Attention whores

English: Attention Icon.

In my last post, a lovely reader commented that writers seem to want an inordinate amount of attention. Here’s a snippet of Mr. Rob Garbin’s comment directly:

Another aspect that I learned about the creative is that we tend to want and need more attention.

Emphasis mine.

As much as I want to agree with this statement, do we really? Do we really need more attention than say the average cashier at your local grocery store?

This may be a defensive reaction, but I believe that we writers and artists of similar ilk actually just want the same attention we might get at our day jobs.

Here’s an example:

When a colleague asks that I assembly a spatial data set of, say, geochemical data, and then ask me to analysis that data for areas of concentration and distribution while displaying it on a map that not only they can understand but managers as well, they often give me high praise when they see the product. Not only do they say “Thank you” and “Great work”, but I get paid.

Imagine that. They value my work.

Just as much as a store manager values a cashier. They get paid for their time to do a good job of ringing up items customers want to buy. Okay, maybe not very much more than minimum wage, but they do get paid! And they are probably told numerous times a day they are doing a good job (if they are, of course).

Getting paid every day for our work affirms that someone, somewhere, values what we do – be that a technical map or providing a service. And there’s always the little, everyday statements of “thank you” and “good job” that we often take for granted and throw about to our colleagues as if they don’t matter.

But they do. We become accustomed to that everyday feedback and, dare I say it, positive attention.

A piece of writing is essentially no different. However, it is a visually consumable product that may or may not have a lasting impression, and as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Same with the value of that writing. The value is in the eye of the beholder. A reader may deem it is not even worthy of their attention. There is also a disconnect between the writer and reader. The former could be centuries dead and the latter a girl in suburbia San Diego. The two shall never meet, and the girl will never be able to tell that author how much she enjoyed their story.

I think this is where writers, myself included, fall into a bit of a trap. We want our work to be noticed just like we are in our day jobs, but getting that attention is like pulling teeth, or damn near impossible. And it definitely will not come on a daily basis. So, we scream and holler and grovel and say, “Please, please, please, please read my story. Someone? Anyone?”

And though it may seem we are asking for “more attention” that others, I believe we are not. We are simply asking for equal treatment.

Mr. Garbin touched a bit on this subject in a recent blog post. He advises his readers to be careful where we invest our self-worth, and rightly so, says we should eschew attaching “your worth to anything outside yourself.” To do so is folly, of course. I think we can all agree on that. But how can a writer not do that with their writing? How can we learn to write a story to the best of our ability and then trust to let it out into the wild, blue yonder without following it around everywhere it goes and asking the reader for feedback? How do we not look like attention whores when all we ask is for the same amount of attention we get for other things of value we do? Is this something that comes with experience and confidence?

If you have an answer, please enlighten me. Or ignore me. You know I’m just trying to get me some attention.

Until next time, don’t open up any mail with a return addressee of James Holmes. 😦



22 thoughts on “Attention whores

  1. Wow, my first outside reference. My words do have an affect. Thank you for the praise and the altenate view point, which I may have to filter for a bit to assimilate it all. I will; however, make a small qualifier on the self-worth post in that my thought goes more to how some people, including myself strongly, tend to attach too much significants to what others think of them. In other words, there entire self view is based on the responses they get from others and, in this case, no response is as bad as a terrible reponse. Everyone wants praise, but some people place themselves on the praise they get. If it does not come, they are depressed. If they get trashed, they are hurt to the core and react badly (hyper-sensitive to critism: to their writing for example for which I have proven in my case a few times). My cautionary tail is best received by those, like me, who spent a lot of time trying to win approval that never was going to come. I had to learn this the hard way. There needs to be something inside you that can say, I did this and I am happy with it no matter what others say.

  2. Personally, I think it has something to do with how personal the product is. When I assemble a spatial dataset of geochemical data and analyze it for spatial distribution, I appreciate praise, but in a more abstract way, and when someone comes back and says “You shouldn’t have included sample B-13” or “make everything shades of blue in the map because the client doesn’t want high PCB concentrations to look scary” I can shrug and just make the changes without worrying about it. Likewise, I can assess critiques of technical writing in a pretty bloodless way.

    I feel critiques (positive and negative) of fiction more keenly, though, because it feels like there is a big chunk of me, as opposed to my training, on the page. So it is harder not to take things personally.

