Learning My Place
October 22, 2020 § 24 Comments
My friend, a fellow writer, waved for help.
A literary journal had just rejected her short story. The editor’s comments troubled her. She wanted to know what we had to say, the seven of us in the same cherished writers’ group.
“I’m usually eager to take an editor’s advice,” she told us, “but if I try to fix what the editor identified as problem areas, I risk losing the tone and voice I was going for.”
We knew her story—about a woman who meets a 13-year-old boy for the first time in tragic circumstances—having shared our feedback weeks earlier. “It’s ready,” we told her. “Put it out there.”
But the editor found the woman’s “awkwardness” with the boy “unconvincing.”
“Send me the story,” I said. “I’ll re-read it while standing in the editor’s shoes.”
Which I did.
The editor’s shoes did not fit.
I could not detect in the female character one grain of awkwardness. Quite the opposite. I saw a woman with a hardscrabble past and a broken relationship with her parents, who likes this 13-year-old kid all right, but feels no need to cater to him. She observes him closely and speaks to him like an adult. Casually serves him his first-ever cup of coffee. Lights a cigarette, because she is simply being herself, with no apologies.
The boy responds in kind. He makes no extra effort to impress her. He navigates the encounter on its own terms.
In the poignant final scene, the woman delivers, in practical, straight-up terms, some hard-won advice. Topped out with emotion, the kid promises to heed her warning.
I liked the woman’s cool demeanor. Her honesty. Her brusque talk. “She relates to the kid with respect and authenticity,” I reported to my friend. “She’s raised him to her level instead of talking down.”
I spoke the words many a conflicted writer yearns to hear: “Pay no attention to the editor.”
But I had missed something crucial.
A fellow colleague—another professional editor—saw the female character as emotionally stunted because of her own dysfunctional childhood and therefore unable to engage “appropriately” with the kid.
I was dumbfounded. What was going on here? Why was my interpretation so unlike theirs?
I read the story again.
A divine light did not shine down on me. I could not see the woman as flawed.
My friend, the writer, came to my rescue.
“You were an only child and your parents spoke to you as an adult,” she said, drawing on what she knew from chapters from my manuscript. “So that’s what you picked up. And you weren’t wrong. Your own experience pointed to it being a plus, and not awkwardness.”
Holy Hannah. She was right. I’d had a plain-dealing mother with a traumatic past who prided herself on delivering hard truths with no regard for any age I might be, using the full range of her Latinate vocabulary. I didn’t mind. It was just how things were done.
On some unexamined level, I knew readers brought their own background and experience to a story. But now I had witnessed myself responding in real time, in a way completely at odds with two other respected writers.
My next thought was, My feedback had failed my friend.
“Nope,” she told me. “That’s the beauty of having different people look at a piece of writing. Everyone sees something different.”
Fair enough. But wouldn’t competing takes on a narrative confuse a writer?
“It doesn’t matter what was in my mind when I wrote the story,” said my friend, echoing Beth Kephart in her luminous Brevity craft essay, Circus Act. “Once we release our art to the world, it doesn’t belong to us anymore.”
But if I’m supposed to be providing actionable feedback, don’t I have an obligation to switch off my personal lens, so as not to throw the writer off her game?
“Why would you want to switch it off?” asked my friend, whom I was appreciating more and more by the minute. “Bring on the different perspectives. Your opinion may differ from everyone else’s, but that difference is important.”
Besides, I had just proved that finding this particular off-switch was, for me at least, impossible.
And that’s when another piece of familiar wisdom snapped like a magnet to my frontal lobe—something I’d reminded others of a million times, almost as if I knew what I was talking about.
From writer and creativity mentor Austin Kleon: “Take what you can use, and leave the rest.”
My friend ended up passing on both the editor’s feedback, and mine. She gave what both of us had to say due consideration, but ultimately what we told her didn’t fit. She knew, when faced with conflicting interpretations of her work, that her only obligation was to herself.
As readers, we have a similar freedom.
Our obligation as reviewers is to share our unique perspective with an open heart.
To hope that we will crack a window for the writer, and to accept if we do not—in the spirit of the wild, free, creative winds that press for entry at the windows of all writers.
Best of all, to enjoy her story exactly the way my life and temperament led me to interpret it.
Heidi Croot is an award-winning business writer, published in numerous trade publications. Her creative writing has appeared in Linea magazine and the WCDR anthology Renaissance and has been a finalist with The Writers’ Union of Canada, The Malahat Review, WOW! Women on Writing, Tulip Tree Publishing, and others. She lives in beautiful Northumberland County, Canada, and is working on a memoir.
An excellent essay with a poignant message, all writers need to take to heart:Take what you can use, and leave the rest.
Thanks Julie! It can sometimes be too easy to relinquish ownership for our own work.
Thank you! With luck we receive excellent, actionable advice when we need it, but sometimes also bad advice. It’s bad because we do not understand it, because do not know how to respond to it, because it asks our work to do something we do not mean for it to do, or because it comes from someone who will never be our reader.
