Friday, February 11, 2011

Taking candy (and comments) from strangers

I wear glasses.

That sounds something I’d say at the start of a self-help group, and in some ways, it is. I don’t think of myself as a person who wears glasses, but I’ve had them since college and wear them for everything from grocery shopping to driving.

But I’ve still never adjusted to them. I don’t know if it’s some bizarre, deeply entrenched notion that glasses aren’t cool, or if it’s just that they irritate the crap out of me. Probably both. When I meet new people or if I see a camera headed my direction, you can bet I’m stashing them in a pocket.

My boss recently hired a nationally-recognized public speaking coach to work with everyone at my day job. I was thrilled, since it’s something I can use both there and when I speak to writing groups.

Midway through our first session, the coach asked me to read a passage from a book I’d brought (Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels, in case you’re wondering). I picked up my glasses and opened the book.

“Wow,” he said. “Why aren’t you doing that all the time?”

“What?”

“Wearing those glasses. It completely changes your look. For the better,” he added, probably because he saw me cringe. “You’ve got this whole sexy librarian thing going on now.”

He went on to explain how it could benefit me both in my marketing/PR career as well as the romance writing realm, with the glasses lending me a note of seriousness and intellect.

Out of context, this probably sounds like he was trying to get into my pants, but that definitely wasn’t the case. His job was to critique every aspect of how we present ourselves publicly, and that was part of it.

I don’t know why those words from a stranger had such an impact on me, but they did. The whole rest of the day, I caught myself being less self-conscious about the glasses. It’s ridiculous, I know, but certainly not the most ridiculous thing about me.

What is it about comments from strangers that make them so powerful?

Earlier in the week, I got some negative feedback on Making Waves from someone I’ve never met but whose opinion I value a great deal. I won’t lie, it hurt. Two days later, another stranger whose opinion also matters a lot – perhaps more so than the first person – offered gushing, unsolicited praise of the book.

I was on cloud nine.

People often comment that I seem to march to the beat of my own drummer without caring what others think. The former may be true, but the latter? Not so much. I care a lot more than I wish I did. Isn’t that part of becoming a published writer? If we didn’t care about other people seeing and responding to our work, wouldn’t we just hide out in caves and scribble to ourselves in the dark?

Have you ever received feedback from a stranger that impacted you in a good or bad way? Please share.

Oh, and please don’t feel you need to comment on the photo – I’m not fishing for compliments, I swear. I only included it because I went searching for a picture of me with glasses, and out of hundreds of pictures on my desktop, could only find one. Strange, no?

34 comments :

kd easley said...

I think comments from strangers are powerful because they have no vested interest in the outcome. Just a thought, anyway.

I was a racecar crew member for years, one of just a few women that did that at the time. I can remember women coming up to me after a race and telling me they'd been watching me all night or how impressed or envious they were. Racing was already something that gave me a lot of self-confidence, but a comment from a stranger about my work just put me on cloud nine.

Oh, and by the way, I think you look better in the glasses, too. For what it's worth.

Patty Blount said...

I HATE my glasses and refuse to wear them, not out of vanity but because they truly annoy me. They're always dirty, blurring lights, sliding down my nose or getting caught on my hair. I wear them when my squinting gets so bad, my eyes tear.

As for feedback, I need it. My husband is not as supportive as I'd like so I am always thrusting a few pages into the hands of friends, begging them to tell me what they think. Most never respond...

You probably know this story already...

SEND, my YA novel about a former cyberbully was written twice. The first time, I'd used twenty-year-old characters and my queries were all form rejected, except for one. Colleen Lindsay wrote to tell me "YA means teenagers!"

Oops.

I rewrote it. This time, with teen characters. During a particularly bad writing slump, I was ready to quit. Delete the manuscript and quit writing and maybe sell hot dogs on the streets of Manhattan. In tears, I tweeted about my desperation and Kelly Breakey, someone I've never met, offered to read SEND.

She read the manuscript, even stayed up late because she knew how nuts I'd gotten. She offered not just empty praise, but concrete suggestions for improvements that I desperately needed! Since she's not a relative, she wasn't required to lie and say nice things. I found I trusted her feedback enough to finish the novel and query again.

I just signed with an agent last month. (huge, face-splitting grin)

I've gotten plenty of negative feedback on SEND, too. But it all pales beside Kelly's, a stranger who's now a friend. Her feedback made me believe I'm an AUTHOR and not just someone who writes in her spare time.

That's life-changing.

Elise said...

I choose to believe you used the picture because your dog loved Elixir so much!

