No matter what creative field you work in, it can be tempting to worry about how your book/painting/song/performance/masterpiece/trashfire-on-a-deadline will be received by audiences.
I’m here to tell you to give up.
You are never, NEVER going to know how your Thing will be perceived by any person at any time, and generalizing about humans is a fool’s game.
I’m going to give you two examples for this case; one from either side of the Creative Thing.
In the first one, I was a teenage girl on the receiving end of a creative work—in this case, a song by Alkaline Trio called “We’ve Had Enough.” If you’re not familiar, here it is.
Now, you have the benefit of seeing the video and getting clear reception. I heard this song on 99.9 The Buzz, a radio station that I could only sort of hear clearly by running sixteen feet of dipole (extra antenna) out my bedroom window in the middle of nowhere. So when I first heard this song, the following conditions were in place:
- I was fifteen or so
- It was full of static
- I had been conditioned by Bad Religion to expect a certain level of socially adept lyricism in my punk rock.
So what I heard was:
Ain’t nothing on the air waving the despair we feel
I said we’ve had enough, put “Walk Among Us” on and turn it up
Ain’t nothing on the air waving the hatred we field
Misheard lyrics are common enough. The last word being “field” made more sense to me because it would have been better writing (sorry, Alkaline Trio) and also because “hate” wasn’t one of my core emotions. Oh, I said it a lot, but what I used to call “hating” a thing, I’ve learned to more accurately represent as either exasperation or annoyance. Fielding hate, however, was a thing I felt I did all the time.
In short, they wrote one thing and I heard another because there is no way they could possibly have accounted for all the variables of me specifically.
I have a second example from the other end of the Creative Thing. I wrote a book, the second in my first trilogy, that I thought was about LARPer nerds surviving the geological apocalypse and going on a journey to a newly established civilization. That considered, I was very surprised when I got a review that said (I’m paraphrasing):
Didn’t finish this book, got sick of the author shoving issues in my face. We get it, you hate Big Pharma.
I try to take negative reviews and use them to make my work better. I really do. I also understand that you can’t entertain everyone. Sometimes some people are just not going to like some books. But I had no idea what to do with this review, because I can not connect it to reality as I know it.
I do not hate “Big Pharma.” I have serious chronic health issues, and “Big Pharma” keeps me alive. I do take issue with companies price-gouging or releasing new drugs strictly to avoid patent expiration losses, but so does any informed and humane citizen, and more importantly, none of that ever comes up in the book. Ever.
The things in the book that could possibly considered pharma-related are Mab discussing how menstrual cups are better than tampons in a survival situation, her handing out Midol for the caffeine, and the gang trying to bring life-saving drugs back to the new city of survivors. If anything, my message was “drugs are good, and we’re going to have a lot of problems if they ever disappear.”
So how do I turn this bad review into constructive criticism? I don’t. How do I figure out what circumstances led that reader to see BIG PHARMA SUCKS written on the fictional walls? I hella don’t. I’m never going to know. I would have to learn everything about them to maybe have a clue as to why they read what they read when I wrote what I wrote. And even then, there’s some other reader out there who’s going to think that any new “improvements” I gained from that insight made me a shill for drug companies.
The short of it is, stop worrying about what people are going to think. People are complicated, you can’t please (or even be understood) by everyone, and that’s okay. You have no choice but to write your truth. If you try to write to someone else’s truth, you’re just going to turn your own into a mess.
Become an audience agnostic. Somebody will probably like you, somebody probably won’t, and you’re never going to understand any of it. Let it go and make the Thing.