Thank you, Jan. I love your list–particularly the last one, which we need to remember when the rejection slips come in.
Sometimes I get a weird, seemingly inappropriate comment from a good writer or intelligent person. I figure the exact comment may be wrong but it’s coming from someplace. What is REALLY wrong? Either the commenter isn’t expressing the objection in the right terms or my writing has sparked a strange knot of unresolved emotion in that particular reader. Also writers in writers’ groups aren’t necessarily good editors. I’m surprised in this case that the real editor commented at all. But the writer needs to ask, is there really a problem with my portrayal of the boy and is it a different problem than the one the editor cited?
I agree. Mark of a professional is to give all feedback a full 360. I’ve started to recognize resistance as a signal I have something to learn. Thanks, Vicki!
Various points of view, as the writer in this piece notes, are illuminating, even if at first confusing. If we all brought the same experiences and POV to the table, workshops would fail as a whole.
Right. There’d be no point to workshops at all. I think of the confusion like algebra: sit with the confusion long enough and the logic soon shows itself.
Thank you for this good advice. I’ve been in that same situation, as a writer-friend and an editor-friend—and with the same confusing results. And thank you for a well-crafted piece that built the suspense and gave full rein to both your confusion and your clarity. Great stuff!
Thank you for this! I’m not alone–I knew it. Turns out that as a writer, true north is on my own forehead.
For what it’s worth, I was drawn to the characters you described and would love to read the story. I didn’t think the woman seemed unrealistic. And your insights are enlightening. Thank you!
As an editor, I frequently remind the writers I work with that it is their work and I’m offering suggestions, about which they must make the final decision. As a writer, when I receive feedback I often think of a line from Kipling’s poem “If”:
“If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too…”
This is another way of saying to consider the feedback honestly, but make the final decision you feel is best, as several here have already said, and don’t let it get you down one way or the other.
I love that poem, and it is perfect for this situation. Thank you! And yes, to own the final decision, kindly, but without apology.
Thanks for this very thought provoking piece.
I recently took part in a writing course and found the conflicting opinions on my writing to be very confusing. Some people wanted more information about what happened and why I was feeling like that, and others said that I was telling too many stories at the same time and my writing was disjointed. This didn’t surprise me because I do tend to jump around a lot when I’m thinking. It took me a while to figure out which advice was helpful and leave the rest.
It’s hard when opinions confuse the writer. Advice I’ve been given is to keep newly hatched material private until it’s gelled. in one of my writers’ groups, we do share fresh new writing with each other, but we comment only on “what stays with us,” i.e. what resonates. “Hot mess” writing is far too fragile and embryonic to risk with any other kind of feedback. “Jumping around” is a brilliant way to test ideas. Keep jumping and keep safe!
I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. We were required to submit a new piece of writing each week and it was often very raw and decidedly unpolished. All over the place really, which is ok but not something that anyone else should be critiquing except in the way you have suggested.
Oh, absolutely! I say that all the time – writing is so subjective. We all like different things, we come from different backgrounds, and hence, we see things in a different light than others.
Criticism is an amazing tool. I love reading it and analyzing it, and even more so when I can use it to better my craft. However, sometimes I just don’t agree as much. And it’s alright.
It does hurt, though, when you realize that your submission was read through the wrong lens. That, if someone else was in charge, your piece would be in.
I love critique for the learning, too. And you sure have nailed the disappointment related to the subjective lens of different judges and editors. But we can take hope for our piece in that, too.
No-one delivers a perfect manuscript and few writers can see where they might have gone astray. So with my editors I work on the principle that I’ve delivered something that’s probably 95% okay but that the remaining 5% might be enough to undermine the whole thing. So I better really listen. I make very, very clear that I want and can handle articulate honesty. Usually they have a point (or points) which I act on and never take personally. If I disagree with them I ask (and need) them to convince me they’re right. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t. I also consider what they say/write through my filter of where I think they’re coming from and the pressures they may be under in-house for a particular outcome. I never think of it as ‘criticism’ or ‘critique’. Wrong emphasis. This is a joint endeavor by two professionals working to produce an outcome greater (and more long lasting) than themselves. Mutual respect, mutual honesty and not being emotional or temperamental seems to work. We’re in the business of creating a product which almost certainly, by joint effort, can be improved.
A partnership, then. I like your process, William. A lot. Thank you.
Hello, my name is Heather Kendall I too am a blogger. That was a wonderful post.
Hi Heather. Thank you so much, and happy blogging!
Hello. I was glad I read your insightful post today. I just started writing a short travel story for my blog and since it’s my first time writing a blog, I haven’t post it yet because I wasn’t sure if it’s good enough to share it out here. Your enlightening words gives me the courage I need to do it. ~Selina
Hello, Selina. You must do it! I just heard a quote somewhere, and I won’t get it right, but it went like this: the size and shape of your words is exactly the same size and shape of someone’s need for them. We need your travel story and your voice.
Thank you for the encouragement, Heidi. You’re awesome!