The Best Kind of Compliment

“You’re such a talented writer, Veena.”

I’ve heard this remark many times in my life and yet, rather than feeling like an accomplished wordsmith, it rather makes me feel like finding a good hole in the ground to go stick my head in until the warm front passes.

If you’ve said this to me, thank you. Really. It’s a kind thought and I appreciate the sentiment. I am grateful for the feedback.

I can’t speak for the other artists, aspiring or otherwise, in the world, but I can tell you that for me this well-meant compliment bears a crushing weight that expels the air in my lungs faster than you can say, “Gosh, that was really fast.”

It’s simply too high a bar.

You could probably fill Manhattan with the dead bodies of all the talented writers that have ever lived.

… and that was a really, truly bizarre way of trying to quantify the amount of talent in the world. It is times like these that I wonder, really? Talented compared to whom?

The truth is that I am never going to match the skill and wit of the maestros of the field. My words will never be as thoughtful and carefully considered as those of Joyce. I’ll never be as succinct as Hemingway. My character illustrations will never be as vivid and multi-faceted as those of Steinbeck. In fact my friends, the editors, are probably reading this right now and weeping over their beloved copies of The Chicago Manual of Style that I didn’t know to use apostrophes in the last sentence. (Really though, grammar friends, was I supposed to??) And then again, more weeping when I end sentences with prepositions.

But I also don’t want to be like any of these talented writers of the past. That’s not why I write. Maybe a little grammar now and then couldn’t hurt, but that’s not why I write either. I write because I need to, because I have a driving compulsion to keep doing it come Hell or high water, in the same way that I have the driving compulsion to finish every episode of The X Files while also polishing off the tub of vanilla ice cream in our freezer. Although the feeling is slightly more spiritual when the ice cream is involved.

All of this may sound contradictory given my pleas for feedback. I still want the feedback. I’d love to know what YOU think, how YOU felt, what you learned or hated or what moved you. What was it that you related to? What was it that made you think? In short, what was your experience with my writing? All of this information is useful and makes me feel closer to each of you– another one of the reasons I write occasionally instead of just watching TV and gorging myself. Although if you’d like to come over and join me in that enterprise, I’m happy to feel closer to you that way as well.

What does “talented” mean, anyhow? I hear that Faulkner was pretty talented and yet his work still somehow makes me vomit slightly in my mouth, with all due respect… it’s a very respectful sort of vomit. Nah, I’d rather know what my writing makes you FEEL, even if that feeling is nauseated.

The statement “You’re a great writer,” sounds so much more like a death knell because it is one that passes judgment on ME as a person, my worth, my skill, whatever. If that was your reaction to my last piece, how will I live up to that? Did I peak at my 53rd post on some mediocre blog? Is this it?

Feel free to continue expressing yourself, saying whatever you choose and however you choose to say it. Believe me, I’ve been called many worse things than “a good writer.”

I pass along these sentiments merely as information. The next time you’re about to tell someone that they are really good at something, stop and think for a minute. Is that what they really want to hear? For some people less neurotic than I, maybe so. Certainly it might feel good to hear for a moment. But what kind of impact does it leave? Study after study has shown that when people are praised or rewarded in any way for work that they inherently enjoy, their enjoyment decreases and they become less likely to perform the task.

In the words of the Beatles: “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.” Sometimes it’s nice to know that we don’t have to be the best or even be good at a thing for it to serve an important function in our lives and in the lives of others.


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