Tuesday 3 June 2014

On Seeking Validation

In theory, you never need "validation" from someone else regarding an activity you're doing. Particularly if it's something you enjoy. The fact that you LIKE it is what makes it valid, regardless of what others may think. But in practice, I suspect there are times when we all need some sort of external acknowledgement, be it in the form of written feedback, a vocal opinion, or simply a pat on the back.

Internal motivation can only get you so far.

It can also get you into trouble.

A friend of mine recently wrote this post: "A Writer or an Author?" It resonated, in part because it felt like I was the person in this passage: "I have a friend who, frustrated by the lack of tangible success, frustrated by all the time he poured into something that wasn't taking off, started questioning his own existence as a writer, because if a writer writes something and no one is around to read it... well, you get the drift."

The passage may not have been about me. (It's just that I'm so vain, I'll even think this song is about me.) Either way, her post got me thinking. Because despite outward appearances, I haven't actually doubted my abilities as a writer. What I HAVE questioned quite a LOT lately is whether my writing is worthwhile. Which to me is the difference between belief in a story, and a belief in the writing itself. I suspect we've all been there.


Depression is maximized
For those just tuning in, I recently ended my mathematical web serial, "Taylor's Polynomials". The short version of the final post: I built it, only a few dozen people came, so I deemed it a failure. If that sounds whiny, I remind you of this post last December detailing just how much effort was sunk into the thing over three years. But because IT was a failure does that make MY WRITING a failure?

I'll come back to that question.

I ended a rant back on November 1st with the remark "What is a writer without an audience? I am nothing without you." In hindsight, that's not really what I was trying to say. (You'd think as a writer I could be more articulate, hm?) What I was actually saying was, "Is this story concept that I'm so passionate about worthwhile? I am questioning my choices." I failed to convey that - maybe because it wasn't as connected to my mood (or the song in my head) at the time.

What I wanted was validation. Some indication that my writing was focussed in the right place. To explain why I needed that, I'm going to contrast "Taylor's Polynomials" with another project of mine, "Time Trippers".

"20 years but you never talk about us anymore!"
"Time Trippers" has been around, in one form or another, for over 50% of my life. Fully 20 years. IT'S OVER 600 PAGES. I've blogged about it before. It's been rejected by Harper-Voyager. I posted the beginning of the first chapter to this blog, and 15 months later it has only 25 views, making it even less popular than my web serial.

Yet the lack of interest in "Time Trippers" doesn't bother me near as much as the lack of interest in "Taylor's Polynomials". Why is that?

After some careful consideration, I have two reasons. I'm curious to know whether anyone else has experienced some similar reasoning with any sort of project they're working on.

First, my serial needed more than I, alone, could give it. In so many ways.

I wrote the serial with the barest of outlines, so that I could incorporate any new ideas (which ended up coming from me), any current events (which ended up being whatever I saw), any reader interests (ultimately expressed months after the fact), and any educational uses (which never manifested). In other words, my minimalist writing style was for nothing. I could have simply written the whole thing in advance and set it to auto-post.

I also linked the serial out to other websites (that I searched on), I incorporated educational terms (that I knew of) and societal norms (from the standpoint of a white male). I tried to make engaging images (according to my aesthetics), I created recap episodes for new arrivals (that were not watched), and I did online marketing to the best of my abilities (which were obviously unhelpful).

I've mentioned I'm not good at group work, but in retrospect doing all that myself was ten kinds of ridiculous.

It's unique... is there a point?
But I did it - because I believed in the story! I saw it as a mathematical odyssey, or maybe an educational journey, one that could bridge the gap between math being boring versus interesting. Yet I feared that others saw it as merely a creative curiosity. And as I poured more and more time and effort into my serial, and saw little to no increase in engagement, my fears took over. Even now, I'm pretty sure "creative curiosity" is what's written on the mathtans' tombstone.

Here, I needed the external feedback, the validation of my vision OR of my FEARS, so that I knew what direction to take the thing. But all I could think of to do to get a response was to keep shouting, in the hopes that someone else would perhaps echo the call. Nope.

If I had to do it over, I probably would have sent out a question every week asking for websites, or with simply a random question like "Ellipse or Parabola?", to basically FORCE my serial into a more dynamic state. Because without that push, the story became static, and withered, and died. Like a flower without sunlight.


Secondly, the lack of interest bothered me because my serial had become me.

"Time Trippers" has had it's moments for me over the years. It's definitely an example of what I've been able to accomplish as a writer. But it hasn't extended THAT far into my life beyond the writing. In the end, if you don't read it, fair enough, time travel isn't for everyone. If it ends up as a failure, I will be depressed, but hopefully there will be other ideas.