It's true -- as writers we want to share our stories with other people, so of course we want them to be liked, and it stings when they're not. I've been writing in various formats a long time, and for me the wanting to please hasn't changed, nor has the sting when it doesn't work out.

What HAS changed is how I handle it. I'm now much better at feeling the sting, then putting me behind me and analyzing the criticism, taking what's constructive about it, and moving on.

N.M. Martinez said...

"What is it about comments from strangers that make them so powerful?"

They don't know us, so they have no reason to lie to spare our feelings. I also always figure that if someone who has no ties to me and no reason to care makes a point to tell me something, it's something that's important enough to derail them in some way. That has to mean something.

I think I've always hid from strangers fearing those negative comments because they are powerful. But when I stopped hiding, I actually managed to find some good supportive people just with my writing. I shared a story online, and though I didn't advertise, people would stop by and leave comments. (How they found the story, I don't really know.) They really didn't have to. Since I wasn't advertising, I wasn't asking for anything. But I met some really wonderful people, and just the act of them stopping by, leaving comments and wanting to get to know me has really meant the world to me as a writer.

Elise said...

Did I say "putting me behind me"? That might have been profound, but I meant "putting it behind me."

Maybe I should use that preview button occasionally...

Jason said...

I agree with the others - it's about getting feedback from someone who has nothing to gain from your reaction. They aren't close to you, so it's not like the are cozying up for something, and they don't necessarily have a need to coddle your feelings. It just is, and it can be sometimes very refreshing.

As for the glasses...I just got mine two years ago, at the age of 31. They drove me insane for a few months, but in the end the whole seeing better thing trumps not wearing them. It's not necessarily the vanity, it was just getting used to wearing them, the same way I had to get used to wearing my ring when I got married. Now it's second nature.

Of course, Mom still asks me when I got glasses, after two years. Apparently we don't see each other enough or something.

Michelle Wolfson said...

I always feel slightly guilty now when I take off my glasses for a photo (normally I am wearing contacts so it's not an issue) but I feel like I'm setting a bad example for my 2yo who wears glasses. On the other hand, if I looked as cute in mine as she does in hers, maybe I would wear them all the time.

I agree that comments from strangers can mean more for the reason someone mentioned--they have nothing to gain/lose. No reason to lie.

Still, an opinion is just an opinion, and that's worth keeping in mind as writers.

Danica Avet said...

When I got out of college, I had a very short job as a cocktail waitress on a riverboat cruise. One of my duties was to introduce and explain a drink to a very large audience. I was scared to death, but I did it. After I did my thing and ended my shift, the MC who was running the show came over to me and told me what a wonderful speaking voice I had. Since the sound of my own voice annoys me, I was very pleased when someone I didn't know said it was good for addressing crowds. Not that I make a habit of doing that, mind you.

As for glasses. I have 20/20 vision. Part of me almost wants to have glasses because I always thought they looked smart and I'm all about looking smart in my baggy t-shirts and jeans. *Grin*

Kristi Helvig said...

Both my kids and I wear glasses, and my kids look adorable in them. I live in my glasses in the house and at night, but often wear contacts during the day so I can wear sunglasses. It's bright here in Colorado and I've never gotten around to prescription sunglasses. Embrace your inner librarian!

It's so hard not to let the opinions of others impact you. I've heard writers say they never read reviews of their own books, but I personally would find this impossible to do. In the end, as long as you don't tie the praise or criticism to your self-worth, I don't think it's a bad thing to hear what others think.

Sarah W said...

A few months ago, someone found a (very) long story I'd written a year or two ago as a fun practice exercise and posted on a website.

She took the time to send me an e-mail about how much she enjoyed reading it---she said she'd stayed up until 3:30 am to finish it, even though she was going on an overseas trip the next day---she actually sent the message from her phone while she was waiting for her flight to be called.

I saved the message in an UnRejection folder to re-read when the words won't cooperate. It will remind me that someone, somewhere, likes my style.

Indigo said...

I used to be (still sort of am) very self conscious about my deafness when communicating with others. When I wore a hearing aide, I would wear my hair long covering my ears. Now with a working dog for the deaf beside me wherever I go, I can't necessarily hide my disability.

I've actually been called a bitch by people who thought me rude when I wouldn't respond. Still better than them knowing - right? I'm past that now.

When I get compliments from complete strangers, stating how eloquent I talk, or surprised they are I read lips so well - I wonder why I ever let my insecurities to the forefront. (Hugs)Indigo

Sarah said...

I've only been wearing glasses for less than a year. I don't feel like a "glasses person," either.

Comments from strangers are easier to determine how you want to take them. Comments from people who I know really well, I somehow feel obligated to take them seriously.

