I received a letter recently from a young poet. (No, I am not going all Rilke on ya'll). Upon the printing of her first commercial poems she discovered a backhanded compliment via Facebook (the Mecca of passive-aggressive bulldinky) from a writer accusing her of aspiring to be something she's not, for "forgetting her true friends" in the process. They claimed that anyone who wrote for money was "selling out."
Gut reaction: F@#!. THAT. NOISE.
Secondary more mature reaction: This happens more frequently to writers and creatives of all kinds than any teacher or book can ever prepare you for.
It knocked loose the memory of a successful writer-poet-journalist-friend who recently experienced something similar: After a milestone year she published a piece thanking the writers, mentors and patrons who supported and inspired her over the course of 365 days. Soon thereafter an old contact got in touch to let her know he was "one of the ones who knows" her "best," and therefore HAD to express his feeling that her essay was a grotesque combination of unchecked ego and name-dropping. He also alluded to something the other young poet's friend did: selling out.
She wrote to me fuming, wounded in that way that comes with realizing you and a creative cohort are parting ways, questioning which sides of the river you'll soon be staring at each other from.
Below is my (edited) response to her. It is a version of what I will also send to the young poet.
It is what I wish someone had said to me a long time ago:
[To my creative Lovie];
Once you've hit a certain point in your growth bursts of uninvited opinion are inevitable. Some will happen to your face. Most will happen behind your back.
Jealousy and ambition in combination form a strange, unpredictable cocktail. The jealousy shot is palpable...it masquerades as concern, insight, criticism or commentary. But its foundation is, "Why do these things happen for someone else and not happen for me?" A creative always wrestles with jealousy, because in order to focus on "the work" we must tune it out, stay the course, support others going through the same struggle...everything we've ever read in any verbose artist's journal.
Your "friend" is jealous and understandably wrestling personally with it.
But his ambition has kicked in and stirred the struggle with jealousy and shame into a less-than-personable email. [Or conversation. Or note. Or Facebook post.]
By writing to you, alternately stroking and slapping you (and not in a fun, vaguely pleasurable way) with his uninvited opinions, he is subliminally saying "I know you better than these successful new contacts of yours. I am someone worth remembering." He writes to work through his own issues, and he writes so you will not forget him--so that you will remember his struggle with ambition and success, relate to it and deem him worthy...
...then tap him to be the next person pulled up the ladder by the chain of friends, mentors and patrons who have made your own success possible.
When someone writes something condescending from the position of stalwart advocate or ally, what they are really saying is this: "Please take me with you to that place I claim I do not want to go."
Tune. These people. Out.
If you are like many writers, you have never (not seriously anyway, or at least without the influence of several bottles of port or dusty pint of whiskey) pretended you want only to write in a garret somewhere, penning a great work on parchment to later hide in a cupboard where those who have not been enlightened would damage it by reading it before you die of consumption.
You see things, experience them, suss out meanings and work hard to put them into words. You want people to read those words and experience something as well. In order for people to read them you have to put them out there.
Writing (for now) about your experience as a starving artist doesn't mean you want to be defined by starvation. Mapplehthorpe, Warhol, Joplin, Cobain, Lennon, Patti Smith...they all believed in "art." They also wanted to, and struggled with, the desire (and occasional inability) to EAT.
Do not let anyone who covets your dinner make you defend your desire to eat.
Now this part is important, and I add it with intense love: In almost every criticism there will be some tiny thread of reality you can choose to tug on, or not.
You have thanked people you love and who love you, but also people you are proud to be associated with, correct? There's a little ego in that...and there bloody well should be. Why shouldn't there be? Look what you did so far. Look what you are doing. But it is true that that same sliver of ego, or inkblot of simple pride, will be interpreted by some as "name-dropping," and it will alienate them. Think about how you feel about that. If you don't care, own it and carry on. If you find you do care, recalibrate your delivery.
There is no wrong choice so long as you recognize and own it.
My own humble personal rule has been this: Promote your friends and contemporaries, but keep your mentors secret.
Or, in more sound-bitey terms: "Shine your light as bright as it can burn, baby, but keep your fuel source well-protected."
This response is a little long. I am not sorry about that. I mean all of it and hope it helps now and in the future, because you will have many unsolicited opinions forced upon you over a lifetime.
Stay strong and be sure to stake any vampires that threaten to suck you dry.
KK Van Helsing