The greatest lesson every writer should learn

writer-bench-greatest-lessonCriticism 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 CriticizedIn 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.

Criticism Comes

  • 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.


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12 thoughts on “The greatest lesson every writer should learn

  1. I’m so glad you shared this, it was a great read! A book is something that’s very personal to the writer. I liked his line, “..the characters and their experiences absorbing me wholly.” When this happens you get to know the characters as well as if they’re real people, and they will seem like that on the page.

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    1. That’s it exactly, Anita. Don’t you feel like you’re in another world when you read good writing like that? It’s what I love about writing fiction — I’m creating something new — new people, places, situations — for readers to enjoy. Thanks for your great thoughts.

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  2. Criticism, for me, became easier the more I put myself out there. For too long I avoided sharing my work because of the inevitable backlash. Yes, it was terribly painful the first few times; however, with the criticism came a few nuggets of compliments. Those were unexpected, and therefore, more valuable to me in the long run.

    Great review, Darla.

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    1. Thanks, Kate. Yes, constructive criticism is a good thing to receive. It both humbles and challenges me. Roe got a lot of destructive criticism simply because his writing wasn’t “literary.” His readers loved him. Touché!

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  3. Darla this post was a most valuable learning tool & a well of information that is not only useful to writers. But an inspiration to those of us who are idealist with passionate beliefs that the story must tell itself!! I found myself agreeing with everything said by Roe & by you as well!! And I cannot wait to share this with Inion who is going to absolutely love the principle by which Roe wrote! I just finished following the link to “Mere Inkling” & read the post & made sure to follow the blog & like it! We will be sharing this with our entire community as we feel this is extremely important to pass along and the perfect inspiration & advice for any writer during any time of their career!! And as you know from just visiting our blog, we are both C.S. Lewis fans so I will be popping over again to read more as you pointed out to Marylin.

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    1. It does appear that the message in this post is one writers have been waiting to hear. It’s received more hits and Facebook likes in a day than any other post I’ve written. Yes, please do share this powerful message with other writers. And I do hope you enjoy Rob’s C.S. Lewis blog. I look forward to every one of his posts. They are packed with interesting thoughts and delivered with Rob’s excellent writing.

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  4. This is an excellent review, Darla, and a superb lesson for all of us who struggle to find our way from idea to printed page. While I will copy those fourteen words (and should have it embroidered on a sampler to hang on the wall as well) your summary of the process fully kept my attention.
    You have a jewel of a post here!

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