Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Gentle Cycle

I liked this extract from Gail Sher’s book One Continuous Mistake: Four Nobel Truths for Writers so much I copied it for my writing class:
Unfortunately, the desire to write is more fragile than the desire by family, friends, and well-intentioned others to prematurely extinguish it. All too often a young writer’s dreams have been quashed by a single inept remark.

When it comes to feedback, why not treat yourself as you would a new piece of fine lingerie? At first you might wash it by hand or else on a machine’s gentlest cycle with the mildest detergent. You might simply let your garment soak, not agitate it at all. Later, when you’ve experimented a few times and you know exactly what it can handle, you might try tumbling it around. Eventually you might throw it in with the rest of your wash. But not before you are sure the seams are strong, its dye won’t fade and that the fabric can “take” rough treatment. Well, you (vis-à-vis your own writing deserve at least the same consideration.

Being emotionally and psychologically ready to receive feedback presupposes an ability to use the feedback constructively. “Constructively” means that you have achieved enough distance from your writing to understand, for instance, that “not quite” describes the paragraph, not you.
Sher points out that for feedback to be effective, there are 3 requirements:

First, the writer must be emotionally ready to receive it. Secondly, the person giving feedback must be knowledgeable about type of writing and how to give feedback (this is a learned skill) and he/she must care about this particular person’s writing. And thirdly, no matter how good the feedback, if it is ill-timed, it will be worthless, possibly even harmful.

I know that when I first plucked up courage to show a poem I'd written to a colleague at work, my heart was in my mouth. She knew a great deal about literature and had strong opinions. I knew she could be a tough critic and had she rubbished my attempt, I think I would have been crushed. Luckily, she was so supportive she became my sounding board for all my pieces. She probably helped me more than any writing course I did.

Other new writers aren't so lucky and get their early attempts rubbished (often, ironically, by the people closest to them) never to find the courage to write again ...

Giving constructive feedback is tough though ... and these days I tend to err very much on the side of caution having seen how easily new writers bruise. I have no wish to add to the critic's voice yaddering away in their heads. Stress the positives, gently suggest what could be improved. Push them to continue to write ... Hand wash them in soapy suds.

But how refreshing it is to sit down with a writer who has built up confidence in their work over time, and to be able to talk honestly about what works and what doesn't without them taking it personally. Bundled in with the rest of the laundry, this writer is colour fast, won't shrink or tear at the seams. They will listen, ask questions, sometimes fight back and explain why they wanted to do certain things in a certain way ... Hot cycle, tumble dry.

But it's taken them a while to get to this stage, gradually developing a thicker skin against the hard knocks that come with the territory.

My prayer is ... if I have offended anyone along the way with a surfeit of honesty, please forgive me ... for not being able to judge what level of feedback you were ready for. (If only you came with a care label ...)

Okay, writers -what have your experiences been with feedback and what kind of care label would you stick on yourself?


Chet said...

Sharon - there is no care label for "damaged, beyond repair".

Jordan said... Sharon, maybe I'm finally ready for you to take a look at my short story. I've been thinking that maybe I wasn't really ready for a critique the first two or three times I asked you to read it. Haha...I'm not being snarky there, I really do think it needed work. It was, after all written in about an hour. I've been revising it lately and I think it's a much better story now (at least, it's now very different from the original, hastily written version which is still at my old blog).

You'll find it by following the WRITING tab under my blog header.I'd love some feedback. If you have time, that is!


Anonymous said...

Good post. But how would you know if you really suck at writing? And if you do, do you keep on going or do you give up?

The Visitor said...

u wrote "fiends" instead of "friends". LOL

Greenbottle said...

while bloghopping today i came across this entry from grumpy old bookman's friday 19 may entry...…… writing is an activity which can seriously damage your health -- not to mention your relationships, your bank account, and your career prospects. It is not a burden to be taken on lightly, though many people plunge into it with cheerful abandon....

so i suppose if you "cheerfully plunge ito it with abandon" you shouldn't care too much what people say about your writing. if you think your writing is good you shouldn't worry what people say, that's what i say.

