivity to all that is? I think the only answer, if there is one, is this: we wrap ourselves in the writing. The work itself is our cloak and our shield. It’s all we’ve got. And the rest of it is none of our business.