The Disproportionate View of the Negative

Two days ago I got the notification that the NYC Midnight Short Story contest final results were up. I delayed opening the email, because I knew my third round story had not been as strong as my first two and I didn’t expect to do well. I finally clicked through, scanned just enough to confirm that there had not been a miracle, and I closed the page. Another email came with my feedback — every story in the contest gets feedback from multiple judges — and I didn’t even open it. I was busy, it wasn’t going anywhere, and I already knew there were problems with my story.

Yesterday morning, I opened the feedback email. Their feedback format is to collate the positive notes first, followed by the collated critical notes. I read the first couple of sentences on what the judges liked, then read down — and I realized that I was barely skimming, skipping over all the nice compliments to look for the coming negatives on what the judges felt needed work.

And this is such a great illustration of what I was talking about elsewhere just a couple of days ago, so lemme pontificate on it here on the blog.

The human brain is built to notice the bad more than the good. This is a useful feature when you’re trying to survive on a subsistence level, and consciously noticing the usual supply of vegetables is low is more likely to save your life than consciously noticing that it’s nice weather outside. It’s a destructive bug when you’re living in modern society and you keep fixating on bad things until you’re a sad wreck.

I find proof of this all the time in my day job, when people find it very easy to notice bad behavior to punish but surprisingly difficult to notice good behavior to reinforce. Even when I’m coaching them to actively look for good things, it can be difficult to break the habit of looking for the mistakes and missing the successes. Just this week, I was listening to a client lament their sad lack of progress and how we hadn’t achieved one of her goals yet. I listened sympathetically for a while, and then I asked, “Of the four new things we just did today, could we have done any of them last week?”

“Oh, no,” she agreed quickly. “Today was amazing.”

“And could we have done any of these at our first session last month?”

“Absolutely not. I would have said it was impossible.” She hesitated. “Oh. I guess I’m just not thinking about it that way.”

It is sometimes surprising how much our brain wants to cling to the negative view over the positive. There’s a lot of cultural training on top of that, too, where celebrating can sometimes be labeled as pride or arrogance, or where acknowledging improvement or success can be called “showing off,” to be shut down lest others feel bad. And don’t even get me started on the typical American female ritual, where one woman complains about a body part and the expected response is a sequence from each other woman present on why their bodies are worse. Failure to join in on this self-denigration is equivalent to an attack on the other women, and God help the woman who says she likes her body. So vain! Mean Girls demonstrates:

But then writers and other artists are worse. Artists, it is a universally known truth, are crazy. We’re sensitive, we think too much, then we overthink that, we are tortured souls.

"I thought all writers drank to excess and beat their wives." Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY

“The Philadelphia Story” is a fantastic film.

We have a ridiculous social stereotype for a reason, and denigrating our own work is part of the package.

But emotions are just an Erlenmeyer flask of chemicals, and those chemicals are ridiculously subject to outside influence. The weather can change them. Chemicals left in the flask from a previous event will affect the current event, so checking the news can change your perspective on everything for the rest of the day, or one jerk on social media can change how you read the next message. Food or the lack of food can change your whole perception, oh yes! Hangry is a real thing.

Just as you may wish to disassociate yourself from the, “You’re tacky and I hate you” you said when you were hangry, you may wish to review that “My work is awful and everyone hates it” you told yourself.

One of the background influences to my reaction, I’m sure, was that I took that day (the deadline is 24 hours after the prompt is sent) for myself and the contest, leaving two friends to handle a major project alone. Yes, I joined them after my writing day and worked hard for the next week, but I had abandoned them that day, and there was a subtle undercurrent in my mind that I might have been a jerk for nothing. No, they hadn’t complained, of course, they were understanding and encouraging! but y’know, brains. So there was extra pressure for this third story that no one but I had put there.

I know a lot of writers. A lot. And all of them will ignore 14 good reviews and fixate on the one bad review. And yeah, me too, even though looking for successes to reinforce is literally my job; it just means I sometimes snap out of it sooner than average.

So here I was, frustrated because I know I can do better than what I turned in. And in order to feel that frustration, I had to

  • ignore the fact that out of over 4,000 contestants to start, I had made it to the final 75
  • ignore some really nice compliments from multiple judges, feedback like, “fun banter full of wit and barbs” and “engaging and well-written” and “excellent dialogue that snaps,” all of which I had to go back and look up just now because I couldn’t remember them because my brain still wants to recall the critiques
  • let myself feel like not winning was a failure, instead of feeling proud that I’d made it all the way to the final round on my first attempt

Instead, I should respect all the people involved, including the beta readers who gave me helpful feedback during my short deadline, the judges who said nice things about my story (I can’t accept their suggestions if I don’t also accept their compliments), and the me who put out two stories I’m really proud of and one that could have been better but really wasn’t a total train wreck.

So here’s your assignment for today: Find the positive. I don’t mean look for the silver lining of something bad, I mean look for the success you tuned out because it wasn’t a total win-the-lottery victory. Did you drink water instead of a soft drink this morning, making a good health choice and a start on a new habit? Great! The fact that you had a cookie with lunch doesn’t undo that. It would have been worse if you’d had both the cookie and the cola. Now you have data on where the temptations are stronger and you can make a new plan to help with that choice.

Did you write 800 words today? Great. Sure, it’s not the 2500 words that your friend celebrated on #amwriting Twitter, but those 800 words still exist, so stop pretending that they don’t count because someone else wrote more.

Did you read a book today instead of fretting over social media slap-fights? Good for you.

No pressure, but if you want to give a shout-out to yourself in the comments, tell the rest of us what victory you’re claiming today or this week or whatever. I’ll start with two:

  1. I went back and read all the positive feedback for my story
  2. I’m so behind on blog posts, but I just wrote one :)

(N.B. I had several excellent beta readers give me feedback on my final round story, and none of my frustration or disappointment should be construed resulting as any kind of failure on their part. They were fantastic, and I’m grateful to them!)


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  1. I finalized the cover and interior files for the print edition of Circle City Psychic, so paperbacks will soon be available! That’s a victory!

    I also decided to change the cover of Shades of Circle City a little in the hopes of appealing to werewolf/shifter fans. Another victory! :)

  2. Dude, perfect timing. I’ll be hitting 1,000 links in my WriteChain tomorrow, and I’m already thinking up tons of reasons why that’s really not a big deal and probably not worth celebrating. Victory #1 was sharing it in a writing group anyway.

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