On Compliments: The Fat-Free Food of Creatives


The other day a friend of a friend reached out to me to compliment my writing, leading with a disclaimer about how “creepy” she knew she was being and an apology for said-creepiness. Of course, there was nothing creepy about it—it was just kind and reassuring, a warm little spark to end my day with. I half-joked to her that writers are very fragile and need all the compliments we can get. If you’re a writer yourself, you know this truth is more whole than half, as we eat accolades up like a calorie-free confection that tastes like the real thing. We may sprinkle our response with self-deprecation (well, I most certainly will) but it sends a little wave through our insides, temporarily assuring us that all of this verbiage is worth stringing together.

Like all waves, the compliments crash soon enough, revealing themselves in all their sugar-and-fat-free non-glory. You don’t have to be a writer to know how that goes—the experience just seems heightened for anyone bound to introspection… prone to swirling their self-image around and around in an attempt to make some sense of it or to welcome it—however tarnished—home. Regardless of your genres’ distance from the personal, it’s impossible not to render the work you’re putting forth as an extension of self, an intimate offering spun by your brain and body… that often shaky apparatus. We are what we create rings true, and thus discounts whether it actually is.

I’ve noticed the blood-sugar spike, the little spritzing of self-love that comes from compliments of late. I’ve felt them settle on my skin, all too briefly, before evaporating away, leaving me to rummage through my own thoughts for something similar. Usually this is a thwarted mission before it even takes off: I find self-flagellation in place of self-served congratulation, the irony—somewhat universal, I believe—of a generation centered on “Me.”

Famous writers (famous people of all stripes, really) endlessly warn us of this low-grade reality—how the accolades won’t fuel you for long, if at all. However irritating it is to hear their well-insured mouths harp on about this, I’m inclined to think it’s no hoax, but, rather, a plea for the rest of us to avoid a hell-bent search for legitimacy in other people’s eyes alone. It’s the cold shower we “creatives” like to avoid, shrouding it with a dreamier rendition: a glorified endpoint, a shimmering endorsement that will keep us warm until we die. How nice that will be, we think, imagining it served to us on the platter of a published book, a green lit movie, a chart-topping (okay, Internet-exalted) song.

But anyone who’s felt the compliments wash off, again and again—so brutally fleeting as they are—knows this to be one of life’s greatest lies. We may avert our eyes from it occasionally, us being human and so comfortably idiotic as we are, but it stops us short now and then, daring us to deny it once more. Goading us with our flimsy, poorly-lit reflections, it suggests another, more-rugged path: that of building ourselves up, of validating our work via action alone… the simple, non-glorious fact that we get up every day and keep at it.

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