About 10 years ago, I was moaning to my longtime mentor about the mean comments posted on one of my articles. “What is wrong with people?” I asked him. He’s written for Vogue, the New York Times, and published a string of well-regarded books, and while I have done none of those things, I was sure he could use a gripe session, too.
Instead he shrugged and said, “If you can’t stand the sight of your own blood, don’t step into the ring.”
OUCH. I had not been looking for tough love. I wanted sympathy. Why couldn’t he understand that I’m a delicate artiste who needs everyone else to cater to my exquisite sensitivities? What was so hard to grasp about my needing endless external validation and not criticism, much less typo-riddled harangues from strangers?
Okay, so I was the confused one. My mentor had it right, I just needed a little time to come around to his way of thinking. Once I did, though, my worldview rearranged itself in a better order—I had fewer expectations and could accept a wider range of outcomes. It is difficult yet important to toughen up a little, and to develop enough confidence in your work that you’re not sunk every time someone dislikes it and says so, at length.
This isn’t to romanticize hard knocks, it’s to romanticize resilience. How else are you going to have a writing career that lasts more than a couple of weeks? How else can you maintain a crucial openness to feedback, so that when the helpful kind comes, you’re able to hear it? How else can you keep going amidst the often distressing realities of this profession? What are you gonna do—quit?
Fortunately, I only need to ask myself such tough questions every single day. Still, the foremost thing my friend’s advice reminds me of is not the knockdown but the joy: how great it is to be in the ring. How great is it? Oh my God, it is so great. I take it for granted that you also worked for years to get here. You may’ve wanted to be in the ring your entire thinking life. And like Drake said: Started from the bottom, now we here. It is a privilege. I for one am so glad. My guess is you are, too. This dream does not come for free and it never will, but you know, if you can’t stand the sight of your own blood, don’t step into the ring.
These days, just typing that sentence makes me grin at my desk, here in the predawn dark where I have foregone sleep so I can do this instead. Once, it was hard to hear. Now it guides me.
It’s what I told myself in 2018 when I had a different piece come out and a beloved internet personality spent hours making fun of me on Twitter, with a fair few of her 100,000 followers joining in. Seeing that thread was like a polar plunge of the soul, my sensation a refreshing combination of embarrassment and hurt. Soon it grew so long that I stopped quoting it to my therapist and just forwarded her the link. But you know, if you can’t stand the sight of your own blood, don’t step into the ring.
It’s what I told myself when, even more recently, an excerpt of my first book ran on Lit Hub in what was, for me, a dream very literally come true, and some people in the comments section were moved to call it “too cute by half and twice as contrived,” while others posted longer diatribes:
I signed up for this site just to comment on how terrible this article is. I mean, we’re discussing a man like Edgar Allen Poe here [sic], and the best advice you can construe from his life is “double your effort and move/run away”? Well, someone didn’t double their effort in writing this it seems.
I’d like to imagine that you didn’t ever think this was good, but that it’s your job to constantly write mediocre to shitty clickbait articles, and that you are really a talented writer just looking for your big break, and that you hate doing this. I want to believe.
The funny thing is, the excerpt was itself about rejection, so this person dunking on me was, so to speak, scoring double points in the video game. While I can’t say if they really did try to imagine my deeper fears, they landed close enough. It’s okay, though. I don’t agree with their assessment, I have more confidence in my work than that, and anyway I have grown used to the sight of my own blood. It does not shock me. It is essentially fine, close enough to fine for me to keep going.
So—submission rebuffed? Query dismissed? Book turned down by some acquiring editor? Nasty review posted for all to see? If you can’t stand the sight of your own blood, don’t step into the ring. Meanwhile it’s so wonderful to be in the ring. I can’t see leaving it voluntarily, because I want so much to be here. Don’t you? If you’re reading this, you’re probably a writer, too. So you know.
Catherine Baab-Muguira’s debut, Poe for Your Problems: Uncommon Advice from History’s Least Likely Self-Help Guru, was published by Hachette in September 2021. She also writes a free email newsletter called Poe Can Save Your Life, packed with darkly inspiring self-help tips for writers and other creatives. Check it out here.