The expectation of attention

By Caitlin Kelly

Do you expect to be listened to?

I’ve been writing for a living since 1978, when I was still an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, and started writing for national magazines and Canada’s national newspaper The Globe and Mail.

I spent my teens attending summer camp, where every month we’d put on a musical, some fab creation from the 1950s like Flower Drum Song or Hello Dolly. I almost always won the lead.

Flower Drum Song
Flower Drum Song (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every Sunday evening, we’d put on a Talent Show and I’d get up with my guitar and a song I’d written that day to sing it to 300 people.

It only struck me — reading Sue Healy’s brilliant blog about writing, (and she’s a former journalist) — that, as a default position, I expect to be able to hold and keep people’s attention.

Before you all un-follow, with snorts of dismay and derision, let me explain why this is a huge advantage, especially for ambitious writers and bloggers.

Newer writers seem to fear rejection, or fear that whatever it is you hope to convey just isn’t all that interesting.


You have to assume someone does want to hear/read you, that you have the talent and guile and charm and story to woo and win them for 20 or 30 or 100 minutes.

OK, maybe five, on the Internet!

Journalism offers phenomenal preparation for other attention-seeking work, whether dance, music or more writing. You have to produce something every day, sometimes every hour. (I once had to write a television news story in the two minutes of a commercial break.)

You have to crank out a ton of stuff, certainly if you work for a daily paper or, worse, a wire service or web site.

Some of it is really shitty. Some of it is amazing, stuff you read decades later with pride. You will also see other writers (grrrrr) win front page and fellowships and awards and make the best-seller list.

You, oh misery, do not.

But you must wake up the next day and re-assume the same confident stance, that your work and your ideas are worth the attention of others. What’s the alternative? Lying in bed weeping in the fetal position?

Not you!

I was lucky, in some ways, to be an only child, never competing for my parents’ attention with a crowd of siblings. I had a sort of brassy self-confidence I’ve never really understood, although I’m damn grateful for it. I rarely worry about putting my stuff out there (even if I should!)

The standard American cliche is “stepping up to the plate” — i.e. home plate, where you stand in order to hit a baseball or softball. As someone who still plays softball (and can hit to the outfield), I know how nervous it can make you.

Everyone’s watching! What if you miss? What if you can’t even make it to first base? What if you hit a fly and someone catches it?

NOTICEME (Photo credit: Beadzoid)

But what happens when you hit a single/double/triple — or home run? Huzzah!

If you’re still feeling nervous about blogging, or sending your creations into the world for approval/sale/attention, just do it.

(But do not, I beg you, be all foot-shuffling and hand-wringing and ‘I don’t know what to blog about.’ Don’t be boring. Take a risk!)

Yes, some of your work will be ignored and rejected. My third book proposal goes out this week, (shriek), and has already been rejected by the people who published “Malled.” I asked my editor why and received a short, polite and helpful reply.

In the old days, I would never have asked.

My first two books, when their proposals were sent to major publishers, each received 25 rejections before the 26th. said yes. Both have won terrific reviews and been bought by libraries world-wide.

So I anticipate, (albeit pre-cringing at how nasty some of the rejections can be), more of the same. I hope not. But it happens. Rejection is the cost of doing this business.

This essay, about my divorce, won the Canadian National Magazine Award for humor — after being laughingly dismissed by an editor at one of the U.S.’s biggest women’s magazines.

Focused attention has become one of the world’s most precious resources.

But, oh, the joy when you’ve won it!

And again.

And again…

35 thoughts on “The expectation of attention

    1. Exactly. So many people cringe from rejection. It’s crazy. Writing means a LOT of people will reject your work/ideas/skills. But it’s not a personal attack. That distinction is crucial or you’ll never pitch again.

  1. I generally don’t expect to be listened to. I expect mostly to be ignored, to have things to say that no one really wants to hear either because they are too boring or too upsetting. It’s always a pleasant surprise when people do listen–adults, anyway, who aren’t being forced to. My default position is to keep saying things anyway, just in case. At least then I can say afterward that I tried.

    I’ve had “friendships” in the past that I ended because I realized that was an important part of the dynamic. I was there to say things that the “friend” didn’t want to hear–to be the messenger to shoot. Because of course I will say them. Eventually. If they seem to need to be said.

    1. I find that really sad. I used to be like that (very much a result of family stuff) but there are people who do want to listen.

      But I will say that I have “lost” three friendships with women I thought were close friends because, in all three instances, something in the relationship was making me crazy — there was a real tone-deafness and I told them how much the issue bothered me, assuming (hah) they would value our friendship enough to work it through. Nope.