Chet said...

No response from Sharon, which means her streamyx is still down.

Yes, that's why she's been silent - streamyx down.

I met her for brunch today, and she said to post something here to let you all know.

Hope she's back soon.

bibliobibuli said...

che - thanks for posting note to say my internet is down ... dunno what's happening ... hand in there, girl, re. the writing, you have some very good stuff which deserves to see light of day ... you just need to work on the thicker skin

jordan - oh goodness i am sorry i haven't done this yet ... am hopeless and promise i will i will ... but hope it isn't too long before we can sit down and chat about writing IRL

anonymous - everyone has an inner critic who tells them that they suck ... and many of us have great writers sitting on their shoulders saying you'll never measure up ... keep going because you love writing ... start a blog, send out some of your pieces, keep reading, don't worry if you get rejected, join a workshop, make writing buddies ... write, read, participate ... this country needs writers, not just for fiction but for newspapers and magazines ... if you are determined you'll make it

visitor - the "fiends" was for you alone

bibliobibuli said...

greenbottle - i think the guy is right! but fortunately there are lots of good things about writing too ...

Chet said...

Sharon - you spelled my name wrong, lah. Well, at least you didn't call me "cheat".

A note about posting one's stories online - for some publishers, that's considered published so they won't consider such stories if submitted for their consideration.

Whoa, what's wrong with me this evening? Repeating the same word in one sentence and using a variation of it, again in the same sentence!

bibliobibuli said...

chet - sorry about the misspelling

you're right about work on websites being considerd published and therefore not admissible for some competitions and anthologies or at least not in the same form but it doesn't count if it is within a closed writing community with a password and not being picked up by a search engine - i read this debate on the boards at writr's village university

Chet said...

That bit about posting stories online was actually for Jordan who wrote that he has a story he wants you to look at and it's at his blog.

I do have some of my earlier stuff on my site and password-protected (not that any of it would get published).

bibliobibuli said...

chet - 100% of the shots you don't take don't go in ...

sorry to both of you for not being a better friend and reading your work earlier

Spot said...

Hi Sharon, I'm back! Soooo much to catch up on here at your blog...

I must say this (even if it might make me sound like a teacher's pet-wannabe). I would be quite happy to be edited or rejected by someone like Sharon, who despite having such vast literary experience, is still in touch with the ground and is mindful of what it feels like for the novice. You are too kind sometimes, Sharon. :)

I think it also needs to be said though, that whilst kindness towards new writers is a virtue, there are also too many people on the other end of the scale who seem to lack the presence of an inner critic, therefore believing that their writing is good enough and requires no improvement. This results in a sense of entitlement, hence the outrage and vilification of the editor when their work gets rejected, however kindly.

I myself often toy with the idea of submitting something for publication. But the fact that I have not, is not for the lack of opportunity, but because I don't think I've reached a level good enough for publication. Which is why, Sharon, I never for once thought that there was nothing you could possibly teach me. On the contrary, really :)

It's all about quality. And too many people think that they've got it, merely because they've got a good vocabulary. They forget that reading widely - different authors, styles and genres - and learning from others makes a huge difference in improving one's craft.

I think my care label would say - Wash As Is, No Softener Required. Rumples Happily Immediately After Ironing.

Jordan said...

Sharon: Hey, no worries. Like I said, I don't think the story was very good before anyway. I've been looking at it and giving myself some advice (good advice, I hope) before asking anyone to take a real look. Now it's...uh...almost ready (are they ever ready, really?).

Chet: Thanks for the advice! Yes, I've heard of that happening before. Actually, my story was at two other sites, but I deleted both versions a couple of weeks ago. Now it's only at my blog, and I guess I have a choice to make: protect it with a password, or let the world see it. I don't know...what compilations or contests would I submit it to anyway? If there's some possibility that someone would want to publish it somewhere, perhaps I could make it scarce. But in the meantime, my blog is the only real exposure my writing gets!