Criticism is the bane of many writing lives. Receiving it can turn a confident writer into a pile of shattered ego.
Enter Edward Payson Roe, a 19th century pastor who became a writer. I’d never heard of E.P. Roe until I read Rob Stroud’s blog post, Having Our Writing Criticized. In his day, Roe’s writing was popular, but it was often attacked by the “literary people,” as he called them. He had the courage to take on his critics and, with that, made a statement that I’ve taken to heart.
Stroud’s post includes a portion of an essay Roe wrote about his life. It’s a long read, but, oh, how glad I am that I read this gem.
Towards the end of this answer to his critics, Roe states his 14-word conclusion.
That’s it, I thought to myself.
It’s a simple statement, comforting, challenging, and freeing. I think it’s the lesson that every writer should learn and follow.
It’s a lesson to take to heart for your entire writing life — a foundation that gets you started and keeps you going.
Before you jump down to those 14 words (in the blue box), be sure to read the following points I’ve included from his essay. What you’ll notice are, as Rob Stroud puts it, “the echoes of Roe’s humility and his realistic understanding of the vocation of writing.”
The New Writer
- While writing my first story, I rarely thought of the public, the characters and their experiences absorbing me wholly.
- When my narrative was actually in print, there was wakened a very deep interest as to its reception.
- I also was aware that, when published, a book was far away from the still waters of which one’s friends are the protecting headlands.
- A writer cannot, like a speaker, look into the eyes of his audience and observe its mental attitude toward his thought.
- I doubt if a book was ever more unsparingly condemned than mine in that review, whose final words were, “The story is absolutely nauseating.” (Note: The reviewer was one for whom Roe had the highest respect.)
- My story made upon him just the impression he expressed, and it would be very stupid on my part to blink the fact.
- I wished to learn the actual truth more sincerely than any critic to write it, and at last I ventured to take a copy to Mr. George Ripley, of the New York Tribune.
- Although not blind to its many faults, he wrote words far more friendly and inspiring than I ever hoped to see.
- From that day to this these two instances have been types of my experience with many critics, one condemning, another commending.
- There is ever a third class who prove their superiority by sneering at or ignoring what is closely related to the people.
Fourteen Words: Roe’s Great Conclusion
After leading us through his excellent thought process, Roe gives us this:
- Much thought over my experience led to a conclusion which the passing years confirm:
The only thing for a writer
is to be himself
and take the consequences.
Don’t you love that? Can you read those words and not have a new boldness for your writing life? For me, they are like a confirmation, and they’ve given me a new way to look at my work and what I plan to do with it.
Be yourself. That’s easy, right? Take the consequences. Now, we come to the tough part. Some people will like your work and others won’t. That’s okay. Those are the consequences of writing with readers in mind. Yet, if you embrace Roe’s conclusion, I think you’re in for a less burdensome and more joyful writing life.
A Circle of Friends: Readers
Roe goes on to give his thoughts on readership. I cannot help but list a number of his quotes on this topic; they are so beautifully expressed.
- A writer gradually forms a constituency, certain qualities in his book appealing to certain classes of minds.
- A writer who takes any hold on popular attention inevitably learns the character of his constituency.
- He appeals, and minds and temperaments in sympathy respond. Those he cannot touch go on their way indifferently; those he offends may often strike back.
- This is the natural result of any strong assertion of individuality.
- It is perhaps one of the pleasantest experiences of an author’s life to learn from letters and in other ways that he is forming a circle of friends, none the less friendly because personally unknown.
- Their loyalty is both a safeguard and an inspiration.
- On one hand, the writer shrinks from abusing such regard by careless work; on the other, he is stimulated and encouraged by the feeling that there is a group in waiting who will appreciate his best endeavor.
The Writer’s Aim
Roe sums it up for us:
- My one aim has become to do my work conscientiously and leave the final verdict to time and the public.
- I wish no other estimate than a correct one; and when the public indicate that they have had enough of Roe, I shall neither whine nor write.
There is much more in this excellent article for you to enjoy. To visit Stroud’s blog and read the entire post, click here.
Roe’s conclusion is hardly a secret, but I appreciate the way he says and explains it in such a practical and intelligent way. I hope his words help you to lose any fear you may have of sharing your writing with the world.
What will you do with these 14 words? Let me know in your comment.