      So there comes a point you stop speaking up or choose very different friends.

      1. I like blogging (and probably would like other kinds of “published” writing) for that reason. If someone wants to come around and read what I think, they can. If they enjoy it, wonderful. If they don’t, that’s okay too. But no one is going to try to shove my thoughts down their throats and I don’t need to jump up and down trying to get some attention. What I think is there. It can be read or not. It’s rather nice, actually.

  2. I credit my education in creative writing with allowing me to put my work out there without thinking too hard about how people will perceive it. In journalism, you talk to sources and try to remain as objective as possible in your synthesis of them. In creative writing, you pour a lot of yourself onto that page, and it can be very difficult to sit there quietly taking notes as the rest of the class rips the manuscript to shreds. I imagine the feelings are similar with an autobiographical book like Malled. It sure gives you a tough skin, though!

    1. The best classes do NOT allow fellow students to behave with impunity. It’s a poor teacher who lets that happen. I started a novel in the 1990s (never finished it) and workshopped it. I found the experience interesting. I sent this latest book proposal to four or five readers before it went to my agent, for their input and critiques. You have to be able to hear feedback and decide which of it is valuable.

  3. We have to expect to be knocked back – it’s part of life. Here in New Zealand, certainly, stepping up to the plate is an invitation to be cut down. It’s part of our culture. Penalty for living in a small country whose history revolved around what, by any measure, was an inferiority complex.

    But even elsewhere, I figure the knock-backs are getting harder – certainly in fields such as writing and publishing, as the paradigm changes and what was always hard-nosed anyway is becoming more of an iron fist.

    1. Ouch!

      One of the reasons I left Toronto, and Canada, was the challenge of living in/having a long and highly ambitious career in a very small country, where powerful editors — literally — keep their same jobs for decades. Sclerotic and creates a culture of courtiers. Not for me. Of course, NYC publishing is worse! But it’s a bigger place with more opportunities, so when someone is shitty and rude, there’s usually five others who won’t be.

  4. We write expecting to be read or there’s no point in writing at all. That someone who will discover we are the next big thing is just around the next corner, or so we have to hope.I’m exactly like that and spend my time hoping that whoever reads my books has at least enjoyed them.With the exception of one jarring review it seems people do. But for me anyhow, it seems my blog is what I turn to when I need accolades most. The knowledge that people comment almost as soon as I’ve written my Saturday Night Special makes me feel my words are listened too albeit by the same super group of people week after week.
    If I thought my entertainment value was going downhill I thing the blog would be the first indication and I’d probably give up altogether, but so far………….
    xxx Huge Hugs Caitlin xxx

    1. I’ve thought a lot about how comforting a blog audience can be. Journalism — pre-Internet — meant getting almost no response, ever, to one’s work. My NYT business stories have attracted 250 online comments apiece and I read every one; the last batch of comments prompted the next story idea.

      I do not ever expect to become “the next big thing.” It would be pleasant, but it’s unlikely.

  5. This post was just what I need to read today, thank you Caitlin. I was just thinking today how interesting it is that the people I thought were my best friends, people I see everyday, tend to ignore my writing like it doesn’t exist. And I wonder, so does that mean they don’t give a damn about my thoughts, feelings, etc, because I have been putting it all out there. I know they read it, why don’t they say anything. It’s mostly relationships of folks I have met through my writing who have been inspired, and inspiring to me to keep going. I’m learning to not expect to be listened to–by my friends and some family–and not to take it personally but that’s hard. And now I expect my biggest online cheerleaders to be there for me, sometimes that’s hard too as you branch into new topics and discussions, Some will interest them, some may not. That I believe is where I hope my voice is what shines through and keeps them interested at least in the storytelling. And Caitlin, yours definitely does shine through. I look forward to your posts and am about 1/3 way into Malled and find it fascinating. I worked on the direct marketing side of multi-channel retailing, so worked on gaining customers but in the office behind the scenes… never having to actually see the end-user. Love your account of the experience….good luck on proposal 3!

    1. Thanks!

      What you say is very true. I’ve learned not to expect my friends and colleagues to read my blog, and that’s fine. It’s a very different voice and set of concerns, sometimes, from my commercial work and people are REALLY busy these days! I also think many blogs are, sadly, tedious and not very interesting to read, so when they hear the word “blog” they think…ugh, must I?

      I agree that shifting topics can win or lose readers. This blog now has 6,901 (!?) followers…but look how few ever comment. (I am very glad of those who do.) Are all the others bored? Shy? Who knows?

      Glad you’re enjoying Malled. I wish it were required reading for every single person working in retail at a management level. The workers are often too scared to speak up, and there is much they have to offer that is of value.

