Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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June 23, 2014

Writing Agreement # 2: Don't Take it Personally

Kathryn Craft

Turning Whine into Gold

Dont take personally

Continuing to mine Don Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements for wisdom applicable to writers, we come to number two—and it’s a doozy.

Don’t take anything personally.

Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.

This second agreement allows both writer and critic such incredible freedom. Let me count the ways.

1. Following your dream.

As an aspiring writer you may be criticized from the get-go. Cynics disguised as family members, best friends, bosses, and even writing partners might say you are wasting your time. The odds are against you. You will pour more money into this endeavor than you will ever make back. It takes years to hone that kind of craft and what if you never make it? You are a fool.

It’s hard to hear such invalidating comments from the people you love. But listen again, through the filter of the second agreement. What are your loved ones saying about themselves? They are saying that they are afraid for you. That they fear the loss of your time and attention. That if you turn away from your dream, they can be released from their own striving.

By adopting the second agreement you can allow them to deal with their fears on their own. They cannot stop you, because you are untouchable.

2. Receiving critiques.

I was once in a critique group with a man who said he was “correcting” my manuscript. One man in an esteemed and expensive workshop wrote off my first manuscript as a “chick book” (yes, it was women’s fiction). One reader said I should rewrite my story because they didn’t like first person. These opinions were not helpful; it is not why I sought critique.

The second agreement suggests these advance readers were simply telling me things about them—that one thought of himself as a teacher, another as a manly man, another as a reader who prefers third person. Does this mean we have cart blanche to ignore our critiquers? Absolutely not.

But adopting the second agreement does help you translate usable critique. When a beta reader recently told me that seven pages of backstory weren’t needed, I heard her say, “For me, you have not yet made these pages relevant.” Rather than delete pages I knew were crucial, I instead honored her feedback and rewrote, deepening their connection to the overall story. When my agent read the revised section, it was one of her favorite parts.

By adopting the second agreement you can act on the feedback that you deem useful. Discard the rest, because you are untouchable.

3. Seeking an agent.

Some of you may know by now that I have rejected the word “rejection.” It is such a harsh, judgmental term—how does it help you to go through life feeling multiply rejected?

I prefer “misalignment,” a choice empowered by the second agreement. When 112 agents said “no thanks” to my manuscript, they were not judging my work as unworthy; they were telling me that at this time they were not the right agent for my work. Now I am not emotionless. The eight-year length of the search was at times discouraging, even though I continued to improve the manuscript. But why would I want to hire an agent to sell my work if they didn’t know how to develop or champion it? Each “no thanks” indicated a misalignment between my project and that agent.

By adopting the second agreement you can continue on until you find the agent with whom you are perfectly aligned. The others cannot hurt you, because you are untouchable.

4. Surviving reviews.

We humans love the arts because we get to know each other, and ourselves, through discussing them—whether that’s on a date, during book club, or by writing reviews. Indisputably, we writers will all receive both good and bad reviews of our work. We want this debate—it’s so much worse if your work is roundly ignored. But if you are going to discount the bad reviews as personal opinion, you must discount the good reviews as the same. You haven’t changed just because your work was reviewed—you are still a working writer doing the best job that you can.

By adopting the second agreement you allow your readers to decide whether or not they connect with your work without disparaging you. If an attack sounds personal, it is because that reviewer is the type of person who can only gain personal power by trying to steal yours.

Let them try. They cannot hurt you, because you are untouchable.


photo credit: ohmann alianne via photopin cc

In what other areas of a writer’s life might the second agreement come in handy? Have you struggled with damage caused by the opinions of others? Let’s talk in the comments.

*To celebrate the new WITS website, Kathryn will be giving one lucky commenter a copy of The Four Agreements!

About Kathryn

Kathryn Craft

Kathryn Craft

Kathryn Craft is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling, and The Far End of Happy, due May 2015. Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she now serves as book club liaison for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. She hosts lakeside writing retreats for women in northern New York State, leads workshops, and speaks often about writing. She lives with her husband in Bucks County, PA. Although a member of The Liars Club, she swears that everything in this bio is true.

