In Praise of Praise

I used to be that kid.

From elementary to high school I was the teacher’s pet: studied hard, scored well, helped out, and spent most of my time reading. This paid off in various ways. I had great relationships with most of my teachers and they usually let me do what I wanted. In fourth grade, my teacher approved when I read above the class level. In sixth grade, I wrote a play based on the Trojan War so my social studies teacher let me teach the unit and direct my classmates in the play. In eighth grade, my teacher sent my final project manuscript (a rough draft of my first real-ish book Tastes Like Suicidal Tendencies) to a college professor for feedback. In tenth grade, my teacher didn’t mind when I turned in over two hundred poems instead of just the required twenty. In twelfth grade, I was encouraged by my teacher to submit the second draft of Stained for my senior project and he let me lecture for thirty minutes on how to write a book.

Throughout this time I was also supported by my wonderful classmates. They put up with my stupid Greek play and acted out their parts. They asked for and bought additional copies of Tastes Like Suicidal Tendencies for three dollars each and said they loved it—even though it was terrible. They listened to some of my poetry readings. They read Stained, listened to my super long lecture, and wrote nice notes in my yearbook about how great my writing was and that they knew I was going to get published someday.

For the longest time I was fed a heavy diet of teacher appreciation, student support, and anonymous online reviews. I was confident, high on my writing talent, and so sure that I was going to go places. In fact, I thought that I didn’t really need a degree in the first place when I could just write all day and get published without a piece of paper saying I was qualified to do so. I went to my first writing workshop in college and still thought I was the shit. For a few more semesters I was comfortable with who I was as a writer, as a person, and didn’t worry too much about the future.

I don’t quite know when things changed. Was it after I handed out the sixth draft of Stained to people who were interested, and heard nothing back? Was it after I entered a writing contest and didn’t place? Was it after the reviews on my fan fictions went from frequent to occasional? Was it after I gave up on people reading my blog or commenting? I’m not sure, but at some point I lost my confidence as a writer.

It felt almost useless to put so much effort into my writing and not hear anything back. I was so used to having people praise me and give me ‘treats’ that I didn’t know what to do without it. I was lost.

Luckily, I realized through writing this blog that I like writing for myself. It’s nice having an audience out there somewhere, but my most important and hardest critic is myself. If I’m happy writing book reviews and telling strangers about my life on occasion then that’s all I need to know. Even with this in mind, I was nervous to hand in a story to my workshop this semester—the first workshop I’ve taken in over a year. I thought it was good, but it wasn’t sure how others were going to react to it or what the professor would think.

As with all workshops I received praise and suggestions. The latter I took with great inspiration for how to make the story better, but the former completely made me squeal with glee. It had been so long since anyone had told me that my work was worth publishing or rare or professional that it was like hearing it for the first time. It gave me some of my old confidence back and I felt better about my graduate school applications, the future, and the level of my writing.

I was spoiled with praise when I was growing up and developing as a writer. It took some hard times and soul searching for me to realize that I love writing whether I get compliments or not, but I can definitely say now that occasional praise doesn’t hurt. Writers are like cacti—they develop thick skins to protect themselves from criticism and can survive in long periods of creative drought, but they also need sprinkles of praise in order for anything to bloom.

My experiences with praise and criticism have taught me how far my motivation, inspiration, and discipline can go when I’m the only one pushing myself. I know that I can survive another praise drought if it should come, and I’m more motivated than ever to pursue my dreams.