On The/My Constant Need for Constant Praise

About an hour after my latest blog post, I sent a message to my friend N.

“Can you read my new post!?” I wrote. “I haven’t gotten any response yet and I’m starting to panic!”

“Sure!” she wrote back. Of course.

And, of course, a few minutes later: “It’s great! I like the writing and the questions!”

I knew, before and after, that this was an absurd exercise. How did I expect her to respond? “Eh, not your best”? “Okay, but the prose is mediocre and the ideas mundane”?

(Perhaps another friend, though I’m pressed to produce a name, would have offered such candid feedback–but certainly not this one.)

And yet, I immediately felt better. At least one person thought what I had written was decent. Or so, at least, I could tell myself.

Did it appease my insecurity entirely? Of course not. I proceeded to spend the rest of the afternoon compulsively checking Facebook, to see if anyone else had “liked” the post, and my email in hopes that someone had left a comment.

(And then, after various errands, I got in bed and watched multiple episodes of my new Netflix addiction, “Friday Night Lights.” No, I am not proud of any of the above.)

But when it comes to the need for validation, is it ever enough? Are any of us–those of us, creative types, who habitually put things into the world and then pin our entire self-worth on that world’s response–ever fully satisfied by what we receive?

Recently, I heard an anecdote about a Nobel-Prize winning writer–Nobel Prize winning–who called up an acquaintance in a state of panic because a reviewer had noted that her most recent book was her best since the one she’d written two before. “What?” the writer pleaded. “Was the last one not any good?!”

The story seemed incomprehensible to me when I heard it. How could someone whose life’s work and accomplishments had been recognized so profoundly, so thoroughly, so consistently, possibly retain any shred of self-doubt?

Still, it’s difficult to fathom. But whether or not you buy it, the anecdote illustrates just how powerful that need is: that desperate, urgent need for external recognition.

Last semester I read an essay called “Why Write?” by the poet Alan Shapiro, published inΒ  Best American Essays 2006. It’s a great essay, but the part that has stuck with me is about this very thing: the infinite cycle that is the writerly desire to be validated.

He describes thinking, as a teenager, that all he’d need to make him truly happy was to publish a poem in a single magazine. And then once he did, he thought he’d be truly validated if he could publish in a place like The New Yorker. And as soon as he did that, it would be to write a book. And then to get a good review.

And so on, and so on, until he concludes that “even if God Himself, the Lord Almighty, hallowed be His name, came down from heaven and gave me a big fat kiss on the back of the brain, I’d probably shrug if off: ‘What? That’s it? For years you don’t write, you don’t call, and now all I get is a lousy kiss?'”

He goes on: “Don’t get me wrong. Acclaim of any kind is wonderful…But even at its best, that sort of ‘reward’ or ‘recognition’ is like cotton candy: it looks ample enough until you put in in your mouth; then it evaporates. All taste and no nourishment.”

Perhaps, though, the need for recognition is part of what drives people, pushes them to keep producing even once they’ve achieved some measure of success. And while, like Shapiro, I’d like to think that what motivates us is nobler than that, I also think the desire makes sense.

After all, the reason we write–or at least, the reason I write–is to connect. To assure others, and ourselves, that our experience isn’t totally unique. I don’t know a less cheesy way to say it. And I know there are other reasons, other values and other pleasures, to be found in creating. But I do believe that at the core of it all is connection.

And if that’s the desire, than doesn’t it make sense, and isn’t it a little bit important that we’d want to know we’ve succeeded? I don’t like it, but I think it might–even if we’ll forever be wanting to succeed a little bit more.

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “On The/My Constant Need for Constant Praise

  1. Jos

    I am not replying simply because this post is basically begging for it but because it forces me to face the painful reality that when I delete my facebook status updates that don’t get comments within the first TEN MINUTES, it points to the truth that I am sorely in need of a hobby.

    But really good post, LIz. They always are.

  2. Not surprisingly, as a writer, I feel the same way. That’s probably why I’m always in a writing group. It makes me feel better to get feedback and reassurance on my work. Yet, there’s a part of me that never feels satisfied no matter how much people assure me something is good.

  3. ep

    So, now I have to confess – I come back to your blog periodically to see if you (or anyone) has responded to my comments. πŸ™‚ How’s that for needing validation? And I’m not even the artist, writer, creator! As for Facebook, Joe, well, that’s like a validation addiction machine!

  4. megan

    Yeah I think it’s pretty normal to want comments. πŸ™‚ I’ve written on blogs off and on since before they were called blogs (back in the 90s) and when I have them I always frantically check if I have comments or look to see if others have commented on my comments. Part of the reason I’m not on facebook anymore or writing much online; I don’t like the person I turn into when writing in that fashion.

    BTW…you shouldn’t be ashamed of watching Friday Night Lights. It’s a fantastic show! Are you starting from the beginning?

    • Thanks Megan. It’s true–that person is not pretty! But for right now I’ll make the compromise πŸ™‚ And yes, I am starting from the beginning–that first episode is so gripping!

      • megan

        Also, about FNL, the first season is great, the second so so, but then it picks up again 3-5th. I’m so excited for you to be starting from the beginning! Yay!

  5. Ha! I do the same thing. As soon as I post a blog, I’m checking it a few times a looking for a comment, like, or tweet. I don’t feel complete without a comment! And I hate when I’m notified about a new comment and the sh*t is spam! Ugh!

  6. I think all writers are like this. I too am devastated when my FB update garners no comments, and will actually come up with something I think will get some darn comments. That’s what working solo will do to you, I guess. With my regular writing, my poor husband is my beta reader. He’ll read a new piece and say, “I liked it,” and I’ll say, “Why? What did you like?” and then we will have to have a 2 hour conversation dissecting it exhaustively; then later I will again say, “So, did you LOVE it or just kind of LIKE it?” Luckily for everyone else on the planet, he bears the brunt of my insecurity. But it makes me really happy when what I intended to come across actually does; that connection.

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