Writing Wednesday: What If They Laugh?
By Kara Newcastle
Anything that would cause people to laugh at me, or tease me in NYC, please get rid of it.
–Pat Conroy to the editor of one of his novels
Admit it: at some point in your writing career, you were afraid to show anybody what you had created because you were sure they were going to laugh at you. Maybe not laugh; maybe you were afraid of a sneer, a raised eyebrow, smirk, an eyeroll, or—eerugh—somebody criticizing you. Either way, you were afraid of being put down in some manner.
Hey, it’s a legitimate fear, one that has affected every writer at some point since the first scratch was made in clay. Nobody likes the feeling of pouring their heart and soul into something only to have it lambasted by someone else. It could happen, it has happened, it will happen … and then you’ll learn to get over it and keep going.
And you’ll see that it probably can help you BIG TIME.
The first thing to address is why we think people will laugh at us. That’s easy; it all goes back to when you were a kid. As a young child, I’m sure you made something that you thought was absolutely amazing. Let’s say you painted a picture, and when you looked at it, you saw a Renoir, but when you showed it an adult, they laughed. You were confused; why were they laughing at your masterpiece? Odds are, they weren’t laughing because they found your attempt at painting absurd—they were delighted, but you were too young to understand the difference. That didn’t stop it from hurting.
Fast forward a few years to your tweens. Let’s say you wrote a story for the fun of it and you show it to your friends. You think your story is on par with Rushdie, but your friends are unimpressed. They laugh dismissively, then go back to talking about whether or not Ayden with the “y” likes Aiden with the “i.”
Let’s go ahead to your teens. Let’s say you wrote a poem in your English class, and that your teacher read it. You have no aspirations for it, it’s just an assignment you did. Once the poem is finished, that one kid who sits in the back and never takes his baseball cap off yells, “That was so STUPID!” (this actually happened to me.)
Is it any wonder you’d be afraid to show your work?
To top the anxiety off, you probably feel like you don’t really compare to any established author, so you’re sure you are going to sound so ridiculously amateurish that anyone with the I.Q. of slime mold is going to find it hysterical. The thought of being mocked fills you with such dread that you’d prefer to write in secret and never show it to anybody.
Let me ask you this: how are you going to benefit from hiding and avoiding? If you have any intent of making any kind of career with writing, be it writing novels, blogs, articles or essays, you need to have people read it. Maybe they’ll laugh. If they do, let them, then ask them why. Odds are good that they’re not laughing because they find you pathetic; they might laugh because you wrote something genuinely funny. Or they’re actually very impressed with what you came up with and that’s the way they express their awe. Or they might laugh because you did make a mistake and they think, “Oh jeez, I remember doing that way back when.”
In other words, most people won’t laugh to hurt you. However, I have to point out that there are people who will make fun of you because they love seeing you hurt. (Take a second to read the comments section on a Youtube video and you’ll see I’m right.) The reasons behind this mentality are multifold, but largely it comes down to two groups: the ones that are jealous, and the ones who think they are superior. The ones who are jealous are the ones who are too afraid to put in the effort, and they resent that you have the guts to do what they can’t. The ones who think they’re superior have struggled for years to become accomplished, and they resent anybody else who comes along and breaks the rules or doesn’t appear to have put in the same amount of effort that they had to.
And yet, there is a possibility that being laughed at can actually save you from embarrassment in the future. Whenever I discuss this topic with someone, I always call to mind the bonehead move that Robert Browning made when he wrote the verse drama “Pippa Passes” in 1841. The Pippa in the title is a young Italian girl who makes observations about the world around her. Pippa says at the end of the poem:
But at night, brother howlet, over the woods,
Toll the world to thy chantry;
Sing to the bats’ sleek sisterhoods
Full complines with gallantry:
Then, owls and bats,
Cowls and twats,
Monks and nuns, in a cloister’s moods,
Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!
Yeah, read that third line up from the bottom again. Uh-huh, yup, there it is, no denying it. He used THAT word. Why is this such a big deal? So glad you asked! Apparently, Browning lived such a sheltered life that he wasn’t familiar with vulgarity. He came across the word in the bawdy 1660 poem “Vanity of the Vanities” that went, “They talk’t of his having a Cardinall’s Hat/They’d send him as soon an Old Nun’s Twat,” and assumed that a “twat” was the headcloth that a nun wore. He never bothered to look up the actual meaning, used it in his own poem, and it went to print. Luckily (or unluckily) for Browning, no one had the courage to educate him on his mistake, and he continued to misuse words in his works.
179 years later, people are still laughing at his goof. If somebody had laughed when they first read it, maybe Browning’s legacy could have been spared this embarrassment. Maybe it’ll save you too … the idea of people in the year 2199 laughing at a dumb mistake I had made freaks me out more than anybody chuckling at that mistake now.