I used to work in marketing. One day, something went wrong with one of our email lists—a whole segment of people didn’t get some information they’d requested. I don’t remember the details. Either way, my boss asked me to draft an email from him to the affected parties to rectify the situation.
I don’t remember exactly what my response said either, but it ended with some kind of apology for our oversight—maybe something like, “Again, we’re sorry this happened and we hope you have everything you need now.”
Then I sent the text over to my boss for his approval.
About two minutes later, I heard him shout my name from the other room. Then, he flung open the door to my office. “You’re not sorry,” he said adamantly. “You’re not sorry for shit.” (He had a talent for colorful language.)
I was baffled by this. I told him we were the ones who screwed up, so we probably should be sorry. He said maybe that was the case, but we were still giving them the information they asked for.
To write an extended apology would be to emphasize our mistake over our ability to deliver on what we promised them.
It would be acknowledging that we had done something wrong when really, it was a technology failure and stuff happens.
I think my final draft of the email said something like, “Hey! We noticed you didn’t get this thing you asked for. It’s attached. Let us know if you need something else” and my boss told me to ship it.
I’m a recovering people pleaser, and I’d venture to say that some of you reading this are as well. If so, you probably are inclined to apologize for everything that goes wrong, even if it isn’t your fault. You are probably in the habit of internalizing the bad things that happen to people or events you’re affiliated with and finding some way to make it your fault.
You may even tend to apologize for other people’s actions and take responsibility for them.
Does any of this sound familiar?
The incident with the email was a relatively minor thing in the scope of my career at that agency. But whenever I’m tempted to apologize for something, I hear my boss’s voice in my head saying “You’re not sorry for shit” and it makes me wonder if I really should be saying I’m sorry to begin with.
I’m not saying that you should never be sorry, ever. There are times when repentance and a genuine apology are necessary to restore a relationship or fix a situation that went wrong.
But if the impulse to apologize comes from inappropriate guilt, a desire to take responsibility for another person, or out of fear of what people might think, you’re better off saying nothing.
It shows a lack of confidence in yourself, overburdens you with situations that you’re not meant to take on, and as my boss alluded to, it can diminish your ethos.
So, what does all this have to do with writing?
You probably spend a lot of time apologizing for your writing when really, your art is the last thing you should apologize for.
Apologizing for Works in Progress
I used to teach college English and I’d have students bring drafts of their essays to class to get feedback from peer review groups. The first time I ever did this activity, I heard one girl tell her classmates, “Forewarning—this is REALLY AWFUL.”
The next time we did peer review, I made a new rule: no precharacterizing or disparaging your writing. We were sharing first drafts, and that meant it was okay for their work to not be perfect.
That’s true for whatever you’re writing, too. Writing is hard enough without having the ugly voice in your head beat up on you when you’re writing to create something.
In fact, maybe you say those things to yourself when you share writing with other people in any context. Ever read at an open mic or bring a poem to a writing group for others to read? Those are the last situations where you should apologize because really, those audiences WANT to experience your work. That’s literally why they came, and if they have suggestions for things you might try, it’s because your work is good and they want to help make it better.
In any of these cases, if you choose to manifest negativity in the form of apologies, you are setting yourself up to manifest negativity in your writing and prevent yourself from reaching your full creative potential.
Apologizing for Creative Choices
I am a Christian and I spend a lot of time in creative circles for believers. These wonderful creators understand that glorifying God through your work can take many forms. However, I’ve also experienced a lot of pushback from Christians about my work because the things I write don’t always “look Christian.”
My novel-in-stories, The Goodbye-Love Generation, is about a rock band based in Kent, Ohio and how the shootings at Kent State on May 4, 1970 impact their art and their lives. The characters get high, make obscene comments about the Vietnam War, and incite riots, not to mention other drug and sex-related behaviors. The accounts of the Kent State shootings are bloody and graphic. It’s definitely an R-rated book, and on the surface, there are no markers of any Christian messages, or even that a Christian wrote the book.
One time, someone started a thread on the forum for a writing community I’m a part of for people to post information about their published work. I posted a link to where you can buy The Goodbye-Love Generation and added a disclaimer for people to be warned that it contains graphic depictions of violence, sex, and drug use.
About an hour later, I got a message from one of my friends in the community telling me to edit the post and take the disclaimer down.
By warning people about possibly offensive content in the book, she explained, I was apologizing for my writing and inadvertently admitting that there was something “wrong” with the artistic choices I made.
There’s no neat and tidy way to tell the story of people who survived the Kent State shootings. I grew up in Kent years after the tragedy and have family members who saw it happen, including someone who lost a loved one. I would be doing an injustice to them by holding back in my depiction of how much devastation the event caused.
My friend was right. I don’t owe anyone an apology for taking my responsibility to be accurate in writing about a devastating historical event seriously.
Neither do you owe anyone an apology for the artistic choices you make.
Just so you know, I’m not talking about trigger warnings here. I think in some situations, it is responsible to offer some kind of a statement about the content so that trauma survivors aren’t totally caught off guard. This might include putting a warning in a blog post, a comment on social media, or other locations where people normally wouldn’t expect a story about trauma to make an appearance.
But books are different. It’s why we put descriptions of the content on the back. Give your readers enough credit to find out what your book is about and decide for themselves whether it’s something they should be reading. But do not step in and try to make that decision for them.
If you spend any time at all on this blog, you know how much I love Flannery O’Connor. She famously said that “when a book leaves your hands, it belongs to God.” She was talking about the Lord, the Christian God, but you can substitute the force or deity that moves in your creative world. Either way, once the book or the story or whatever it is goes out to readers, you no longer have control over it. It’s a separate entity from you, which is why you shouldn’t feel provoked if people don’t like it.
Not apologizing for your writing is an act of owning your creative choices and embracing the stage of the process your work is currently in. It builds confidence in your gifts and lets you take embrace what you’re making without being encumbered by what other people think.
Just remember . . . you’re not sorry for . . . well, you know.
What about you? Do you need to build confidence in your work? Do you have questions about how to know when something is “good” or whether it is “done?”
Schedule a FREE 1:1 writing consultation with me to get answers and discuss your work.
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