On The/My Constant Need for Constant Praise

About an hour after my latest blog post, I sent a message to my friend N.

“Can you read my new post!?” I wrote. “I haven’t gotten any response yet and I’m starting to panic!”

“Sure!” she wrote back. Of course.

And, of course, a few minutes later: “It’s great! I like the writing and the questions!”

I knew, before and after, that this was an absurd exercise. How did I expect her to respond? “Eh, not your best”? “Okay, but the prose is mediocre and the ideas mundane”?

(Perhaps another friend, though I’m pressed to produce a name, would have offered such candid feedback–but certainly not this one.)

And yet, I immediately felt better. At least one person thought what I had written was decent. Or so, at least, I could tell myself.

Did it appease my insecurity entirely? Of course not. I proceeded to spend the rest of the afternoon compulsively checking Facebook, to see if anyone else had “liked” the post, and my email in hopes that someone had left a comment.

(And then, after various errands, I got in bed and watched multiple episodes of my new Netflix addiction, “Friday Night Lights.” No, I am not proud of any of the above.)

But when it comes to the need for validation, is it ever enough? Are any of us–those of us, creative types, who habitually put things into the world and then pin our entire self-worth on that world’s response–ever fully satisfied by what we receive?

Recently, I heard an anecdote about a Nobel-Prize winning writer–Nobel Prize winning–who called up an acquaintance in a state of panic because a reviewer had noted that her most recent book was her best since the one she’d written two before. “What?” the writer pleaded. “Was the last one not any good?!”

The story seemed incomprehensible to me when I heard it. How could someone whose life’s work and accomplishments had been recognized so profoundly, so thoroughly, so consistently, possibly retain any shred of self-doubt?

Still, it’s difficult to fathom. But whether or not you buy it, the anecdote illustrates just how powerful that need is: that desperate, urgent need for external recognition.

Last semester I read an essay called “Why Write?” by the poet Alan Shapiro, published inĀ  Best American Essays 2006. It’s a great essay, but the part that has stuck with me is about this very thing: the infinite cycle that is the writerly desire to be validated.

He describes thinking, as a teenager, that all he’d need to make him truly happy was to publish a poem in a single magazine. And then once he did, he thought he’d be truly validated if he could publish in a place like The New Yorker. And as soon as he did that, it would be to write a book. And then to get a good review.

And so on, and so on, until he concludes that “even if God Himself, the Lord Almighty, hallowed be His name, came down from heaven and gave me a big fat kiss on the back of the brain, I’d probably shrug if off: ‘What? That’s it? For years you don’t write, you don’t call, and now all I get is a lousy kiss?’”

He goes on: “Don’t get me wrong. Acclaim of any kind is wonderful…But even at its best, that sort of ‘reward’ or ‘recognition’ is like cotton candy: it looks ample enough until you put in in your mouth; then it evaporates. All taste and no nourishment.”

Perhaps, though, the need for recognition is part of what drives people, pushes them to keep producing even once they’ve achieved some measure of success. And while, like Shapiro, I’d like to think that what motivates us is nobler than that, I also think the desire makes sense.

After all, the reason we write–or at least, the reason I write–is to connect. To assure others, and ourselves, that our experience isn’t totally unique. I don’t know a less cheesy way to say it. And I know there are other reasons, other values and other pleasures, to be found in creating. But I do believe that at the core of it all is connection.

And if that’s the desire, than doesn’t it make sense, and isn’t it a little bit important that we’d want to know we’ve succeeded? I don’t like it, but I think it might–even if we’ll forever be wanting to succeed a little bit more.