During a recent class I taught on overcoming writing blocks, a few students remarked that when they receive high praise for their work, they lock up. This seems counterintuitive, as one would think that positive input would put more gas in the engine. Often it does.
But a compliment can also be a double-edged sword for many writers. Praise can activate harsh perfectionism and/or low self-worth issues that shut down the writing factory. None of this is the speaker’s intent, but the writer’s self-sabotaging inner dialogue may get energized in an unfortunate way.
Some writers cannot assimilate compliments in a useful way because they do not believe them, due to low self-esteem. Their discounting thought in reaction to praise is something like; “If someone likes what I write, they must be stupid or trying to make me feel good. Can’t they tell that I’m just an imposter?”
Positive feedback can also trigger ‘fear of success’ reactions like this; “If I really have success, then I’ll be held to a standard of excellence that I’ll never be able to match again. Better to stop writing now before I’m set up for public humiliation.”
And there is always, “I don’t deserve success as a writer.”
Or how about this one; “If someone thinks my draft is pretty good, then I have to really perfect it so it’s magnificent”. In this case, the rewriting process is endless, and it kills the writer’s passion and the quality of what they had in the draft.
In all of these cases, the compliments or positive feedback backfire because the writer focuses too strongly on the self, the ego, the past, the future, or the public’s reaction. These issues are always in the mix, because we’re all human, but is there a way to limit their negative impact on productivity? I often recommend shifting attention away from questions about whether we are brilliant or pathetic, or whether the public adores or reviles us, and bringing the focus back to the project itself.
Many people who are plagued with chronic low self-esteem and serious self-doubts can and do produce the written word, and they often do a pretty good job of it. It’d be wonderful to go through life brimming with confidence every day, but you can’t wait for this if you want to write. When distracting praise reactions hijack your productivity, try shifting your attention back to the argument, the words, the story, the characters, the rhymes, etc., of the project in front of you.
And ask yourself, “What does my writing want or need? not “What does my ego, or someone else, want or need?”
Repeat as necessary.