Monday, April 09, 2007

JSB: Rhino Skin

If you write for any length of time, especially professionally, you will come to know the inevitable bumps and potholes that dot the literary road. It may come in the form of a rejection letter, a bad review, an angry reader e-mail, a personal jab from a family member, or any of a number of other slings and arrows.

This hazardous highway stretches from the moment you decide you want to write all the way to your grave marker. At the beginning stages, when you are unpublished, perhaps your Cousin Winifred remarks over the pearl onions at Thanksgiving, "You want to be what? A writer? You? How quaint. Pass the gravy."

Then, after you are published, the same cousin may aver, "They published you? Oh, well lots of people are getting published these days."

Cousin Winnie knows a lot of ways to get under your skin. Which is why you must begin to develop the skin of a Rhino.

Rhino skin allows you to feel the hits but still get on with the important thing, the writing. All writers need such a skin.

So how do you get it? By writing and remembering a couple of things.

The first thing to remember is that the greatest writers of all time have been slammed in print. Many examples of this have been collected in a wonderful little book, Rotten Reviews by Bill Henderson. Here are a couple of my favorites.

Thomas Bailey Aldrich, writing in the Atlantic Monthly in 1892, said of Emily Dickenson, "An eccentric, dreamy, half-educated recluse in an out-of-the-way New England village—or anywhere else—cannot with impunity set at defiance the laws of gravitation and grammar. Oblivion lingers in the immediate neighborhood."

Nothing of Mr. Aldrich, to my knowledge, remains in print.

The eminent Clifton Fadiman, in The New Yorker no less, said of Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! that it was "the final blowup of what was once a remarkable, if minor, talent."

Great call, Cliff.

And then remind yourself constantly that you are a writer because you write. No one can stop you. There are many more people who do not write yet feel perfectly at ease sniping at those who do. When such a snipe comes your way, remind yourself that you are the one putting yourself on the line, opening a vein, walking the tightrope, singing a solo under hot lights. You are part of a courageous bunch who are all about doing. Teddy Roosevelt's famous advice applies to writers:

"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

Get in the arena. Go at your writing with all the devotion and love and enthusiasm you have. When darts come your way, keep writing. Pray.

Be a Rhino. And write some more.

You can learn more about James Scott Bell at


At 8:07 AM, Blogger Richard L. Mabry, MD said...

And, of course, thick skin should be a prerequisite as well for writers as yet unpublished. Even the "constructive" criticism from critique partners, agents, and editors has a sting.
Thanks for your post. I needed it.
(And if you get some criticism in the comments that follow, I hope they bounce off your tough hide).

At 10:07 AM, Blogger Mary DeMuth said...

Thanks for this, Jim. So great to see you at Mount Hermon. I've often said a writer needs a thick skin, yet a tender heart--neither of which is easy to keep in this crazy business in which we find ourselves.

At 1:23 PM, Blogger Southern-fried Fiction said...

That was my first lesson as a writer, and I developed one as thick as I could and quickly.

Thanks for sharing those funny reviews. Goes to show you how subjective this business is.

Can't wait to see you at ACFW in Dallas!

At 7:03 PM, Blogger Lynda Meyers said...

Jim -

You have a special gift of encouragement that shines through as you mentor other writers. Thanks again for your grace and willing ear (and eyes) at Mt. Hermon and beyond...

At 12:47 PM, Blogger Kerry Krycho said...

Thanks for words of wisdom. How true it is that it is always easier to criticize (especially myself!) than to actually get into the fray.


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