by Pari

Last Saturday, I went to the spa to celebrate my birthday. Before going, I decided to pay special attention to my people-pleaser tendencies — those numerous little efforts I make daily to put people at ease or to evoke a positive inter-relational response — because at this point in my life I’m examining many of the things I used to take for granted about myself. (And, just as an aside, let me tell you I’ll be delighted when I can finally move out of this introspective phase!!!)

Anyway . . .
I like being nice; it comes naturally now. It’s fun to make people feel good. And it’s a real asset in my work.

What does this have to do with writing?

Everything, I think.

The longer I’m a writer, the more I’ve come to believe that this task, this creative calling, isn’t just about putting words on paper and honing/editing them to a marvelous sheen. Being a good writer is also about understanding. It’s about watching and thinking and analyzing and feeling deeply.

As a reader I often don’t give a rat’s ass for structure or plot, but I’m a total sucker for voice. It’s true that I do know some shallow human beings who manage to pull off wonderful literary oeuvres. I also know some fascinating writers  — as people — whose works I can’t read. But the majority of folks that keep me coming back for more are those who are, indeed, in touch with a magnificently unique essence in themselves. That gem of an individual identity comes out in their writing as distinctly as their fingerprints would on a blotter.

I don’t know if this is true, but I suspect that my people-pleaser tendencies have pften nudged me to write things that I want others to like more than paying attention — perhaps — to deeper stories that I need to tell . . . even if they may not make others “feel good.” I’m not saying that Sasha or Darnda aren’t coming from a distinctive place; I’m not putting myself down.  . . . Oh hell . . . I don’t know.

People-pleasing is safe, isn’t it? And it carries such pleasant dividends on a day-to-day level. But is writing the place to do it? Is this another case of marketing vs . . .  whatever? Readers do expect certain things from established writers, but is that voice  — that inner truth that comes out in some writers’ works — the real goal?

As often happens with my posts, I’m merely asking the question. And I’d love to hear your take on this.

I guess my question is:

Does the urge to please people get in the way of a deeper creativity?




15 thoughts on “People-pleaser

  1. billie

    Interesting question! I had some trouble earlier on in my writing life when I felt a need to protect my characters and the reader. It wasn't a need to please, but to protect, and it got in the way of the story. I'm sure that's the therapist in me!

    If you've never listened to Clarissa Pinkola Estes The Dangerous Old Woman series, I think you might enjoy it. I have never been an audio book person, but I bring the laundry from the dryer into my bedroom and fold while I listen – and I've enjoyed this series which seems aimed at this stage of my life.

  2. Shizuka

    I'd say yes, especially on a first draft. It's hard to write when you're too aware of how people will react.

    I try to follow Stephen King's advice and write first drafts without an end reader in mind.
    To spill it all out on the page, repetitive dialogue and all.
    I've been part of a writing group for years and in the beginning we tried too hard to get approval and to surprise. I've gotten a lot more from the critiques when I let the writing go where it wants.

    Closely related to being a people pleaser is worrying about how family and friends will react to your writing. When a close friend found her agent, she said, "I kind of want my book to be published after my mother's dead." The sad thing is that I knew where she was coming from.

  3. Sarah W

    It's such a balance.

    For articles, I have to be more attuned to what the audience will (or might) want to need to know, but for fiction . . . I generally write the kinds of stories I want to read, and hope other people will want to come along–I have a feeling I'm not alone in this.

    I have a First Reader and Official Cheerleader Nag. She asks questions along the way, but doesn't expect me to answer them until the draft is done. I don't write *for* her, exactly, but without knowing she's waiting for the payoff at the end, there's a chance I might not write on once I solve the mystery in my head. It's a slim chance, and this might just be a superstition at this point, but it helps me focus.

    Thank heavens I know that I'm not particularly interesting, so memoirs won't be an issue– but if I ever start writing family stories. . . there aren't too many of my mother's side (aka, "the colorful side") left to care.

  4. Pari

    Thank you for the recommendation. I think it might be a good late bday present to myself!

    I do write the way King suggests. The problem usually for me comes in with the editing (I DON'T want to get kicked in the butt about this again, but it's true — so I'm also reassessing how I approach that phase). However, I do think that the people-pleasing urge influences what stories I do decide to tell . . .and that's something I'm paying attention to right now.

    As to friends and family . . . my friends are supportive and my sister is too. Those who haven't been are either no longer friends or part of my family. 'Nuff said.

  5. Pari

    Interesting about your first reader and her positive effect on your writing. That's very cool and a true asset, especially since she's so respectful of the process for you.

    Re: writing memoirs
    I'm in the same place in relation to family. I was told by a very well known editor that I should write an autobiography, but if I do, it'll be a long time in coming.

    And regarding nonfiction, I'm right with you. I'm also thinking of audience there. But it's an entirely different process and a necessary perspective because I've usually been hired to write for a very specific reason.

  6. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I write for myself and not the reader. However, I see myself as the reader and I want to please myself. So, in essence, I do try to please the reader when I write.

  7. Gar Haywood

    The real question, Pari, is: "Does the urge to please EVERYONE get in the way of a deeper creativity?"

