Today, I read my first negative review on Amazon, a searing attack on My Million Dollar Donkey, with only one measly star. At first I assumed the review was likely from my neighbor whom, in the past, has gone to great lengths to cause me harm and encouraged friends and others to give us negative reviews even if they have never visited our business…. Or perhaps it was written by my ex who may take exception to my telling the story. The review could even be a friend of either of those individuals posting a bad review as a show of support….. but this review came from Texas, and so it may just as well be a stranger who posted a legitimate review- someone who simply hated my book.
Either way, this review came on the heels of some very positive feedback – a marvelous professional review from the Midwest Book review (which goes to libraries and schools nationwide) and emails received from two different individuals who loved the book and asked to make it a featured reading assignment for their bookclubs, and both have invited me to speak at an upcoming meetings. I also have been asked to be the featured reader for “Wordier than Thou” in St. Pete, and a speaker at a woman’s group called Ages and Stages. So, my ego is not wounded to the point of no return by one angry reader’s rant. And yet….. the review did give me pause as I considered what such a response feels like and means to someone who puts their heart on the line for the world to see.
Writing does expose you in a very intimate way…. so much work goes into writing a book. that facing someone’s judgement is always painful. Writers of memoirs send their messages out into the world because they want their voice to be heard in hopes their story helps others learn and grow. When the response is “shut up- you suck” from the universe, your confidence or inspiration can’t help but take a hit. As a writer I just think you can’t please all the people all the time, but as a writing teacher, I take exception to that. Writing is hard enough without strangers belittling the process and I spend so much time teaching aspiring writers to dare to let their voice be heard that things like reviews that cause fear frustrate me to no end .
Yoga has changed how I interact with the world, because rather than being hurt or angry by an insult, my thoughts are always somewhat removed – as if I am watching myself react to negativity when it is tossed at my feet. In the case of this review, I thought, “Wow, as a new author, this is uncomfortable.” And my next thought was, “ I wonder what possessed someone who doesn’t know me to take time from his busy life to pen a negative and deeply hurtful message out to the world. I started imagining him at his computer posting the review and wondered what is it about his personality that makes him believe his opinion really is important to others. The choice to review the work of others rather than pen work of your own strikes me as revealing itself.
A person who feels righteous about his feelings, thus acting in a way that causes emotional distress in others strikes me as someone who has never done something as bold or intimate as writing an honest book. I figure, if this man indeed did read my book carefully or with an open mind, he certainly must have formed opinions fast, rather than letting the story simmer and settle in regards to the bigger themes within. (I do wonder why would some random guy living many states away chose to buy a book from an unknown author off Amazon, out of the hundreds of thousands of titles available to review– especially considering my book is in no way like others he has read in subject matter or genre – odd that. )The fact that he has only given one star reviews to all the books he has reviewed, with the exception of two books that got a whopping two stars, means he in inclined to dislike stories or feels that reviewing means picking apart a story or something. Can’t take to heart a bad review if you share the sentiment will all the other books he has come across I suppose..
Anyway, I feel he clearly was so swept up in his opinionated state, judging me as an animal owner or someone who had money for a short term and spent it in a way he did not agree with, that he didn’t see the overriding message. How could he when he made no comment about the much more important issues brought up in the story about education (teaching an illiterate woman to read) or consumerism and the other social issues the book is really about. He also didn’t note that the revenue of this book is given to a good cause, etc…. He just saw the book as a story about a woman and animals and he thought I was superficial and spoiled. Interesting.
My Million Dollar Donkey is a book about making mistakes. Big and small. It is about learning painful lessons and how heart wrenching life can be when you go down wrong paths. It is about loss – the loss of family, dreams, confidence, hope. I wrote about mistakes with humor – because that provides room for the poignancy of a story’s depth, but humor does not negate the guilt or frustration I suffered when things went south. This man seems to feel I shouldn’t have taken the journey at all if I was going to be such a horrible failure. He took exception to the fact that we had money, but chose to build a house before we could build a barn. The implied message is – I shouldn’t own animals without a barn. Funny, because my animals were treated better than almost any country resident I knew – they had timely inoculations, the best of quality food, and an owner who tossed and turned at night worrying about them. I labored with grooming and building housing and gave them a remarkable amount of attention. My country friends stuck their animals in the pasture and never looked in on them – leaving them to nature’s whims for months at a time. Most didn’t have a barn, or if they did, the animals were in a building hazard that should have been condemned Those animals, raised by the country people who were right at home with farming, went without their shots, or high quality food, or many other expensive treatments. Country people didn’t see their furry friends as pets – but as farm resources, and the moment those animals were trouble or expense, they got rid of them. This reviewer is an animal rights advocate, clearly, and he felt I was abusive. But the jokes and commentary on my story shouldn’t send a message that I don’t love or care for animals – because anyone who knows me understands just how passionately I do care. In fact, I wouldn’t have spent my life savings on a dream build on relationships with animals if they were not deeply healing and important to my soul.
