Monday, October 14, 2013

My First Time: Susanna Sonnenberg

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Susanna Sonnenberg, author of She Matters: A Life in Friendships and Her Last Death: A Memoir.  Elizabeth Gilbert had this to say about She Matters: “Yes, I have always said that I wished somebody would write a book just exactly like this—yet you will notice that I never wrote it myself.  To be honest, I would not have had the courage to be as honest and searching as Sonnenberg has been here.  I admire her greatly for it.”  Susanna was born in London and grew up in New York.  Her essays have appeared in Elle, O, the Oprah Magazine and Parenting, among other magazines.  Click here to visit her website.  You can also find her on Facebook and on Twitter.

My First Bad Review

I only read it once.  I scrolled through the review fast—that first trumpeting sentence was hideous enough—and then fled the site, as if afraid of infection.  In fact, I was nauseated.  In a prominent paper a critic had savaged my first book, out only a few days.  The critic had savaged me, both as the subject of the memoir and its author.  I saw, in the blur of speed reading, my passionate intentions dismissed, my character ridiculed, and the events of my life questioned.

Oh, the vulnerability of this moment—the craven greed for recognition plus the naked fear.  How susceptible I was to humiliation, even as I struggled to accept that whatever happened to my book from here on out would not be within my control.  In the preceding days, lovely praise had come, and I’d been basking in a sense of gratified accomplishment.  This peace and cautious pride were shattered by the critic’s sneering vitriol, each paragraph imbued with a hateful contagion.  I’d spent two years (and a lifetime) writing the memoir.  Six months before publication, when the galley arrived from my editor, I carried it around in my arms as I had my newborn sons, proud and amazed, wishing to show off something beautiful and of my own making.  And why not?

Yet the book, published, distributed, for sale, was no longer mine.

We don’t write for the reviews.  We write because we are obsessed by some idea that needs clarity, that demands the right words, and I enjoy the craziness that is borne of this obsession.  Turning over a problem compulsively, whether of craft or theme, I am filled with purpose.  When finally I hit upon an expression that is both apt and graceful, I feel exultant, also relieved.

But life as a published writer has the inescapable component of reception.  As with everything in my life and work as a writer, avoiding negative reviews takes effort, especially in the age of such ready access.  A friend of mine, prominently published, reads neither good reviews nor bad of his books.  So he says, and I almost believe him.   Anyway, these days the reviews find you, forwarded by well-meaning friends, posted across several sites.  The only hope of avoiding them is to have no Facebook account and to resist Googling your name, disciplines that escape most of us.  Damn Amazon, too, for its blaring front-page splash of readers’ comments.  But cultivate that discipline.  To paraphrase the writer and linguist Michael Erard, none of that extremely available, often disposable, endlessly generated shit helps you write.  If anything, it muffles the resonance of your writing voice and diminishes the soul.

Writer, is the world against you?  You bet.  But we don’t need the bad review to teach us how to be humiliated.  There have always been lessons: the bully in gym class, the parent’s careless put down, the back of the line at the airport, the hidden fees from the phone company, the NSA’s blithe harvesting of our “private” information.  Yet on we go, making meaning out of the things we hold as important, exploring our passions and finding grace therein.

Go ahead, read the praise.  Writing is a lonely business which subjects you relentlessly to bitter misgivings, the voice in your head that tells you to stop, not to bother, that you’re no good.  We need all the support we can get, and praise is a perfectly respectable, if temporary, antidote.  Praise is not, however, an education.  Nor is the negative review a useful education.  The only thing the bad review does, as far as I can tell, is drive you to previously unmined levels of self-doubt, killing a writing day (or week).

After the nausea wore off, after that first book had been out on its own in the world a couple of weeks, I put that wretched review on my website alongside the others—the positive ones, the ambivalent ones, the clueless ones.   Art should provoke discussion, and discussion needs to be primed by opposing ideas.  Although the author’s mean-spirited wrath had hurt my feelings—simple as that—it didn’t alter my path, nor defeat my faith in the work itself.  Instead, the reviewer gave me a quick, cold, and essential lesson in letting go.

Recently, I was comforting a friend who received a very bad review.  I mentioned mine, and he asked who wrote it.   To my great pleasure I found that I couldn’t remember the name of that spiteful, ill-tempered bully.  I could easily look it up, but I think I won’t.

Author photo by Marion Ettlinger


  1. There's a solidarity to being an artist that transcends whether you're published or emerging and it's always helpful to know that what unites us is the passion for that art and idea as Susanna says. Great essay and reminder to pursue that idea and ignore that outside world that may divert you from it and gaining a better education.

    Thanks so much for sharing this, Susanna!

  2. Nice, Susanna! My favorite bit, the last sentence in this quote, is just right: "Go ahead, read the praise. Writing is a lonely business which subjects you relentlessly to bitter misgivings, the voice in your head that tells you to stop, not to bother, that you’re no good. We need all the support we can get, and praise is a perfectly respectable, if temporary, antidote. Praise is not, however, an education."