    Because if we're any good, we're bound to please SOMEONE with our writing. And that should be the goal. Aim for pleasing those who can and will appreciate your unique voice and the stories you choose to tell.

    The problem is, when you're looking to get paid, that's almost never enough, is it? The sense we get, from the outside looking in, is that the people who make a nice living in this business just don't please some of the people some of the time, they please ALL of the people ALL of the time. And, as ambitions go, that's about as lofty — and unrealistic — as shooting an apple off somebody's head with an arrow from 500 paces.

    Somebody's likely to get killed, namely your muse.

    Like Stephen said: Write for yourself, and hope as many smart and enlightened people (aka, paying customers) follow you as possible. Keep one eye on the market, by all means, but don't let it drive what and how you write.

  8. Pari

    I love it, Stephen. Good on you.

    "Somebody's likely to get killed, namely your muse."
    Wonderful comment and very true.
    What I neglected to say in the blog is that my writing and subject matter have changed during this last 1.5 years or so. I guess I'm going to have to get some of this new stuff edited and up to see if it pleases anyone besides me.

  9. Jenni L.

    Pari, it sounds like you're struggling with what you want to write vs. what you think people want to read. It sounds like you are outgrowing your Sasha and Darnda novels and thinking about everything on a deeper level. And that's wonderful! It seems to happen to a lot of writers. The first few novels are for the market, the audience you want to appeal to, and then you reach a point where your interests take a slightly different direction. I think you are having growing pains. And that's probably a very positive thing in the long run. I can't wait to see where this leads you!

    And yes, I think the urge to please others can hamper our creativity. But sometimes it also helps us problem solve or look at things from different angles – and that can lead to creative solutions or a deeper level of creativity.

  10. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    First of all, a belated Many Happy Returns for last week. I'm glad you treated yourself and had fun.

    I've always thought some of the best writing is that which polarises opinion. Over here they're known as Marmite books, because you either love it or hate it. Take Ken Bruen's work. It's very distinctive, and people either love it or hate it because of that.

    I write to please myself as a reader. I thoroughly enjoy writing the Charlie Fox books, but I'm also looking foward to trying something different, something new, that will give me a similar buzz. And if other people like them too, that's wonderful 🙂

  11. Lisa Alber

    This discussion reminds me of something I heard or read somewhere–something to the effect that we're more free when we don't care whether people like us. (What do you want to bet a sociopath said or wrote it? :-)) I would venture that when it comes to our writing we're better off writing as if we don't care whether people will like our stories. Easier said than done, though…

  12. PD Martin

    Writing to the market (or writing to readers) is always going to be tricky. Especially if you're choosing a genre based on market trends. Mind you, about six years ago I was discouraged from writing a witch/vampire/werewolf book because they were on their way out. Yeah, right.


    Like you, Pari, I'm writing something entirely different now too. And it is much, much more personal with autobiographical elements. So does that mean it will be less marketable or more marketable? Who knows!

    Ultimately I agree with what others have said: if you write something you love, that connects with YOU at some level, hopefully others will too. Whether that's connecting from an entertainment perspective or personal growth/drama doesn't alter the end result.


  13. KDJames

    Hi Pari! No butt kicking, just wanted to wish you Happy Birthday (belatedly) and say I'm so happy (and envious) to hear you treated yourself to a spa trip. Hope it was fantastically refreshing.

    I'm too new at this writing stuff to have a valid opinion on the topic, but I think there's a difference between being a people pleaser and being empathetic, though probably they're related. And I also think there's a difference between the way a writer treats people in real life and the way s/he handles characters in a story.

    And I agree with you about voice. I'm willing to overlook a whole lot of — I don't want to say mistakes, maybe lack of technical expertise? — if I love a writer's voice.

  14. Pari

    I think you're absolutely right. Nice way to phrase it. As a parent, it's so easy to see growing pains in our kids; it's a little more difficult to notice it in ourselves!

    I'd never heard the \"Marmite\" reference in relations to creativity. Very apt. It's that freedom to not think of audience that I'm working toward now. I've always done it to some extent because I know that some of the protags I have aren't nods to the \"popular fiction\" market . .. but this feels different somehow.

    I think you're right. It's difficult though because we want our works to be read now; before being published it wasn't quite the same feel.

  15. Pari

    I did learn early NOT to write to trends! Sheesh. If I had, I would've been incredibly frustrated by now. I'm not.

    I think the trick now, for both of us, is to write what rings true deep inside . . . without thought to external audience while in the creative mode. At least, that's what I'm going for.

    I'm very curious to read your new work!!

    Thanks for the birthday wishes. I did have a lovely time the day before my bday. The actual day actually sucked <g>. (It'll make a good story someday.)

    I agree on the two points you make. However, I do think that empathy isn't useful when applied to potential readers — at least not in the creative phase — though it is a godsend in the editing.

    Also agree re writers in real life and how they treat characters and storytelling. That's been a big lesson for me. Still, I won't buy a good book written by someone I know to be a snot; there are too many other wonderful writers who also write good books that deserve my support.

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