Battered But Not Broken

In which I use as many animated GIFs as possible in one post. Seriously guys, how did GIFs not get named Time magazine’s Person of the Year? They saw all those Olympic ones over at The Atlantic, right? The only good explanation here has to do with the petty politics of magazine publishing, and that’s not the topic at hand today. So on to my book, then.

In as much as blogs are virtual Rorschachs of their author’s emotions, there’s a reason this one’s been blank for months now. Back in the summer I gave the first half of my novel to five readers, all of whom had wonderful, enthusiastic things to say about it (including two professional editors, who made my month(s) with their feedback and helpful comments). But then despite my best instincts, because I felt like I hadn’t heard enough about what was wrong with the book, I sought out one more reader whom I thought would be more critical. (Yeah I know this is f’ed up and self-destructive, and I’ve since addressed it with the talkie therapy, but only after the damage was done.)

Anyway I heard back from this person in early fall (who am I kidding, like I don’t know the exact day, it was September 8th), and let’s just say their response was… less than favorable. Okay, so it pretty much crushed my spirit, and I completely shut down and went into hiding, and couldn’t write a word until just a few days ago. (In retrospect, reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road during this period probably didn’t help my mental state, but the German parts of my genes make me a bit of a masochist.)

I won’t go into a ton of detail about the feedback itself, because I know it was well-intentioned. But it also contained a few comments — I believe the exact phrase was “total rewrite situation” — that hit me square in the solar plexus. Listen, I will totally own the fact that I’m a sensitive person, particularly so with this book since it’s been my baby for almost three years now, but I do believe there are more and less helpful ways to give criticism. And the pull-no-punches kind, at least in my experience, is rarely the most effective (despite my aforementioned propensity for seeking out pain).

Anyway I proceeded into stages 2, 3 and 4 of Kübler-Ross’s well-known literary grief cycle, in which I briefly felt anger and embarrassment before heading into a prolonged depressed period. I started out all, “take your MFA crit bullshit and shove it up your poop chute,” then slipped into shame’s turgid undertow and felt totally mortified for sharing something that was so obviously terrible, before spiraling down into general feelings of worthlessness. Really fun times.

At some point, though, I reached Robert Frost’s bifurcated road, and the two choices before me — and their consequences — could not have been more stark. On the one hand I could pack it in. Give up on the book, declare it DOA, and try to live out my destiny as a career administrative assistant who dotes on her four cats. (Maybe someday I’ll tell you their names, if you ask nicely.) On the other, I would have to dig in even deeper, re-up my commitment, and resolve to finish this bitch within the next six months or before it kills me, whichever comes first.

ColbertIt’s also probably worth noting that of all the responses I received, the only one I internalized was a complete outlier. And that the things this reader said made the draft fundamentally flawed were the exact same elements all the others had liked best. In other words, taste is subjective and there will always be people that don’t dig what you do. Or, as Vonnegut said, “[w]rite to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

No choice then, really. Not if I don’t want my soul to die — which I swear is not a play on Gogol’s book, but unfortunately a literal reference to my own dark days. (Another time maybe I’ll also tell you how the last time I tried to start a book I ended up in an inpatient mental health unit, but only after we’re at least half a bottle in.) So there you have it and here I am, battered, but unbroken. Along with  supportive friends and family, I want to thank the amazing Hillary Rettig, whose work on overcoming perfectionism, procrastination, and writer’s block just may have saved my life. Seriously if you’re struggling to write but can’t take a course with this woman, at least buy her book. (You will thank me, it could save you a trip to said mental health unit, and I don’t know why she hasn’t asked me to write this up as an Amazon review. It’s amazing how tetchy people get when you want to use the words “suicidal ideation” in a book blurb. Jk Hillary, jk.)

For those of you still reading, thanks for indulging my Dear Diary moment, especially since it contained lots of distracting moving images. I’ll let Tyra close things out, since I believe she best sums up what I need to do next.

All GIFS via #whatshouldwecallpoets


  • Hi Kirstin – this was an amazing post on so many levels. Re the “sensitivity” issue, as we discussed in class, it is our job as writers, not to mention, awake and alive and caring humans, to remain pervious, but that necessarily makes us vulnerable. Also, writing itself is very self-exposing. So, no, I don’t think one is being “sensitive” in the pejorative sense when one reacts to harsh criticism. (And the fact that “sensitive” even has a pejorative sense is damning of our culture – ain’t nothing wrong with being sensitive.)

    And re the whole outliers point, I recently tweeted about how, for every fifty Kindle books I sell, 1 person returns theirs for a refund–and how, if I’m not vigilant, I’ll dwell on that 1. (And I teach this stuff!) That’s nothing but perfectionism, and you never, never, never listen to the perfectionist voice.

    You are also right, of course: giving up accomplishes nothing.

    Anyhow, this was a fabulous post that really elucidated a post-traumatic-rejection state of mind AND its recovery. I’m going to share it and refer future classes to it. Thanks for taking the time to write it, thanks for your bold sharing, and also thanks for your kind comments about my work, which fuel me to keep going.

    Also, +10 for great GIFs!

  • Kirstin Butler wrote:

    You rock, Hillary. In my head you wear a cape and belt like Wonder Woman–maybe something for your illustrator to consider in future editions of the book? But it’s also comforting to know that you still have to fight the good fight yourself.

    I’m going to be relentless about “resourcing myself abundantly” this year, to use one of your great terms. I learned a hard lesson about protecting myself when I share work, but it’s one I won’t forget. And if there’s a silver lining to this story, it’s that the experience prompted me to reach out and get help from a superhero like yourself.

    Hope to see you soon!

  • […] friend and former student Kirstin Butler wrote a fantastic post on coping with traumatic rejection. I won’t go into a ton of detail about the feedback itself, because I know it was […]

  • I’m so glad you’re unbroken. I can’t remember how I came across your blog and your Dead SULS idea but I’m really glad I did. Your posts haver kept me curious and I’m delighted you’re writing again.

    I hope you’re well, happy, and rejuvenated, and look forward to reading a great novel. If it has a fraction of your blog’s wit, it will be a winner.

    Best wishes
    Richard (some bloke from the UK who likes original ideas in fiction)

  • Kirstin Butler wrote:

    Hi Richard,

    I can’t tell you how much your words mean to me. I read them a week ago, but my difficulty in responding to communication has always been in direct proportion to how much it matters. So I’m a little verklempt, but in the best possible way.

    I do feel happy and optimistic again about finishing this draft, this year. I know it will happen in large part because of support from you and others who, to paraphrase Josh Groban, raise me up so I can type in fountains, or some such. I’m pretty sure that’s how the lyrics go.

    Thank you, thank you.

  • Is this your last post? I am waiting eagerly for the next one…from Las Vegas?

    PS You can see by my brevity that my soul had been eaten by twitter.

    I think your blog is going to help me with my twitter problem.

    Maybe I’ll even start blogging again…

  • Kirstin Butler wrote:

    Hello from Albuquerque, Therese! Thanks so much for your comments. I’ve been on Twitter holiday for my roadtrip, which always makes me feel disconnected but somehow more balanced at the same time.

    At the moment I’m sitting in a Whole Foods for the free wi-fi, looking out at an incredible view of the mountains. I wonder if I’d ever start taking them for granted if I lived out here. In any case, a more formal blog post to follow, soon…

  • Therese Sellers wrote:

    Thinking of you there with the mountains gathering inspiration.

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