Writing Critiques: Putting Pen to Ear

diamond and carbon

I recently had a brief venture into a newly forming writers’ critique group. It was small with only three of us willing to put aside a few hours a week for the group. I decided to opt out by the second meeting. Anyone who knows me will think this is strange. I’ve been known to stick things out way longer than anyone with a modicum of sense would. I must be changing.

One writer was working on a short story, another is winding up a memoir and then there was me. I am in the midst of writing my first draft on a new novel. We sat together with our critiques in front of us. By the end of it, I was almost in tears, not because my work had been shredded, it had not even been critiqued. The other participants basically shared the total of the hour and a half we’d allotted ourselves. My sheer frustration was due to my perception that this group would not go anywhere. No one was listening- at least it felt like that. I felt as though my hard work was unheeded, including my writing that was still in my bag. What a draining experience.

When I began my life as a writer, I must admit that receiving critique was difficult. “I don’t get it” and “I don’t think this is a good story” left me bewildered. One of my earlier group peers uttered those two statements and then I received an email in the middle of the night. She’d been published in an online magazine. She’d used my material but sort of shined it up like a diamond while she’d assured me my work was merely rough carbon. Should I admit that I received a tune up from my therapist after that experience?

During my most recent nightmarish writing group foray, the first individual fought me tooth and nail on every point and suggestion I made. She said she had already rewritten it and didn’t think it needed it another onceover. The second writer let me know, in a much nicer way, that unless I gave her technical advice, commas and such, that she had no use for what I had to say. She was just about done with her memoir. The opening did nothing to entice me to read further. I listen to stories of real people and real lives every day of my life. When I consider buying someone’s memoir it’s because their story shares something that invokes my interest. I might otherwise pick up a book of Sudoku puzzles. After thinking long and hard on the meetings, during my half hour walk home, I decided that I could do more worthy things with my time. I could spend it with people who really do want to give and receive and not just say they attend a writing critique group.

I’ve found it important to listen with discernment. Having someone tell me that my idea for a story is not good may make me storycidal. Ask the person specifically what they mean. It may be that your writing skills or their critique skills may need sharpening.  Some critiques can be soul killing. During doctoral school, there were many nights I wondered why I stuck out the pain.

During the interim, I continued to work on my piece, sent it out to many publishing houses and agents. I was blessed to receive some feedback with actual specific suggestions. I incorporated some of them because I was hoping that my good story would be transformed into a great story. This, I believe, was accomplished and I recently signed on with a publisher that is turning out to be the perfect fit that I’ve been searching for.

There is the wonderful method of silent critique. I’m finishing up an online writers course where assignments are submitted on line. Other students send in critiques and the writer is allowed the dignity of not having to defend their work. It’s been peaceful to read suggestions and thoughts that are both positive and negative. There’s a quality to a written critique that I find missing when one attempts to articulate similar thoughts using voice. Allowing the suggestions to seep into my blood vessels where the bad advice is cleansed out of my system and the good advice is cycled through my fibers at an astonishingly healthy rate is great.

A couple of crusty and experienced people have shared with me that sometimes it’s important to ‘take the cotton out of your ears and stuff it in your mouth.’ I hated this when I first heard it but now I understand exactly what it means. I’m glad that I’ve lived through and continue to receive critique. It’s taken me a while to exercise my listening muscle but I’m happy that I did and am eager to continue to do so.

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