There’s been a lot of positive feedback on my previous post, and a lot of offers to participate — so I hope to keep bringing you guest posts from writers across the success spectrum about the kind of failure writers experience. I’ll start with my own.
I want to focus on the kind of failure Debbie Reese was talking about when she jumpstarted this — she referred to a game developers conference where developers speak frankly about failures (sometimes with huge losses of investment), and specifically about a game with Native American tropes that missed the mark. She had critiqued it while in progress, and the developer initially reacted to the critique with the defensiveness and defiance, he ultimately saw her point and grew from it.
It’s important to learn from criticism, especially coming from historically marginalized groups. It is also completely natural to be frustrated by it, defensive, defiant, upset, and annoyed. You spend untold hours working on something creative and it only takes a few minutes for someone to shred it. When a book is already published, there’s not even much you can do about the offense it causes, making it that much easier to push back. But it stunts you as an artist not to listen to feedback. Charlie Chaplin said that artists should actively seek out rejection, and abandon the need to be liked. Part of that is listening to criticism and mulling it over, and part of it is learning to critique yourself in a constructive way.
I have three regrets (and I would probably have more if I thought about it).
First, I have some Native American backstory in my first book, Mudville, and feel like those characters are real and vital to the book. Because such legends figure into the fantasy of the midwest, I felt like I was on firm soil. I got mixed reactions from readers, though, and in particularly upset a woman who had helped me with the Dakota language and cultural aspects as I put the book together. I don’t know what I would do differently were I to start over: drop that backstory all together? Make it more essential? As it is, I can see how readers feel it’s tacked on, appropriating a culture in a half-hearted way, without much sensitivity to the terrible treatment Dakota people have had in this region. At best, I see myself like the school bully at a 20-year high school reunion, throwing his arm amiably around old victims and acting like those episodes of bullying were harmless shared capers that we indulged in together. “We’re cool, right?”
Second, I’ve written previously about Binyavanga Wainaina’s essay, “How to Write About Africa,” and how my own book about Africa measures up. I feel like I failed here to know the tropes well enough to avoid them. I patted myself on the back for writing a positive book (and still think those books are necessary), but live with the fact that I fell into the familiar role of white colonist, having the most important African characters be (a) a wild animal, and (b) the sage, magical character. I did a lot right in the book and it’s still my favorite; it is honest about my own experience, but if I had discovered Wainaina’s article before I launched into the book I might have done something even better, something less reliant on cliches.
Third, I think perhaps my biggest regret in any of my books is not making Penny the main character in Winter of the Robots. She’s my favorite character in the book, and both strategically and for the benefit of the girls of the world, I wish I could have said, “this is about a girl who has a knack for programming robots,” and made that the core of the book. If I ever write a sequel, that will be it. As it turned out, even with two girl characters asserting themselves, they take a backseat to the boys when it comes to building and developing the robots and fighting the battles. (OK, one literally drives with the boys in the back seat, but nobody’s going to be fooled by that one scene.)
All of these figure into how I approach books now. More beta readers from other backgrounds is essential, more attention to the way “others” are treated, more challenges to myself to not settle for my instinctive plot lines that are informed by a literary history of white men.
It’s self-serving. I admit to the failures so I can write better books.