    I do, however, get frustrated over the lack of datapoints in works in progress, as you say. I’ve managed to assemble enough good beta readers that I don’t want for a lot of input in initial stages, but the vast majority of magazine and agent rejections are either a form reject or something along the lines of “this is perfect, but we don’t want it anyway just now”, neither of which gives me much to work with. Being statistically-minded, I’d really prefer to decent-sized set of rejections with reasons attached before I change anything, but that is pretty much impossible to get.

    1. Really? I take it all pretty personally. But you are right, if my workmates didn’t comment on something – that I wouldn’t take personally, but I do take it personally when my writing is ignored. Will I ever grow up?

      And I agree with the lack of data points. How on earth am I to know whether readers like it or not if they don’t offer feedback? All conundrums.

      I guess that’s why belonging to a community of writers is so important and vital to a writer.

      1. Okay, come to think of it there is at least one consultant geostatistician I get pretty riled up at now and again. I agree that it is important to get into a community, and to put in the time to categorize readers into “fantastic” and “good copy editor” and “knows something about cars” and “not good, but they seem kind of lonely so you put up with them” and so on.

  3. Thanks for your excellent post. I suspect that, because writing is such a commonplace activity in our society — we’re all taught in school, after all — people think that anyone can do it. And if anyone can do it, it isn’t worthy of notice. Your thoughts apply equally to the corollary question, “why do you want to be paid for your story/book/classroom appearance?”

    1. That is true. But anyone can learn to cashier, but store managers have a tough time convincing folks that they shouldn’t be paid for it. 😉

      Do I want to be paid for my writing? (And, by extension, my time?)

      That’s a very good question. I’m not sure I have an answer – yet. Another idea for a blog post…

      1. Scott Adams has a theory that all shoe salesmen are foot fetishists because, logically, they’d be willing to do the job for less money than people who don’t like feet. I think writing is similar. Maybe that metaphor went off the rails.

    2. I always thought it would be fun if, say, plumbing were like writing, so that whenever you needed some plumbing work done, 100 people would show up and offer to do the job for a pittance. It sort of works as a metaphor, because after all, pretty much anyone can turn a wrench. Of course, if I buy a bad book my house doesn’t flood (then again, if I’m a magazine editor and I buy a bunch of bad stories, I suppose it does, metaphorically speaking). Were it really falls down is that even the best plumbers probably don’t enjoy it all that much, or secretly think it will make them famous.

      1. I think you might be surprised what plumbers think, but, yeah, winning the Pulitzer is probably not on their fantasy list. I may have to explore this whole issue in another post.

  4. You’re right. I don’t think we want more attention but a greater level of quality attention.

    If I get 2000 likes on one of my posts, what does that tell me? Nothing really. If I get 2000 comments that tells me a lot more – it means that a lot of people have a lot to say about my post.

    Selling 1,000,000 copies of a book might say that it is popular but that doesn’t mean that it is high quality *COUGH*50 Shades of Grey*COUGH*.

  5. I thought a bit on the attention side of things. Question, do you have people at work that don’t seem to put all that much effort into what they do? People who don’t seem to care much about their job and don’t change no matter how many times they are reprimanded? Then you yourself put all kinds of effort into a project, going the extra mile, whether or not you get promoted or a raise. Why is that? Some of it may be values, some ambition, and some for attention. If you get something out of it, ok, but how do you feel when you only get a thanks or worse yet a “what took so long?”? Is there a difference?

    Writing is more personal and more importantly, something done mostly to draw peoples attention to your skills, tastes, and ideas. How many times have you heard of someone, other than a person with hyperghrapia, writing a story solely for themselves? Any writers here doing that? Why put so much effort into perfecting a story if it is only you who will read it? Few artist create works just for themselves, maybe more so than writers, but I know I love to get responses to my work. I not saying that you are an attention whore, but I bet if you think about it, you do more things to get attention than the person who just ambles through life.

    1. Yeah, my response to the shootings. I don’t think I should respond with a full post (just doesn’t seem appropriate), but it is on my mind.

  6. I definitely agree that part of the problem is the modern tendency to believe “you are your work.” or even worse, “you are what others think of your work.”

    When you can’t get any attention paid to that work, it’s hard not to internalize it. How do I know my writing has value if no one praises or criticizes it?

    I try to stay zen about it, but I’m only human and want desperately to succeed at this thing that I love, in a way that other human beings will recognize and acknowledge. And I think most of us writers are in the same boat.

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