Learning My Place

October 22, 2020 § 24 Comments

by Heidi Croot

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.”

But…

But nothing.

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.

Tips for Giving Feedback in Nonfiction Writing Groups

June 22, 2020 § 18 Comments

HannBy Sue Hann

  1. Respect each other’s privacy. Although someone might be writing about very personal things, this does not mean that you have free rein to ask all about their lives.

 ‘So spill!’ Faye says to me, seconds after we are introduced. ‘What’s the dirt you’re writing about? I’m going to find it all out anyway, that’s what we’re here for right?’ She laughs at her own joke.

‘Oh, I’m writing about the body,’ I say vaguely, taking a step back, hoping that will suffice. Shouldn’t we at least start off with the weather and how bad the transport links are in this part of town? 

  1. Engage with the text on its own terms, don’t try to suggest how you would have written the piece.

 ‘I would have written this as a poem,’ Faye says at the first feedback group, flicking through my manuscript of two thousand carefully chosen words, describing the ache of an early miscarriage. I look around the group, hoping someone else will chip in and break her flow. The others look down, unwilling to interrupt Faye. We are all playing at being polite.

‘Yeah, I definitely thought you could have turned that into a poem,’ she nods, agreeing with herself, ‘Cut that right down’.

  1. Don’t forget that your role is to encourage the writer to write their own story.

‘Hmm,’ she continues, ‘And I’m just not sure if this is universal. Not everyone wants to be a mother?’ Her voice rises in upward inflection. ‘Like, what does this say to men? Or to LGBTQI+?’

I try my best to remain neutral in my face, though my bones are murderous.

‘It’s meant to be a memoir,’ I don’t say.  I remain silent.  I am following the rules of How to Receive Feedback.

  1. Pay attention to what is written and what is not. Subtext is important.

‘And this stars thing’ she says, ‘Well, it’s just a bit of a cliche really, isn’t it? Looking at the stars and thinking about your loss?’

Kris is meant to be chairing today, but he says nothing. Slumped on his chair, his face is expressionless, and I have no idea if he is even in the room. Faye is enjoying holding the floor, now that she has her teeth sunk in deep, the taste of blood has invigorated her. The subtext is clear: Faye does not like me. Her feedback is the gun under the table, the knife in the back, the torpedo in the water.

  1. Remember to point out the parts you like, as well as the parts you think need more work.

‘Yeah, and on that note, I just didn’t think that the grief was portrayed that accurately’.

‘I mean, I thought the emotions weren’t really what you’d expect’.

Apparently, even my own feelings are failing her test. I scan the room, wondering, hoping that someone else might have a different or even constructive opinion.

‘I thought it was incredibly moving actually,’ said Mark. ‘And I’m a man,’ he adds, softening the parry with a smile, as he pushes his trendy glasses up his nose.

  1. The key to giving constructive feedback is empathy.

Bouyed up by Mark, and taking hold of the gap he created in Faye’s monologue, I try to wrestle the discussion back from Faye: ‘I’d really like to hear some specific feedback on the structure. Did it work for people?’

‘Mmm,’ says Kris, finally coming to life.  ‘It’s got to have an arc. It’s got to have some movement’ he says, scrunching his nose, lips dragging downward. ‘We already know that you can’t have kids, from this early chapter, so that’s not much of an arc…’

Wait, did he really just say that? My mind is behind, still emerging from its protective coma brought on by Faye’s kicking.

Kris steeples his hands in front of his face, while looking at the ceiling.

‘Maybe the movement is whether you and your husband stay together?’ he says as if it’s the plot of the BBC soap opera EastEnders that he is talking about, and not my marriage.

The circle of heads turn to look at me. One of them glances at my ring finger.

  1. Try to end the feedback group on a positive note.

The session ends at last, a merciful release. Faye stands and stretches. ‘That was really fun! I enjoyed that! I can’t wait to submit next week,’ she says. I gather up my things, mumble my thanks to the group for their feedback, while simultaneously thinking that I can’t imagine ever writing another word again.  Almost touching my shoulder, hand hovering mid-air, she stage-whispers into my ear ‘Just make it universal, yeah?’
___

Sue Hann’s fiction and non-fiction has been published in Popshot Quarterly, as well as online journals including Ellipsis Zine and Litro. She lives in London with her partner and a problematic number of books.

 

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