The lucky winner of Gwen Hernandez's offering of a free online Scrivener course, or her new release, Blind Fury, is: DANA SCHWARTZ!


72 comments on “Writing Agreement # 2: Don't Take it Personally”

  1. Another inspiring, wonderful blog, Kathryn, thanks so much. My best advice to discouraged writers - just don't stop.

    A belief in your stories and your writing is forged in fire.

    I found that once I made the shift to recognizing that people are reflecting themselves with their opinion of my work, it made easier to discern what advice to take, and what to reject.

    Objectivity is the hardest skill to obtain AND maintain, isn't it?

    1. Yes, Laura, our belief in our stories will be put to the test over and over—one reason not to offer up early drafts to the critique gods, since you do not yet know what the story is about. Once you really know what it's about—really, really know—you can fight for its best expression.

      As to your last comment, not sure "objectivity" is ever possible in a creative endeavor. We should love our work—and love immediately introduces a bias.

  2. This blog arrived at just the right time for me. A few weeks ago I received a "rejection" on a book where one reader lovedloved loved everything but the second reader stated " I would not read this for myself". I was confounded by the broad difference of opinion. But I have now been able to mine a few helpful gems from the otherwise personal opinions provided. A good critique is neither all good or all bad. Look for the nuggets of helpful wisdom even if you have to dig for them.

    1. Yes, like diamond mining! I hope you find many sparkly nuggets to light your path, Sandy, and don't let the occasional black hole suck you down.

  3. Great advice and wonderful way to parse the comments of others. Your tale of the beta reader and the pages of backstory brought to mind a similar comment from one of my betas recently. She told me I'd started my story in the wrong place, that the first scene was all backstory. Yet 4 other readers told me I HAD started in the right place (one of the questions I posed to them), so this one reader's comment prompted me to look more closely at that scene and make it work harder to reveal where the story was heading, rather than focusing quite so much on where it started. I so love revisions!

    1. Yes, Kate, isn't it? People are surprised that I sometimes read my negative reviews, but honestly, some negative reviews are truly entertaining, and my work gets to star in this one, lol! I remain strongly rooted in the notion that my readership is not "every person in the entire world." I have connected strongly with many who have read my book, and that was my goal.

  4. Kathryn, as always a wonderful post. We find this emotion-bashing in other areas of our life. If anyone remembers Psyche 101 they know ... this is projection. If you can "hear" what people are really saying, you can arm yourself.

    When we listen to what people are not saying, it makes handling their comments easier. And the best skill a writer can develop is a good ear. To hear ourselves and to hear others. Thanks again. I keep striving 🙂

  5. Wonderful post- thank you for the words of wisdom, perspective, and encouragement. I just added this as a link to my post this morning about starting the search for a literary agent.

  6. Thank you for your honest sharing of your process finding an agent to represent your book. I am just starting to send query letters, I appreciate your reframe away from rejection to misalignment.

  7. This was such a timely article, Kathryn. If there is any single mantra I need in my life, in writing and elsewhere, it's "Don't take it personally." To let others' opinions dictate my feelings about my work is to defeat myself from the start. It's probably why I've been a closet writer for 25 years, and only recently started forging ahead in the light.

    1. I'm glad you said "In writing and elsewhere," Paula—when you can keep your bearings about other aspects of your life, your writing will go better as well!

  8. This is an amazing post and very timely for me. I've been struggling with audience expectation for a while now and I hope with your advice I'll be able to see past it and break out of the negativity that's been holding me back creatively. Thank you so much!

  9. What a great post, Kathryn. I especially love your insight that readers' comments often tell us more about them than they do about us or our books. ,

  10. Thanks Holly. Even when meeting with book clubs I have never once said, "So, did everyone like it?" To me that is nowhere near as important as discussing the book's ideas and characters—for the express purpose of getting to know them.