Kristie Cook said...

If we didn't care what others thought, we wouldn't REVISE the same sentence a hundred times until it becomes shining perfection. So you're right about that. Are you sure you have no other pics of you in glasses? I swear I've seen something because I always picture you as the sexy book girl with her glasses and naughty thoughts going on in her head.

Simon C. Larter said...

I read "sexy librarian" and just had to click through from Google Reader. *cough*

Dammit. With competition like that, I'm *never* going to get that cushy, 80K a year job with scads of free time for writing....

Jennifer Shirk said...

Yeah, that is kind of funny how what people we don't know say affects us more than people we do know.

bettyfokker said...

Good news: with the "sexy librarian" thing you could always go for a career in porn if the writing thing doesn't work out. ;)

SM Schmidt said...

I love my glasses but have begun to take them off when I take pictures lately because flash is not my friend. Lens flair belongs only in Photoshop.

The first time I received a detailed critique of my work from my critique partner it made my day. They pointed out all these errors I had nagging feelings where there but they also pointed out things they loved which sent me straight to cloud nine. I wore the biggest grin the rest of the day.

Gabriela Lessa said...

The thing about comment from strangers is that you can't say they're just saying that because they love you and wanto to make you happy, or because they hate you and want to be mean. There are no personal feelings in the way, just an honest opinion. I guess it does make us value it more.

Oh, and on the glasses, they actually make you look younger. I like it. :)

Nicole Zoltack said...

I hate my glasses. Hate 'em. Hubby's work was bought out and now we have vision insurance so guess who just might get contacts? :)

Karin said...

Irresistible accessories, a dog, a book and glasses - very becoming!

London Mabel said...

Here's the thing, and it's not flattery. Without the glasses you look like a supermodel. With the glasses you look approachable-supermodel. I'm sure that's what he meant when he said they make you look more "serious and intellectual."

I think that description would fit me very well--I too march to the beat of my own drum, but I still care what people think. But caring what people think TO SOME DEGREE isn't going to stop me from doing what I know I need or want to do, in the end. There just has to be a balance.

Squeaky said...

i'm a Stranger (than most) Who Comments. on purpose and as often as possible. usually IRL, though. like many of your other commenters, i realise that positive comments from strangers are sometimes worth more, since the stranger has no vested interest. and even though most people don't consciously realise it, this still holds true for most people. so, even though i'm a stranger, i like to comment positively if i see an opportunity. it's nice to make people feel good, after all.... :)

also, for a lifelong speccy-four-eyes who, thank the gods, can now afford it, funky glasses are *essential*. when i'm not wearing the disposable contact lenses, that is (and if anyone knows the person who invented these wonderful little blobs of jelly, please tell me so i can snog their feet).
we need more photos of you in your glasses.
next post.
pretty please with sugar on? or possibly swimming in zinfandel...

Linda G. said...

Exactly what everyone else is saying. A disinterested opinion always feels more honest.

I used to wear contacts most of the time, but I like my glasses better now. It keeps it from being obvious when I've been too lazy to put on eye makeup.

Squeaky said...

...or chianti...?

Mark Simpson said...

Playing in a working band I get all kinds of immediate feedback from strangers. Most is positive, but occasionally there are a few complaints... mainly from people who can't fathom why it is we can't instantly play every song ever written.

Once someone asked, "What was that last song?"

"Sex on Fire, King of Leon"

"Oh." with a confused look. "Didn't sound like them at all."

Not five seconds after that person walked away another came up and raved, "Hey, great job on that Kings of Leon song! Awesome!"

We all know how you can't please everyone all the time. When I hear negativity I think about the first time I watched "Austin Powers" in the theater many years ago. My last thought before falling asleep was "this is the dumbest movie I've ever seen." I saw it again a month later and laughed all the way through.

So opinions are just that, opinions. -And they will vary widely from person to person, and even day to day. Its always nice to hear feedback, but I don't put too much stock in any one in particular. Good or bad.

Mary said...

Wow. Great post--and very timely, at least for me. Just recently I got some feedback on an extremely rough draft. I asked for it (won a critique of my first 25 pgs from someone I respect) but her critique left me completely floored. She said I had a good plot & dialogue then proceeded to rip my pages apart.

This isn't to say I didn't appreciate her critique--I did & it gave me a ton of stuff to think about and work on BUT it's left me...stymied. Didn't think a stranger's opinion would affect me like it did but it's different when it's someone you respect. But, like you said and like I tell myself, it's just an opinion.

Time to move on, right?