  6. Someone once told me to draw 50 circles on a sheet of paper, and for every rejected submission I get, to draw a little face in it. The idea was not to give up because (they figured) for every accepted submission it was totally normal to have about 50 rejected ones – because jurors are sometimes tired or maybe have a headache when they look at your work, or just had an argument with their colleague, or whatever. And a rejection is better than no reaction at all. I’m a painter, and a lot of people don’t seem have much to say about art… but one day when my work was up at the local city hall, I stopped by just to make sure everything was still hanging straight. There was a man sitting on a bench there, eating his lunch alone and just staring at one of my paintings. Every now and then he’d get up and look at it closely. Sometimes when I get discouraged and wonder if it’s all worth it, I think about him.

    1. Wow. I am not sure I could handle a ratio of 50 rejections to one sale. I write for a living — so I have to sell a lot more than get rejected; I’d guess my pitch to acceptance rate means about 75%+ of my pitches sell. That doesn’t mean I am creating art, though, so that’s a very different and subjective animal than writing journalism to measure on defined topics.

      I love that you saw someone getting into your work. I tend to look very closely at artwork as well. Whenever I visit a museum, it takes me a long time and most people race very quickly past, very rarely standing close or looking into the works. I find that sad and if I were an artist would make me a little nuts.

  7. I’m happy to say I’m getting some attention with my blogging. These days I’m getting many new followers every week. I’m very happy about it. Means some people are at least a bit interested in my blogging (and possibly my fiction writing).

  8. This is great. I don’t have that inherent belief in my own ability to grab attention, so whenever I talk or write, I work very hard to make sure I am saying something that is going to be worth the listener/reader’s while.

    One thing that I like about blogging is that I can be my own editor and gatekeeper, which means I can put stuff out there and see what works instead of having to navigate other people’s tastes, some of which can be rather confusing and contradictory. I still remember my one experience with being published in an anthology, and how the editor would work with me to cultivate certain parts of my story, only to have the publisher hate that part. I still believe strongly in the power of a good editorial hand but I like being able to write regularly without having to answer to it.

    1. Thanks for weighing in.

      I don’t per se think I’m all that! But I feel fairly confident I can usually say something of value.

      Blogging does allow us to speak in our own voices — which I think is especially valuable for women, as we are often either absent from mass media content or presented in tiresome tropes: slut, celebrity, mom, crime victim, whatever.

      Some people find my voice here blunt (one person said I sound very very angry at times)…but that’s my decision. I find a lot of the material out there watered down to keep advertisers happy but is not really speaking the truth about how (some) women candidly feel.

      1. Very true. This is something I love about blogging – that it has allowed me to become very engaged with a wide variety of people (mostly women) who write in their own voices about the things that move them. Any limitations are self-imposed, and not the result of some preconceived notions of an editor and how that editor thinks the story should be shaped.

        Sometimes I wonder if I am doing myself a disservice by focusing less on trying to get published in “respectable” outlets and more my blog. I still don’t know what I think about that…

        Also, for what it’s worth, I think you’re all that. 🙂

      2. The engagement piece is fascinating — and makes me realize why many people are turned off by the “push” style of journalism as opposed to the “pull” of blogging. As someone who’s been dealing with editors for 30+ years (and has worked as one as well), I know their opinions are merely opinions.

        It depends on your goals, I guess. I need my blog to prove a growing audience for my books and to get online work. I enjoy it and do spend more time on it than I should. But publishing has become so punitive in its pay rates it’s not wildly motivating.


  9. wonderful post. i write because i love to, and i find it hard not to write. anyone reading, liking and enjoying it is a bonus. i don’t give up and continuously celebrate when people get it and it all works.

  10. ‘Stepping up to the plate’ is something I frequently exhort my karate students to do but I usually phrase it as ‘backing yourself’ and I think that’s the essence of every creative and artistic endeavour. If you’re going to do it, do it!

    It’s the doing of it, and the belief that it is worth doing that will take you further along your chosen path. Prevarication will leave you dead in the water – something I succumb to with dispiriting frequency.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking piece.

    1. So true. I used to be much more ambivalent and it cost me dearly. As we say here in the States (crudely) — balls to the wall! If you spend too much time worrying about failure, it’s pretty much going to happen. It is terrifying…my book proposal is out now and I am trying hard not to focus on it; the rejection emails I received on the two prior ones were sometimes SO nasty you would hardly believe it. I spent a year polishing that thing. But there’s nothing to be done but hope it finds a receptive editor (or several.)

      In a weird way, living in NY makes it easier to keep jumping back into the creative sharkpond, as everyone else is doing it.

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