Clearly, my bad reviewer saw my attempts to live an organic country life as indulgent fool’s errand. I suppose he is of the opinion that we are all born to one life and are expected to know our place and stay there. Those who dare who step out of one life into another, quickly realize the learning curve is steep – another important message in the book. But I felt then, and feel now, that the more expansive our life experiences, the greater our understanding of ourselves and the world at large. I wouldn’t presume to pass judgement on anyone who attempts to embrace an entirely different world because they didn’t take to it like a fish to water. I understand intention and how difficult expanding our boundaries can be in a world that is lived vicariously thorugh books, movies or on-line for so many people, rather than sampling the world in reality. That was the greatest lesson of all – that what seems easy in theory can in fact, be very difficult, and all the assumptions in the world about what you would do if……..doesn’t amount to a hill of beans when you actually experience a different reality.
Anyway, this reader feels he can glimpse into a window and see a small snippet of someone’s life, and know and judge what is in their heart and mind. I read his understanding of the book and imagine a very presumptuous, arrogant person who has no clue of life beyond his own bubble – someone so quickly stopped by an animal story he didn’t see the human story that should have been much more important.
But that is only one reaction to the review. My second reaction was actually positive. The man doesn’t like me, yet he didn’t attack the writing. Frankly, the only element of a review that would have hurt from my standpoint is someone saying I couldn’t write my way out of a paper bag and what he said was that I’m a good writer. In fact, he said he gave me one star for that alone. I’m positively glowing from that small tossed out bone.
We all have stories to tell, and people may or may not like who we are and what we do, but the hard part of writing a book isn’t having a story (we all have one) – but in telling the story well – evoking feelings in others. I rather think that my getting this guy riled up shows my book had impact. If My Million Dollar Donkey was a horribly written book, he wouldn’t have made it through to the end, much less been talking about the plot and action. So I wrote a book he hated in a good enough way to keep him engaged for over 313 pages. He devoted a big chunk of his life to spending time with me and my words. I take that as an honor.
Reviews aside – it occurs to me that half of my work teaching yoga, reiki and writing, is helping students to put aside judgement and see others as innocents – people who carry baggage and hurt through life. All people deserve patience and we must assume they are trying their best even when we don’t like how they behave. We must learn to listen to other’s stories, and see their behavior as the result of many layers of pain and living and conditioning by parents, society, school, religion, upbringing, etc.. – and remember we all start off the same, but life molds us in a multitude of ways. Compassion is the first step towards acceptance and loving all mankind. Perhaps this one review will stop someone from wasting their money on a stupid book, and in that way this man has done a service to readers. Since my book is an unknown project with nothing in it for me (the money goes to the World Literary Foundation – and I’ll never even recoup the investment in the project.) I can take his opinion in stride. I actually wonder about his story now, what some unknown reviewer far away has experienced in his life to feel so strongly about animals and money and wanting to point a finger to people he doesn’t know. Kinda makes me think of him as someone wresting with a lot in his own life to create such a prickly skin on his surface.
Ah well. For everyone’s entertainment – I thought I’d offer both of the reviews I received this week here – side by side. Just goes to remind everyone of my writing students that opinion is subjective. None of it matters . What matters is not opinions, but how you react to opinions. We must resist the urge to get defensive, act out, or be crushed. We can see hurtful comments as someone else’s issues rather than our own, and continue on, choosing to stop any cycle of negativity right here at home, rather than perpetuating it with our own emotionally charged up reactions. And keep writing. No one can or should silence your voice.
To my bad reviewer – Namaste. I wish you health, happiness and a life journey far less painful than the one I shared in my book .I am not being sarcastic when I say it is with absolute respect and appreciation for your time and attention that I accept your opinion about my book with a thoughtful smile. And may your animals feel loved – as do mine, now and always.
Midwest Book Review: (I’ll post this first to soften the blow)
My Million-Dollar Donkey: The Price I Paid for Wanting to Live Simply
ASIN: B01HHEXS82, $2.99 Kindle, $18.95 Paper, https://amzn.com/0997146001
Author Ginny East and her husband packed up kids and home and left a secure business to move back to the land in Georgia, choosing a simpler lifestyle over high-priced success. Their move mirrors many, and My Million-Dollar Donkey joins others in following this journey; but unlike any other stories, the sojourn isn’t without its emotional, spiritual, and lasting values impacts.
“When some people go through a midlife crisis, they buy a Porsche. Me? I bought a donkey. That probably says something about my personality, but I’d be afraid to find out exactly what. I suppose a girl should expect a touch of disillusionment if she’s foolish enough to choose an ass as her life mascot.”
Not everyone has a million dollars in the bank from ‘cashing out’ yet chooses an austere lifestyle; and while the theme of a midlife crisis prompting vast changes and previously-undisclosed dreams is a common one; the compelling piece of any story lies in how it’s carried out, presented, and spun – and My Million-Dollar Donkey is truly a donkey of another color.