  11. I love all your blogs Kathryn but this one is fantastic. Too often it's easy to take things personally. Your advice is right on.

  12. This post is SUPER elevating! And I ditto all of this. And was just talking about relevant points in an author talk I gave last week about following our dream and not letting the negative folks (and our own negative thoughts) stop us from being the true storytellers we are. And also to be open to criticism with an open mind - and to find a way to decipher what folks are truly telling us about our work through their reactions, and taking what we decipher and applying it to improve that work.

    And I full-heartedly believe that what people say about our choices and the words they say to us (good and bad) represents how they feel about themselves - as you so wonderfully pointed out. Hello! SUB TEXT! And in realizing this - I believe it helps strengthen our resolve to indeed NOT take it personally. Bravo!

  13. What a wonderfully wise post! I loved reading this and so much resonated for me, perhaps especially #2. I think new writers really need to take this to heart, because it's so easy to be crushed by someone else's issues with your story... then again, veteran writers probably need to remember this just as much 🙂

    And I saw in your bio that you live in Buck's County! My family is about to relocate to the area, near Doylestown, PA. I'm excited and nervous to leave Brooklyn where I've lived for almost 15 years. But how wonderful to know there is a thriving writing community there.

    Oh, and thanks so much WITS for the last contest! I'm psyched to take my Scrivener course by Gwen 🙂

    1. Sorry to butt in, but you are going to love Doylestown. Though I don't live there, I've passed through and stopped plenty of times. Definitely a "writerly" environment.

    2. Dana, as Kathryn noted I too live in Doylestown near her and YES - it is a fabulous thriving writer's community here in Bucks County! Woohoo for you on moving here and I hope to meet up in person!

  14. Hey Dana, I live in Doylestown, as does Donna (previous commenter)! We love it there. Contact me through my website when you get to town and we can get together—and congrats on winning the Scrivener course. Report back!

  15. Great stuff as usual, Kathryn! As the only boy to thus far leave a comment here, let me apologize on behalf of the dolt who dismissed your work because it was targeted at a 3-billion-strong audience he does not happen to be part of. It appears as if you took it in stride, but you still shouldn't have to deal with such arrogant and self-centered delusion.

    On point, I wish writers wouldn't feel like agents are singling them out for rejection, as if they all got together at a conference and decided to pick on one specific writer out of sheer cruelty and desire to see that person's hopes crushed.

    As writers, we’re supposed to be good at understanding motivation and empathizing with different people. Why disable that brain feature when it comes to our own work? Pretend to be an agent who looks at 30 or more queries a day and maybe decides to work with one or two authors a month, if that. You have to fall in love with that manuscript, or at least believe it is a sure sell.

    1. "As writers, we’re supposed to be good at understanding motivation and empathizing with different people. Why disable that brain feature when it comes to our own work?" So true, Eric!

      And as for the "manly man," I took him to church—as in, made an appointment with him to talk to me face to face. Turns out it was a lot easier for him to to bloat with hubris when he had a workshop audience. Once we were simply two writers consulting, he was much more helpful . 🙂

  16. I. Love. This. Post! I adore it because my philosophy is: "If we understood how LITTLE people sat around thinking about us, we'd be offended."

    We're just not the center of other's people's worlds and motivation, any more than they are in our world. Not that I never take things personally, but at least I know I'm full of hooey when I do.

  17. This was very encouraging Kathryn. I am a psychotherapist-turned-writer, and although I've suggested this philosophy to many of my patients, I've gotten a little sloppy in applying it to myself. Thanks for a very timely reminder.

    1. Haha June, I hear you! Yet being perfect isn't the goal, right? We want the ability to take note and self correct with the tools we've assembled before damage is done.

  18. Hi Kathryn. I especially like this: "When a beta reader recently told me that seven pages of backstory weren’t needed, I heard her say, “For me, you have not yet made these pages relevant.” I like the idea of rephrasing it into a weakness I can turn into a strength.

