Welcome to the third post in a four-post series on the writing lessons I’ve learned from my students’ successes. Today’s lesson: Be open to critiques.
I absolutely do NOT want to admit this, but on the chance you’ll see yourself in my experience I will share this dark secret: I did not use critiques when I needed them the most.
In my early workshops I looked congenial on the exterior, but inside I was shouting, “Shut up! I hate you! La la la la, I can’t hear you.” Metaphoric fingers in ears. Metaphoric feet stomping on the ground.
I was, in fact, paying tuition then and so therefore spending hard earned dollars to deflect each of these helpful notes.
Most of my students and clients are not like this. I know they aren’t because their revisions reflect a response to critiques received. In other words, they are adults. Adults who know their first draft (or second) isn’t perfect and can improve. Adults who know writers need another set of eyes on their work.
When I see them being all adult about workshop notes, I can’t help but try to understand why I wasted so much time pushing away what I so needed to hear. The answer I come up with: I subscribed too heavily to the idea that talent reigns supreme. I believed that these critiques meant I didn’t have enough talent to BE A WRITER. Another issue: I then lacked the skill to take a comment and revise, so I found critiques overwhelming. How on earth was I suppose to use these comments? How could I pry open this formed thing and begin to rebuild?
Eventually, my avoidance caught up with me–when I turned in my first book to my editor. She had notes. A lot of notes. And there was nowhere to run, no way to discount her comments (She’s super smart and was pretty clearly right on the money with 99.9 percent of her comments*). And so there, under the gun of a deadline, I listened. And then I learned to revise. It was brutal because I had to learn revision so quickly and in a professional setting. I’m embarrassed now to think how I must have exhausted her patience. But you know, it’s part of learning. It’s part of growing up. It was part of my growing into myself as a writer.
But now I feel a gratitude when I see a student or a client absorb comments. It feels something like grace. Like karma is letting this one slide. A few years ago I read a draft of a client’s memoir and I knew immediately she needed to cut the first 120 pages. It was clear to me the story started on page 121. I dreaded to tell her this. Would she be crushed? Dismiss my critique? But I had to tell her. She was, in fact, paying me to tell her what I know. Yes, she was taken aback, but she took the note and revised. And then she revised some more. And then I got an email from her one day saying a university press wanted to buy her book. Happy ending.
Yet, once in a while, I come across my younger self, the writer mightily fighting off what she needs to hear. I try to have compassion for her and for my younger self. I tell her, “These comments don’t mean you can’t get there, that you’re not talented. It just means there’s some work to do.”
Sometimes those words are enough.
*Caveat: Not all critiques are created equal. I’ve heard terrible advise handed out in workshops. You do have to make an executive decision about which critiques you will use. But try not let that be an executive decision and not a toddler one.
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