The Law of Response: Where Acceptance and Rejection Begin

One evening, when I was still feeling rather low about all the books I hadn't published and all the money I hadn't made, I was having dinner with my wife and two sons and fell into a discussion about respect -- about who deserved it and who did not. I was of the opinion that everyone deserved it.

My oldest son, Max, then 12, was not so sure. "For instance," he offered, "I don't respect you, Dad, because you're not a success."

To be clear, Max is actually a very kind person. But he had the habit, particularly at that age, of blurting out the name of whatever elephant was currently clogging up the room. Which is why, though I was tempted to give a swift and harsh fatherly lecture about how you talk to people, I chose instead to say absolutely nothing. I had a very clear thought at that moment, a thought clearer than all those I'd ever had about success and failure: "You think you're a failure much of time. When you stop thinking it, he'll stop saying it."

This turned out to be absolutely true. A few years later, when I was interviewing authors and speaking to writing organizations and generally loving all the different things I was doing, Max's talk of failure quickly dried up. It was a satisfying arc of experience, but one I often felt I could have had only with Max. He had a quirky directness I rarely encountered elsewhere. Most people, I figured, don't notice if you bring an elephant to a dinner party.

If only that were so. Since then I've noticed that everyone talks about whatever elephant I've dragged into the room; they just talk about it differently. Some respond to the elephant graciously, others nervously; some are commiserative, others are hostile. However precisely they respond, everyone always treats me exactly the way I expect to be treated. Which is to say, I find I like the things people say to me when I'm liking myself, and I do not like the things people say to me when I'm not liking myself. It is as predictable as gravity.

This law of response extends even to agents and editors and readers, which is a little mystifying because these people are so far away. For reasons that cannot be explained by any of Newton's laws, whatever I offer the reading world is accepted or appreciated to the exact degree that I have accepted and appreciated it. Luck, I've decided, has got absolutely nothing to do with it.

If this is a little too woo-woo for you, I understand. Most authors I know try to be as practical as possible. It's just that authors have a strange relationship to other people. We need them for everything we do. We need them to buy our books and edit our books and review our books. Without those other people, we'd have no career, no livelihood, no one with whom to share our work.

Yet none of those other people are there with us in the room when we write our stories and poems and essays. We are completely, necessarily, delightfully alone. Which is why the most impractical thing I can do in the creative solitude of my workroom is to start trying to guess whether anyone will like what I am writing. All I can ever know is what I think of what I'm writing. So whether I like it or not, whether it's woo-woo or not, the only way to gain the attention of all these readers and reviewers, all these other people spread far and wide over the entire world, is to sit alone at my desk and pay very close attention to myself.

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