    I tend to take *everything* way too personally, but somehow I've developed a thick writing skin over the years and critique comments don't upset me nearly as much as other things in my life. I'm looking for ways to improve, so I want them to point out problems, but I also recognize that they may not have the inclination or background to like what I write. Except for the guy that totally ripped me and my skills apart for doing such a bad job on what I submitted - and he was a professor too! (A few years ago, not recently.) It took a children's lit conference where the same chapter got kudos to release all the tension.

    Thanks for a great post - I'm off to check out the earlier one now!

    1. That's exactly right—we want them to point out problems, yet we often bristle to hear about them. The quicker we can catch this temporary pain and readjust our attitudes, the better. We all have deeply ingrained ways of reacting to things, but that can change, with practice. Good for you for keeping at it!

  19. Oh, my gosh! I love this post! My favorite is the "misalignment" of agents. I am in the process of submitting to agents and I've set a goal not to become discouraged until at least after 100 submissions. But your words and your experience has me seeing this process in a new light. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

    1. No, Suzanne, don't set a goal for discouragement, lol! Keep your eyes on the prize. Research your agents' lists well, continue to improve the manuscript, and number 101 or 111 or 121 may be the one—and you want to come to the relationship with your enthusiasm fully engaged! You can do it!

  20. Amazing post. Dead on wisdom. I read this book many years ago but really needed this oh-so-timely reminder!

  21. Excellent post, from a woman who cries at the drop of a hat. I'll keep this handy when my contest scores come in July and August.

    1. Oh Barb, yes, please do! If you could print it out on tissue-thin paper you'd even have created a back-up plan... Remember, even experts cannot remove themselves from subjective opinion and tastes! Learn what you can, set aside the rest.

  22. Kathryn, brilliant article! I love that bit about those who insult others as trying to steal your personal power. I never thought of it that way. Thank you.

    1. Yvette, now that you are attuned to it you'll see it all the time! People can steal your energy by criticizing you, whining, making you chase them for an answer, other forms of abuse...but if two people come together for the purpose of contributing energy, as with constructive criticism, both parties leave the exchange feeling energized.

  23. Your article is a strong reminder that above all, our writing is a reflection of the story we need to tell. My daughter played soccer competitively. Luckily, early in her career she had a trainer and mentor from Brazil who played at the National level. He told her a story about trying out for a competitive team. Within five minutes, the coach said to him, "You! You don't know how to play soccer. Leave now." And so he did. That misalignment left him available to try out for a much more competitive team, which he made. Her mentor told my daughter that she might never know why she isn't selected for a team. It could be they see you as a striker and they need a defender. But never give up. She played competitively until she no longer felt like playing. I will remember her mentors words, and your encouraging article as I plow ahead in my writing. Thanks!

  24. Thanks for sharing that story Barbara! My son is in a very competitive field as well—opera performance. As in sports, he runs into "equal opportunity" facades, where the school or whatever has already made its choice but must advertise and accept applications nonetheless to fulfill certain grant rules. You're right—you never know, except for one thing: it has freed you to move on and find the true alignment you need.

  25. Late to the party but couldn't let a Kathryn Post go by without reading!! 🙂
    I LOVE the term “misalignment.” Absolutely perfect!

    1. Oh Ella, I'm so sorry. With the stakes higher, it does hurt more when reviews are published. But they do not define your work, as you know. And I absolutely believe that any publicity is good publicity: in the end people will say, "I saw something about that book," and check it out anyway. May you find your true readers! And thanks for the share.

  26. Your advice can be applied to just about anything in life. Just keep doing what you want to do and do it with your heart. There will always someone out there that will not like it your work but do it anyways! Thanks for the reminder, indeed 🙂

    1. Yes, Ann, when I first read The Four Agreements I was sorely in need of new life wisdom. Embracing its tenets changed my life. I only recently realized the number of ways it also affected my writing life.

  27. Excellent post, Kathryn! I've always been a positive person ready to battle the negative, so why did I let a couple of rejections derail my writing career for so long? I think I took them too personally. No more! I'll never stop writing.

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