Before I get to Be Defenseless, a quick share: the weekend was crazy busy: 2 literary events, my daughter’s birthday, my service dog’s public access test. It was nonstop.
The first event was a reading at The Loft for MN State Arts Board grant recipients. One of my best friends, Wendy Skinner, received a grant this year, and it was a thrill to hear her read one of her stories about the controversial wolf issue. The other event, a book launch for the New Annotated HP Lovecraft brought Leslie Klinger and Neil Gaiman to Minneapolis.
Why would I tell you this? Because both events energized me and in different ways. As a writer, we need to get out sometimes and be part of a community, support other writers, get inspired, and expand our dreams.
So go on…get out there.
When you ask for feedback from someone, be defenseless.
If you go looking for a reader’s opinion, whether that reader is a professional, a peer, or a lover of books, have the grace to accept whatever feedback you receive without defenses.
This is not to say every piece of feedback you receive will be good or useful to you. What I am saying is that once you put a work out into the world, you have to let it go. You will not be peering over your reader’s shoulder, explaining yourself. Each reader will respond to exactly what is on the page and nothing more. When a reader gives you poor feedback, consider what you put on that page to make him respond the way he did.
Maybe there is nothing you would do differently. Maybe that reader is an outlier, responding more to his own issue than to what’s on the page, but you won’t be able to draw that conclusion unless you keep your defenses down and honestly examine what you wrote in light of his honest response.
Workshops and serious critique groups set the rule that the author is not allowed to defend her writing. Typically, this means the writer is not allowed to speak during the work’s review and afterwards only to ask questions.
That is, the rule ensures you keep your defenses down.
I’ve been in workshops where writers weren’t able to abide by the rules.
During my MFA, I attended an intensive, residential workshop with Wells Tower. There were a few stories that were…not so good. One in particular was on the dissecting table and while people were trying to make sense of its various parts and contribute to a larger understanding of the specimen, there wasn’t much to recommend the piece. It was like the freak show mermaid: a dolphin’s tail rather tackily sewn to the upper half of a chimpanzee, and no matter how we looked at it, it just wasn’t quite right.
The writer, a woman who was not in the MFA program—which I say to partly excuse her, because she was not accustomed to the workshop process—couldn’t keep her quiet or her cool. She insisted that what she wrote on the page was exactly what had happened in real life. Many of us tried with varying degrees of sympathy to explain that real or not wasn’t at question. We were responding to what was on the page and she had not convinced us that her account was possible. It lacked verisimilitude. If she wanted readers to join her on her ride, she had to make it ring true. And in that she had failed.
Wells Tower calmly explained that this was a fiction workshop, and even if what she wrote was true, we were all correct in critiquing it as we would any piece of fiction. Her response was a vehement, “I wanted to take the creative nonfiction workshop anyway, but it was full!”
We didn’t bother to tell her that whether she labeled her story fiction or non, it would not stand before an attentive reader. Furthermore, her defenses had rendered pointless every bit of help we’d offered, so why offer any more?
When you receive feedback, it’s a gift. Accept it without any defenses. Examine it with an open heart. Only then can you decide if it’s bullshit…or if it’s you.
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