P.S. Love your glasses--great picture w/ puppy & book. Wear glasses myself & went bold with my newest pair. Figure I may as well flaunt 'em, since I can't wear contacts & can't go through life in a blur!

Elizabeth Ryann said...

I've had glasses since I was 15, and I actually think I look better with them, but oh, man, did they irritate me. Despite wearing them daily, I was constantly forgetting to wear them at all, and would sit down all ready to watch TV and then have to get up and go get them. Or I'd get in the car and start to drive and then remember I wasn't wearing my glasses and have to turn around. Part of my problem was that I could see perfectly within the two foot bubble I lived within, but everything beyond that was a bit blurry if I tried to focus on it (as in, say, reading a street sign). It's not like I couldn't see that there was a car in front of me, it was just that I had a hard time reading the plates. So annoying. But my great-aunt left me funds to get LASIK this past summer, and so I went ahead and did it, and it's so strange being able to see everything. I never really got used to having my glasses, but now that I have to get used to seeing things, it's a whole 'nother trip. I suddenly have 20/15 vision in both eyes, and can see things that are miles away. It's bizarre. And it's really strange to have become so incredibly focused on what is essentially an involuntary sense. I keep getting startled by what I can see. And yet sometimes I kind of miss the glasses (not that much, though) whenever I feel guilty about wearing no makeup.

Anyway, I got distracted. I was going to mention that you're a great writer that always manages to sound like a friend through your words. Your voice is so clear that I do feel like I know you, even though technically I'm a stranger (though if you'd scheduled a longer layover in San Francisco that might've changed :^D). So if strangers words feel especially powerful today, know this: I think you're a great writer, who's also funny, and has pretty hair.

And my words should count double because I see stuff so clearly now.

lora96 said...

Personally I crank the font size on my nook up to Old Lady Hugeness so I don't have to wear my readers. I have astigmatism also but I'm too vain to wear glasses.

Contacts did not work out for me. It was sad...$400 paid in advance, then my optometrist actually dropped dead of a heart attack, they sent my contacts back to the mfr because I hadn't picked them up yet and his replacement wouldn't give me the same prescription he had.

Mean people make me cry. Strangers or not.

Angela Perry said...

I used to take everything strangers said to heart too, for the reason I thought they were more likely to be honest and less inclined to worry about my feelings. Then I met the Internet. (Hi Internet!)

I have since tempered my willingness to believe what strangers think of me and my work. If a stranger is willing to tell me something to my face, in person, then I'm likely to listen. If not...I don't let it touch me. Good or bad. Okay, I try not to let it touch me. Still working on it.

Anonymity does strange things to people. It can make them more honest in many ways, including not hiding the uglier or sycophantic parts of their personalities. When you become famous, you'll get bad reviews, mean blog commenters, people trying to pick fights on Twitter. Don't let it hurt you. You're too awesome for that :)

Patrick Alan said...

The dog looks so lovely there on the couch.

Also, my wife does not believe me that she looks hot in her glasses. She thinks I only say it to get her out of the bathroom faster.

Would I ever do something like that?

I would like to meet your drummer.

Harley May said...

Hello dearest,

Having seen you in real life, both with and without your glasses, I can say you are dead sexy in both.

As far as comments from strangers, it depends on the situation. I adore hearing nice things from people who I know don't hand them out all willy nilly.

Willy nilly would be a funny pet name for a penis.

Guinevere said...

I wore glasses until I had laser surgery to correct my vision and - as much as I also never felt entirely comfortable in glasses - I miss them sometimes now. Now that I don't HAVE to wear them, they seem cool - I think it was just having it be non-optional that made wearing glasses suck for me. I don't like doing anything I have to. :p

brokenbiro said...

You look good with 'em and without 'em. Of course if you don't wear them, no-one has the opportunity to say: 'But Miss Jones, you look beautiful when you take your glasses off!'
Of course I wear mine all the time - and no-one has ever said it to me either!

Vicki said...

I once received a comment on a snippet I'd submitted to a workshop. While at first I was very flattered that he'd gone to such trouble to make these insights, his tone was accusatory and his critiques were only on everything he saw wrong. It irked me enough to call him out on it. I soon got a reply that was much more helpful, with him still defending his dissatisfaction, but explaining rather than outright bashing. It meant more to me than the numerous other one-liners of praise.

As for the glasses, I sorta envy you. Ever since I was in elementary school I wanted glasses, but every year the optometrist said my eyes were perfect. Despite having two VERY near-sighted parents, my eyes were 20-20. When I got into high school, I FINALLY earned glasses...but only for reading. Still, I picked out glasses which compliment my face, and I've received compliments from friends when I've pulled them out for project-work. Le sigh.