Chapters are often hilarious and fun to read. They present the emotional seriousness of leaving a consumer-centric American middle class dream for the sake of realigning values with a tongue-in-cheek sense of joie de vivre that is punctuated by Donkey’s observations: “Donkey let out a loud bellow as if to add his pro-horse vote to the conversation.”
What at first feels like luck and inevitability as a series of efforts falls into place quickly comes to feel like something more darkly fateful as mistakes are made and the entire family struggles to fit into their new lifestyle and changing relationships.
The more one reads, the more one finds to relate to as Ginny and her kin face challenge after challenge and achieve their dream the hard way: through struggles that alter perceptions and reactions to life and question hard-won values systems. As ideals are examined and mirth punctuates the story line, readers might find themselves reconsidering their own ultimate dreams in life and the road to achieving them – and that’s the particularly wonderful aspect of My Million-Dollar Donkey.
It doesn’t just entertain or enlighten, but weaves both into a side-splitting and heart-sighing memoir that moves far beyond most “back to the land” sagas to closely examine the heart of what changes make a difference in lives and how they are instigated and absorbed in unexpected ways. If these ways ultimately lead to separation, they also open the door to new beginnings. So be forewarned: My Million-Dollar Donkey holds the potential to make readers cry, at different points, as much as laugh.
Happy endings aren’t always alike, and thus the story line becomes bittersweet, because dreams changed in a partnership or family structure don’t always result in unity and light. Readers who enjoy memoirs, stories of lifestyle changes and strife, and a healthy dose of humor to bind all together won’t just relish My Million-Dollar Donkey – they’ll see it as a standout in its genre and one which offers a simple message: “There are no limits in life, if you just believe.”
Diane C. Donovan, Senior Reviewer
And the unknown reviewer and Animal rights activist from Amazon
If the cute cover leads you to think that this is a feel-good story about living with a donkey, it isn’t. This is mainly a memoir about complex family dynamics that play out after a move to the country. The animals are bit players, and tragic ones at that. As an animal person, more than a few parts of this story made me downright angry.
After buying the donkey, a pregnant horse is later added as a buddy, despite having basically no knowledge about how to keep equines. There is no shelter for any of them. No barn, not even a lean-to. The barn is last on a never-ending list of projects, “if the budget permits”. The only water source is a creek. Hubby has no interest in caring for the animals and hubby doesn’t do anything he doesn’t want to do. A more reasonable person might conclude that this is a good cue to go slowly in the animal acquisition department. Instead, she goes in the other direction. A barn is built some months later, but her animal-raising “hobby” is used as a distraction from a marriage that is seething with unresolved issues.
Two more horses are added as the “adults” can’t agree on one. One of the new horses is kicked in the leg by the original mare soon after arrival, resulting in a bloody, swollen wound and a horse in pain. A vet says x-rays are needed, but they go instead with the homegrown elixir brought by the horse seller. A $50,000 tractor? No problem. X-rays for an injured horse? Too expensive. Three or so chapters later, we learn that the horse is still injured and has lost so much weight that ribs are showing. And that is the last word in the book on the welfare of this horse. Uugh.
The family dog is lost to the woods after several injuries from tangling with the donkey, and while they make efforts to find him, his disappearance is seen as “merciful fate”, because the new puppy turns out to be a perfect country dog, unlike the former suburban Schnauzer.
There’s a goat, rabbits, chickens, ducks, bees and peacocks. Dismayed and surprised by all the work required to care for these animals on her own, what does she do? Hey, how about a llama? Wouldn’t that be fun? How about a second, pregnant llama? What could go wrong?
The author is a good writer and knows how to tell a story (thus the one star). Quotes from Thoreau, who she emulates, are sprinkled throughout. She has a real effect on an illiterate woman in town, and her kids get some good out of the move along with the bad. But in addition to the animal fiascos, the progression of other events and emotions is frustrating. She indulges her husband’s flights of fancy, irrational decisions and reckless spending to such an excruciating degree that you want to shake her and say, “Snap out of it!” A nest egg that the average person could only dream of withers due to hubby’s compulsion to build a near-mansion on their 50 acres, despite no experience in the trade. He comes off as little more than a spoiled child with multiple personalities and a serious case of narcissism. Her hope he will magically become a standup, loving partner inspires empathy, but is repeated endlessly.
So many animals are lost to nature, negligence and/or ineptitude, that the read became alternately depressing and infuriating. By the time the baby llama is found half-eaten by coyotes(the second llama to perish this way) and allowed to drown, it was really too much.
Yes, the author paid a high price for this experiment. The animals paid a higher one.
A memoir about a move towards simplicity ultimately becomes a tale of different forms of self-indulgence run amok. Thoreau would be aghast, as am I.