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.