After I broke off my engagement, I was often haunted when I sat down to write. All you care about is what other people think. My ex-fiance knew how to cut me deeply with a few precise words. He was right: I did care, perhaps too much, what others thought.
As a writer I had a difficult time distancing myself from my audience. Even when writing a first draft, part of me wondered what readers would think. This habit grew paralyzing while pursuing my M.F.A. degree, when I workshopped stories with the same eight people for two years and could anticipate how they would respond to a piece before I even turned it in. While writing a descriptive sentence, I would hear Craig’s voice in my head: Too flowery. Tammy would chime in, arguing the opposite: Lengthen this description so it comes alive on the page. I could hear Anna’s critique of a character (stilted and flat) while Rick would comment on theme (too heavy-handed; you’re telling the readers what to think instead of letting them come to their own conclusions.) If my story tanked in workshop, my confidence was shaken for days. Attempting to heed the disparate voices in my head only watered down my work. By trying to please all, I pleased none.
Three weeks after breaking off my engagement, I sat at a conference table with a panel of professors for the culmination of the M.F.A. program: my thesis defense. I had spent the past year working on draft after draft of my manuscript under the guidance of one professor, whose response had been positive. I expected to receive a fair amount of feedback and suggestions, but to overall feel encouraged.
Within ten minutes, I was shell-shocked by criticism. The defense lasted two hours.
I trudged back to my car through the early April slush, my mind spinning, feeling drained and utterly defeated. Because real life is often stranger than fiction, I bumped into my ex in the parking garage. He asked if I’d passed my thesis defense. I nodded. “Congrats,” he said coldly, and then he climbed into his Jeep and sped away.
I missed him—the old him—terribly in that moment. There were myriad reasons we ultimately were not compatible, but until the breakup he had genuinely supported my writing. When others were critical of my work, his had been the voice I turned to: Ignore them…This is really good… I like what you did here. Suddenly that supportive voice was gone. When I thought of my ex, what I now heard was contempt. All you care about is what other people think.
Weeks passed, and I confessed to a friend that I was struggling to get past his hurtful words. Even worse: I didn’t know how to make them false.
“You already proved him wrong,” she said. “If you only cared about other people’s opinions, you wouldn’t have broken off your engagement. But you heeded your inner voice. You can do it in your writing, too.”
I realized she was right. Leaving my ex meant losing shared friends and mutual acquaintances. Some people, looking in from the outside, spoke ill of me. But I never doubted I did the right thing. I trusted my gut, and that was enough.
My ex’s words—and other people’s criticisms—stopped troubling me so much. I dove back into my thesis manuscript with renewed vigor and a wellspring of new ideas. I completed a young adult novel that had been languishing in my hard-drive for years, ever since some of my colleagues had scoffed that YA fiction was not “serious” writing. I wrote essays and plays and blog posts without worrying about being judged by readers. Ironically, once I stopped concerning myself with the opinions of others, my work began to receive more acclaim: a short story won second place in the American Fiction Prize, a play was produced Off-Broadway, and I received the John Steinbeck Fellowship in Creative Writing. However, my confidence as a writer is no longer tied to what others think of my work. I know now that the only voice I need to listen to—the only voice that truly matters—is my own.
Dallas Woodburn, a former Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing, has published fiction and nonfiction in Fourth River, The Nashville Review, The Los Angeles Times, North Dakota Quarterly, Passages North, and Monkeybicycle, among others. A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, her short story collection was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and the Horatio Nelson Fiction Prize. Woodburn is the founder of Write On! For Literacy, an organization that empowers young people through reading and writing endeavors: www.writeonbooks.org. She blogs frequently at http://daybydaymasterpiece.com/