One of the most challenging aspects of being a writer is holding within yourself the conflicting identities of stubborn visionary and receptive toiler. I’ve become increasingly convinced that true success as a writer–to me, this means creating one’s best work and ensuring that work reaches your audience–rests on a writer’s ability to discern what’s negotiable and what’s not, when it’s time to do your own work and when to incorporate the feedback of others.
Before you can listen to how your writing can be better, you have to write and discover your own voice and vision. It’s not something that can be done by committee. There is a great deal of work at the beginning of any writing career and any individual writing project that must be done alone. There are many blind alleys that we must run up, trying to find our destinations. While we might want the help of others at this point, this is when they can help us the least, except by example. My first graduate creative writing workshop was taught by a Stubborn Visionary who has since become very well known for his stubborn vision. After a workshop when I received a ton of conflicting advice about a piece in its embryonic stage, I asked him–voice whiny with desperation– “Am I supposed to make all the changes they suggested?”
He made a scoffing laugh as if I’d suggested I fly to the moon by beating my arms very rapidly, “Oh, god no,” he said.
“But then what do I do with it?” I asked. I wanted to add, and what’s all this workshopping for then?
“Put it away. Forget about it. There will be something that was said that you can’t ignore, that your mind keeps coming back to. That’s the one piece of advice you need to worry about. Forget about the rest.”
As an inveterate people-pleaser, I wouldn’t have gotten much out of graduate school if it weren’t for that piece of advice and his example of what it means to be a stubborn visionary. I learned over the next few years to be just stubborn and selfish enough to keep working away on my own vision as a writer.
However, most of us won’t reach much of an audience if being loyal to our own vision is our only skill. We must also know whom to listen to and when. I think it’s a good idea to have
one or two early (but not too early) readers that you can trust to give supportive critiques that aren’t too invasive. Readers who ask questions that take us further into our ideas rather than pull our ideas apart. These readers, ideally, should love us more than our own mothers and can’t wait to hear more of what we have to say. If you can find one reader like this, you’re doing well. I have one and she’s been reading my work since Frankie Went to Hollywood and her rapt attention is what keeps me going in the early days when I’m still foggy about what a project is really about.
But later–once you’ve found the voice of a piece, figured out what it was saying and followed it as far as you could–it’s time for the stubborn visionary to step aside and let humility take over. Fuzzy general support is of no help now. Now, you need detailed feedback from a trusted source, feedback that takes you through a piece line-by-line and makes it better. Listening to the perspective of an able and alert reader is the work of the receptive toiler. The able and alert reader is the key to taking our work from something we enjoy to something that can be enjoyed by a wider audience.
Come back later in the week: I’m going to write more about the revision process.