Dani Shapiro
October 13, 2009

On the Bottomless Pit

It came to my attention, a few years ago when I started actually paying attention, that I am unable to accept a compliment about my work. Oh, I can smile and nod and say thank-you-very-much. But what I don’t seem to be very good at doing is taking it in.

I love your last book, someone might say.
It made me cry.
It made me think.

And me, I feel all squirmy and awkward. What is it that goes through my head in these moments? Part of me doesn’t believe what I’m hearing. Part of me just wants to run and hide. Part of me is bursting with joy but can’t allow that feeling in, because to allow that feeling is to believe the compliment, and somehow that is just plain unacceptable.

What is this bottomless pit that exists inside of so many of us, into which all compliments, flattery, good reviews, pats on the back seem to fall? I can quote you chapter and verse from the negative reviews I’ve received over the course of my writing life. I can tell you who wrote them, and how they made me feel. But if asked to summon even a fragment from the (fortunately larger) pile of good reviews, I would draw a blank. Or–worse still–sometimes I’ll be trolling around on the internet and I will stumble upon something truly nasty. There are people out there in the great cyberverse who don’t like me or my work at all. Why is it that, in these moments, I think that these are the smart, all-seeing ones, the ones who really know the truth?

Here’s the only silver lining I can come up with for the problem of the bottomless pit. I think we writers need it. I think that the moment we start believing our own shit, if you’ll pardon the expression, the minute we start thinking that we know what we’re doing, we’re lost. I’ve read books recently by writers who–I can tell–took in the praise heaped on them over the years. They’ve become parodies of themselves. They’ve lost that uncomfortable sense of insecurity that kept driving them forward, as if with an electric prod. They may be happier people, yes. But they’ve lost their hunger, and along with their hunger they’ve lost whatever it was that made their work sing to begin with.

So I guess I’ll take the bottomless pit. I have no choice, really, but to reach down there and shake hands with it. After all, it helps keep me honest–even if, once in a while, I’d like to take in a compliment, and bask in its glow. Even for just a minute.