Now, picture a project of yours that at some point became so all consuming that it actually became a part of you, helping to define who you were as a person. Maybe it's a job you had, or a regular gaming session you attended, or a website you've been running. Got it?

"Taylor's Polynomials" became that kind of project for me. It became everything I am, in no small part because I am a teacher, and it was envisioned as an educational serial. It was math, music, and geeky references, yes, but this wasn't just WRITING, it was drawing, marketing, online math researching, even something I used (infrequently) in my daily lessons. A Grade 11 student this year still remembered that 'a bow' meant a y-intercept from Grade 9.

But it went beyond THAT, it was a serial before I even knew what a serial was, it was my first blog before this one, it's what brought me to Twitter, it was the reason for my first commissioned artwork, it was the motivation for my first song parody. It prompted business cards, a shirt, a button, it was the weekly constant in my life, it exposed pieces of my psyche, it was my contribution to web originals, it was an idea born on the cusp of a personification craze that even Internet Explorer is on board with now! So FINE, if you don't read it, fair enough, I'M not for everyone... but now you're not rejecting a story. You're rejecting an identity.

Feels like this, if you get the reference.

Because IT was a failure does that make MY WRITING a failure?

In as much as this story became a part of me, YES, yes it does. 

Because once what you DO has become such a part of who you ARE, you're at your most vulnerable. This is the point when a rejection will be seen as rejecting the person, and not the product - particularly when there IS only the person, it's NOT a group effort. And rejection comes in so many forms. From yet another email saying "Thank you very much for providing us with the chance to read your novel...", to "I'm sorry I don't have time for that now", to simple silence. To no one talking to you about that pet project.

It's at that point, once you've gone "all in" in a hand, and then realize that you've lost, that you feel like you didn't lose a single game. You lost at life. If the project is worthless, so are you. If everyone else has given up on you, you might as well give up on yourself. There's no reason to go on.

Point of order: I'm not there yet. But it's easy to get there, isn't it? (No? Just me?)

As I said at the beginning, I don't think I've personally questioned that I AM a writer. I have volumes of material and even a monthly column at MuseHack which testify to the fact that I am. I also don't know that I want to make the leap into becoming an author. Seems like it would involve even higher expectations, and a whole new set of problems. (Maybe that's partly why I'm resisting the whole self-publishing thing.) That said, I DO want to be remembered for something more than a "creative curiosity". So... time to step back from the cliff before being tempted to leap off of it. (Look, I've progressed from similes to metaphors!)


I'm reminded of something Mawi Asgedom said at his OAME session: "We all have our own story. The only reason my story has meaning is if it connects to your story."

I know that my serial, my story, did make some connections. Again, I'm glad. It's simply that there wasn't enough engagement to justify continuing at the present time (if ever). There's a chance the problem was in the packaging, because I'm not to everyone's tastes - nor should I be.

Commission by Sabrina Salamon
At this point, I'm turning my attention away from education. To focus on "Time Trippers" and blogging. To that end, perhaps THIS post has connected with you in a way my serial never could. (For whatever reason, I seem to make more of an impact when I'm writing non-fiction. Feel free to let me know why that is.)

TL; DR? Summing up... if you're looking for external validation, ask yourself why. If the reason is tied into a project you're doing, try to target someone more specifically, or maybe take a break to get some perspective.

However, if the reason isn't tied to anything specific, trust me, you don't need anyone else to legitimize your writing, or whatever it is you're doing that makes you happy. It's worthwhile. Keep at it. If it helps to hear it, I believe in you.


  1. So, I may have an answer (or two) for you as to why your non-fiction resonates/connects more strongly with ME (although it may not be the same answer for everybody). Firstly, I'm interested in you. I've known you for ten years, and consider you a friend. From what I know of you, you're a good friend with a terrible sense of humour, and as a friend, I want to know what's going on in your life, what you think of things, etc etc. Which is why I'm more likely to read personal blog posts like this (although I never comment - this is maybe the tenth or so comment on ANYTHING ANYWHERE on the internet I've ever written, barring facebook).

    Secondly, I'm generally more interested in people than in fictional stories. I can't help it. I'm a psychologist. People's stories interest me. Stories about math, or time travelling, or space, have a higher hurdle to jump to get me to read them.

    I'm glad you seem to have come to some peace about the conflict between wanting to do something you enjoy and wanting to see others enjoy it as well. If it helps, I believe in you too.

    1. Wow - really appreciate that you took the time to comment, seeing as you don't do it much. Also that you consider me a friend... I have this tendency to keep to myself (plus there's my sense of humour ;) which doesn't give people much of a reason to interact with me. So thanks. Maybe there's something to the fact that I blog about all this stuff too, never really talking to anyone in person... might make it more interesting? Anyway.

