All Thumbs

06/10/11 7:00 AM

I received my MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., and I’ll never forget something the director of the program once said, because it puzzled me, at first.

I don’t remember what semester it was — my second or third, most likely. We were finishing up a class with Steven, the director, and somehow he started talking about the writing program’s process for accepting students. When someone applied to the program, he or she submitted a writing sample. The writing sample was shared with two faculty members who were in charge of reviewing it (independently) and giving it a thumbs up or a thumbs down. Two thumbs up? All good; prospective student accepted. Two thumbs down? Rejection.

Here’s where it got interesting. Steven was saying how his most recent batch of applications had more split votes than ever before, meaning he was dealing with writing samples where one faculty member gave it a thumbs up and another gave it a thumbs down.

Steven then smiled and said, “This means the writing samples are getting better.”

Huh? How could a split vote indicate the writing samples were stronger? Wouldn’t two thumbs up always trump a split vote?

I eventually realized Steven was correct. The beauty is in the polarity of the split vote. A work that’s polarizing — meaning there are those who love it and those who don’t — is often a work that stands out, gets talked about and debated over, and makes a difference (in a good or bad way, depending on your viewpoint).

Yes, receiving two thumbs up is not a BAD thing, and it often does trump split votes. But there is something special, I think, about receiving that split vote. It indicates (though not always) that there’s something irksome there…something itchy…perhaps something uncomfortable…something worth talking and even arguing about.

For me, as a writer, that’s what I’d like my stories to be: treasures to some and irksome and irritating to others.


Because it would show my writing isn’t residing in the Land of Vanilla. There’s nothing wrong with that place: I can appreciate stories that are squarely set there, and I can appreciate the fact some readers are happiest reading those types of stories. But I know if I stayed there, I wouldn’t be true to the stories in my heart.

As I once said to a friend, I like lifting up the rocks and writing about the world of the creepy crawly things underneath. I like grit. I like dark. That doesn’t mean I don’t like a healthy dose of happy, but, for me, there are many shades of happily ever after — not all versions include rainbows and unicorns and the protag getting her man.

Forgotten April, my first book, is, for the most part, from the Land of Vanilla, and that’s not to say everyone will like it; rather, it’s not so polarizing that it’s going to have as many thumbs down as it has thumbs up (the story isn’t irksome enough).

What Happened in Granite Creek, which is coming out in a few days, will likely be more polarizing for a variety of reasons (it was with my beta readers).

As scary as the thought is of getting some of those thumbs down votes, I think I’m okay with that.

How ’bout you: when you read something where you react strongly — either positively or negatively — what do you do: will you post a review? Recommend or warn people? Get a refund on the book? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Posted by Robyn | in Creative Writing | 4 Comments »

4 Comments on “All Thumbs”

  1. Martin Dugas Says:

    Hum, that’s very interesting Robyn! A polarizing story/novel… I would have most likely reacted the same way you did, one thumbs up and on thumbs down… is good?? Just like the old saying “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, I guess I would translate this as “Liking/disliking an author’s work is in the eye of the reader!” My take on this, reading is like eating. If you like a restaurant (i.e. an author), it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll like every meal (i.e. story/novel) it offers on its menu! Personally, if I like that restaurant, I’ll keep going at it and I’ll try different meals, knowing that I might not enjoy some of them, but also knowing that some meals might be yummy-yummy! Those yummy meals I would definetely recommend to others! However I would not bash on the meals I didn’t like. Everybody has different taste buds, right? The same goes for reading!

  2. Robyn Says:

    Thanks for commenting, Martin. It’s an intriguing idea, isn’t it? A book that comes to mind is The DaVinci Code: people loved the book or hated it. But it got people talking and thinking and even researching some of the theories professed in the novel.

  3. Deb Mackey Says:

    There’s writing that is meant to be commercial and have mass appeal. And then there’s art, which should provoke strong reactions. Sometimes food from the Land of Vanilla is just what I want — a comforting tidbit that soothes and relaxes. But when I want to think or consider new, even disturbing, points of view, it’s the Land of Chili-infused Chocolate for me. Can’t wait to download What Happened in Granite Creek!

  4. Robyn Says:

    @Deb — totally agree. And I loves me a scoop of vanilla (with a saucy side) every now and then. 😉