On Writing: Critics and Trolls

Most of my creative and professional life involves me making things and interacting with people that are going to consume or use those things. In my secret identity as a technical thing maker guy (yes, there’s dental coverage), I find business or technical solutions for business or technical needs. As a writer, I guess/consider at what people are going to want to read and then write what I’m passionate about and hope there’s a Venn diagram where the two things meet up and do a happy dance. In both of these roles it’s critical that I get and appreciate the response to my work. Really, that concept is scalable to pretty much all of life. You do your thing the best you can and you hope that the external world that you and your thing interact with are copacetic and if they’re not you either hope the world figures it out and changes for you or you change your approach like a reasonable person. This is a universal concept (I hope) and it sets the stage for me to talk about trolls and critics.

When I use the term “troll” I’m not limiting this concept to the internet millennial message board definition of the word. I’m going back to the mythical origins of this term, to the ugly hateful thing that sits under bridges and eats your horse when you’re on a quest from the king in a fantasy Sondheim musical. Why do trolls eat your horse? Because they’re trolls and trolls are miserable pricks that do nasty, petty things because they can and because they like it. I’m sure there’s more to it really. Maybe Trolly McTroll’s mom was distant and cold and his father was eaten by a dragon when he was little and all that nastiness is just a sad clown mask to protect the inner troll heart. Generally, I’m a softy and I’m sympathetic to Trolly and I’d probably have a sit down and see if we could find common ground but the moment Trolly goes for my horse  things become less civil between us. In this metaphor my horse is my thing. *pause for school boy/girl giggles* It’s absolutely necessary that I have confidence in my horse, that I believe it’s an awesome horse worthy of buckets of apples and a sweet horse ranch full of whatever it is horses want and need, and above all I must safeguard it. Without my horse, I can’t go on my musical adventure and the king is going to be pretty mad at me. The king is my bank account and my mortgage and my family and my life goals. I can’t make the king mad. The king pays for my internet and indulges my convoluted troll metaphors.

So what’s a metaphorical musical fantasy hero to do when he leaves for his musical fantasy adventure and knows there are cretinous little troll bastards out there eager to bite his horse/thing for no reason other than pettiness and LOLs? I’ll tell you what I do. I get a troll-stabbing sword and when I  see a troll, I slay. I slay hard. I have to. Every time. I could just avoids bridges for the rest of my life but then I’m never going to get where I’m going. I’m on a quest for the king though and I have to get where I’m going whether or not there are rivers or streams or chasms or freeways or whatever else they build bridges over. What I’ve got do is bust out Google Maps to make sure I’m crossing the bridges I need to cross and I’m avoiding the ones I don’t need to. (Yes, in my Sondheim metaphor musical there’s Google Maps because this is my metaphor thingy and honestly who uses paper maps anymore?)   If you’re picking up what I’m putting down, I’ve just given you a high-level strategy for success at writing for an audience, building technology for a client and making metaphors. You’re welcome, internet.

Alright, life solved! Great blog post Erik! High-Five! … Not quite. There are some problems in my metaphorical world and these are the problems that this blog post is really focused on. Because sometimes trolls don’t look like trolls and they’re not under bridges, they’re sitting in corner offices or pretending to be your friend and sometimes people that aren’t really trolls, they look a little trolly and they even hang out by bridges. You can’t just stab everyone with your troll-killing sword. Well, you could  but if you’re a writer that poisons your audience and if you’re technical thing maker guy that alienates your customers (or boss) and if you’re just a person that makes you an asshole. What’s more, if you attack everyone you see just to make sure they can’t possibly troll you then that makes you a troll and that’s pretty damned ironic, isn’t it?

I think it’s pretty obvious why the audience and customers are important. They’re the folks that give me money to do what I do and I need that money for my hero’s journey out of poverty and into a prudent investment portfolio for retirement. Within that audience/customer base though, there’s a subgroup that deserves special recognition: the critics. Critics engage aggressively with your product, be that a spiffy novella about gorilla pirates sailing the cosmic seas in search of high adventure and doubloons or a gizmo thingamajig that technifies your business whatsit. They find the flaws and they tell you about them. At first glance, critics can be mistaken for trolls. This is a massive, huge, gargantuan mistake because critics are the most important people in the whole kingdom. If you need to travel around with a troll-slaying sword, you also need critic-embracing arms.

I want to talk about my horse again for a moment. Like I said above, it’s paramount that I have utmost confidence in my horse’s superior horse-ness. I might have people flying banners for me back at the Sondheim musical castle and doing nicely choreographed numbers about Erik and his super horse but more often than I can ever anticipate, I’m going to be out there in the woods on my quest alone. So, when some guy comes up to me and tells me my horse is ugly and needs to be brushed, the natural response is to say “go to Hell, guy, my horse is 15 kinds of rad in a 10 kinds of rad container! Why don’t you brush your dumb face?” Let me tell you, that kind of response is always tempting and when you do spit something like that out it’s also incredibly satisfying. It affirms your horse confidence and for a minute it might put a little bit of jaunty in your stride and make you whistle one of those catchy Sondheim hero songs to yourself. But as a smart hero that’s learned a thing or two on my journey, I’m going to wonder about it a little bit further down the road. What if my horse is ugly and needs to be brushed? I could swat away that thought and decide the horse-heckling guy was just a troll but this is the lean in part where wisdom intersects with confidence: the difference between a troll and a critic is that a critic is giving you the information you need to make your work better and a troll is just trying to sabotage you because trolls are dicks.

So here’s what I do when Mr. Horse-Heckler pops out  in my path: I listen to him critically. I make sure I’m not just an audience member to his criticism but that I’m also a critic and I’m engaging with his point of view aggressively and deliberately. I look for the flaws in his statement. I look for the truth. I try to sort it all out and I do my very best to apply what I’ve learned to make my horse (writing, tech things) better. This isn’t an easy thing. Toxic ideas get through and they can erode my confidence and really smart, wise things get discarded all the time but I do better than breaking even and that’s worth it. Even terrible, bad, dumb criticism is valuable because after I verify it’s terrible-ness, it becomes part of my certainty going forward and makes me stronger. An unchallenged horse isn’t a perfect horse; it’s a vulnerable horse. Here’s where I’m going to bring it back to Trolly McTroll: the troll-stabbing sword I used to slay him is made from criticism. All that raw criticism mined from all the feedback I get is carted into the troll-stabbing sword factory and it’s melted down, refined, forged and hammered into an epic Heavy Metal Magazine sword. Without critics and without criticism, I’d be out there swinging a twig at Trolly and Trolly would break that stick to pieces and tear my horse to bits.

A metaphorical hero’s journey goes to a lot of strange and fantastic places. You won’t always know who’s a critic and who’s a troll. You just have to do your best but you can never be timid and you can’t flinch. Strike down your trolls without hesitation. Leave stories of your troll-slaying victories in your wake. But when you’re out there and you’re full of passion and 15 kinds of rad crammed into a 10 kinds of rad container, try to slow down for the horse-heckling critics to hear what they have to say and to refill the ore for your troll-stabbing sword factory. And above every other bit of pithy Sondheim-ian blog wisdom, when you take time to reflect on the story of your journey, which you should do as often as your able, don’t be a troll to yourself and don’t just be a polite, passive audience. Be your own best critic.

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