      The people's stories thing makes sense, and now that I think about it, it's a lot more popular on TV these days too. I think you nailed it with the "wanting to see others enjoy", I sometimes feel like that's the thing that's the most motivating for me. (In fact, the others aren't even necessarily real people...! Well, usually they are.)

      It does help. And to everyone reading this: never feel you have to jump a hurdle - I recently read a post by Errol: "My Friends Dislike My Music, That's OK". It nicely sums up some thoughts on "art as an extension of self":

  2. You aren't so vain. :) Your earlier rant, plus a more recent conversation with another writer-friend, inspired the post though I conflated both a little bit into one person for length. But the whole issue of "Why don't people like my work/publish me/buy my book/write reviews/comment on my blog/etc?" is a really common one for writers.

    And for that matter, my 'real life' on Facebook gets way more engagement than my Writer page or my blog. (Granted, it's usually funnier.)

    I think any worthwhile act of creativity requires the creator to put themselves into the work, and usually in a big way. I don't know any creative person who doesn't do that. But it's not necessarily going to be popular or well-liked or even noticed. That doesn't mean you lost at life.

    I mean, you can get a writer's assessment of what worked and didn't work with your pet project, and you can get a marketing assessment of why it didn't take off, but that you tried very hard at something that didn't succeed the way you hoped it would (and in fact, maybe didn't even make it to the minimum you'd envisioned) is not your personal failure. You tried something. It didn't work out. Most people are too afraid to try. The trying itself is a success. The trying itself is worthwhile.

    Everything I do in writing (or really, everything) is connected deeply to my self. Heck, that's one reason I am a writer instead of some (well-paid) corporate something-or-other--I can't seem to do anything without it being a part of me. And yes, I get rejected, ignored, dismissed, etc. a lot. For sure, it sucks. But at some point I had to realize that it was a choice between doing things that mattered to me in a way that mattered to me, even if no one else cared, or having lots of people validate what I'm doing even though I didn't have a deep personal stake in it. I'd done the latter before, and it was too empty.

    All creative projects are inherently a risk. There's no formula to success in creative work. It's a much harder path. Not all creative risks pay off, but that you take them anyway, that you believe in them enough to see them through, is worthwhile, and in my book that is winning at life. (My book may only appeal to a select group.)

    1. I'm such an inspiration! (Now I'm so vain...) Your comments do recall more thoughts on Mawi's OAME talk - namely trying and growth is itself a success. TRUE. But in my case, I felt like I'd tried everything with the serial. There was no growth anymore ("The story became static, withered and died.")... so that was it. Two years of growth and a year of (what felt like) spinning the wheels. With nowhere else to go, I give up.

      And while I'm on board with concept of "doing things that matter to me"... if no one else cares, then it simply doesn't matter to me as much. I'm not sure if that's a feedback loop or leads to some downward spiral, but for me, a portion of the joy comes from the external component. I mean, if there's no chance of external engagement, I'll do whatever, but if there's a better chance of validation with (a) than (b), I'm liable to choose (a). I just want to know that I'm producing something that can potentially be bigger than myself. I don't pretend that this is unique, it probably comes from being human, but perhaps the idea that it's others who PROVIDE me with the personal stake makes it a bit unique? Dunno. I'm sure there's a downside to that too, if the public gets demanding.

      Here's to creativity, at any rate. If things were easy, they'd probably be boring.

  3. Here's a funny thing--at least, I think so: I am not terribly interested in your fiction. I think it's inventive and creative, but just not my thing.

    What *does* interest me is your work on your "failure" as a writer, because you seem so hard on yourself. If you look back I think you'll find I commented on most of those posts. I liked your reorganization a while back, and I think you have evolved into a consistently unique voice in that math twittosphere thingy they get all worked up about.

    A couple things: I think you could still become a better *writer*, that is, improve the voice you use to express your thoughts. Particularly in your non-fiction writing.

    Second, I think your artwork is outstanding and surely you use it in your curriculum?

    1. Thank you - I do aim to be unique. I think I'm hard on myself in the writing in particular because I know there's things that need to be done there (like reading other forums), I just haven't given myself the time to do them. (Which... I guess isn't that different from teaching.) As far as the reorganization goes, I think I figured out search tags, hence removing title tags.

      So how exactly could I improve the "voice"...? I mean, it's really just me putting events and ideas into something of permanence. Should I do more third person perspective? As far as the art goes, thanks... I've included my personifications as extras in some lessons, but I'm not sure how practical it is generally. (At least you don't think I draw like a 3 year old, unlike some.)