Getting it All Wrong to Make It Write

or, Responding Graciously to Awful Critiques

I must apologize.

About 15 years ago I sat nervously on the hot seat of my first official writing critique session, having balanced on sword points for two weeks while my new-found group of reviewers read the first chapter of my book. Certainly they were about to skewer me because what else would they do to someone who dared enter the heady realm of Writer with no more credentials than a college degree in Creative Writing and years of doing everything but write? I deserved to be skewered, burned over hot coals, and served a la carte with freshly shaved horseradish.

I can’t even remember what those folks said about my first chapter. Can’t remember because though I tried to listen, I heard nothing. I sat through the crits and quaked, tried to smile but grimaced, to breathe evenly but choked. Should have listened better so I’d have something memorable to tell you, but I have nothing to show for that first critique except the edge of the chair imprinted on the backs of my thighs.

Since then I’ve learned a lot about critique groups, mostly by doing nearly everything wrong. I’ve been so arrogant that I actually thought I was qualified to tell someone else how to write. I mean, I read – lots. Didn’t that qualify me to tell other novice writers, many more veteran than myself, how to describe a character’s motives without a melodramatic voice, how to show and not tell? I’d read all those writers’ books and articles, dug up my old college notes, sat back on my sofa and trawled through my memory to unearth the pearls of my college professors’ wisdom – even remembered a few pithy points. Talk about arrogant, cynical, smarmy, and self righteous. I have been way too insensitive to the feelings of others.

It was no surprise I would get it back in kind, finally a long overdue rounding of my pointed little head. I was critiqued a few nights ago, and though many of the critters (shall we use that silly term, for brevity’s sake?) spoke fairly of my recent work while offering useful ideas to improve it, one person came at me with lance drawn. His critique infuriated me, right from the top. I’d submitted chapter 11 of what I’ve oft made clear is a 24 chapter book, nearly the half way point. Goodspeak (why not call him Goodspeak?) began by stating he was going to critique my work as if it was chapter one. Why? Because he hadn’t read the first ten chapters. I’d been saddled for the wrong rodeo and felt a bit put off by the horse poo. It’s fair to say, if you’ve been out of the reading loop of a particular book, that you wouldn’t quite get who a character is or why a scene occurs. It’s more than fair to request a synopsis be included to make it easier for new readers to cut into a well established story.  Note taken – synopsis will be provided next time.

But Goodspeak wanted to treat chapter 11 as if it were chapter one, along with concerns about what he just couldn’t understand. Like where did the cake come from (um, even if you didn’t read the first ten, it’s a book about a senior residence, and it doesn’t take a very long tape measure to realize that every birthday, every anniversary is celebrated with cake in an old folks’ home. You never know if it will be Granny’s last chocolate frosted nibble – please don’t tell me you never thought of that. Only a four-year-old hasn’t thought of that, but four-year-olds love cake and parties every half hour, so even they get it!)

Nobody writes a mid chapter and includes a detailed rewrite of all the stuff that happened in the first half. A book written that way would be a great new sleep aid. Goodspeak’s crit was bogus at that point, and I should have realized that little of worth would be stated. I should have done what I often did in boring college classes: slept with my eyes open. Still I continued my pasted if bogus smiling until the next comment threw me over the edge.

In the book, two teenage brothers jabber about their older brother and the young woman he’s just introduced to them. The younger brother “wiggles his rear” to communicate how sexy he found the woman. Goodspeak found my language archaic. Could be. His suggestion was that I update and use the word twerk.

I know what you just did. You guffawed as you saw in your mind’s eye a famous singer at a packed concert who jiggled her nearly bare butt cheeks into the crotch of a male performer while her tongue lolled all the way to the floor. Ain’t nobody in this whole wide world who didn’t see that girl’s keister quiver, ‘cept the poor deprived citizens of North Korea and the aborigines of New Guinea. Maybe even only the North Koreans. Bet Kim Jong-un saw it – probably downloaded it to his desktop – the first thing he sees every morning while playing with his nukes. Ahem.

If deciding to crit my story as if chapter 11 were chapter one wasn’t way off the appropriate target, then suggesting I “upgrade” a playful wiggle to a suggestive twerk absolutely missed any hope of a bull’s eye. My book has nothing to do with the awful behavior of a childish performer whose best talent resides in the Most Suggestive category. Anyone reading that word in my book would toss it immediately into the trash where all minimal performers ultimately end up. Wrong word, wrong image, wrong association.

Goodspeak’s patter dumped me square into the category of Total Outrage.

I had a right to stew.

I didn’t have a right to let everyone know how outraged I felt.

I dropped myself into the pit of Ungrateful Critique Group Member. I shouted out in the middle of his review (a rule we are never ever to break ever) that I would never use such a stupid and nasty word in anything I write. I told Goodspeak in front of everyone in the group what a dumb idea he’d made.

Shame on me for not being gracious that Goodspeak had even read my chapter and offered insight.

I had his comments coming. I’d earned his unflattering critique. He was not diminished in the sight of the other group members.

I was.

Because I’ve often made stupid and ill considered comments to other writers. Because I’ve been arrogant and thoughtless and damn stupid about my choice of nits to pick. Because I’ve read the work of others without truly considering their hard driven craftsmanship, their sleep deprived nights hunched over the computer, their pacing feet and drumming fingers as they worked out the best phrases and sharpest observations. Their hearts thwonked in their chests as they pounded out the best they had to give because nobody, but nobody, puts their work out into the critique community without having produced their very best at that moment, even as they realize there is more to do. I often forgot the sincerity of their oeuvre.

Writing is hard work. Writing well stands at a pinnacle higher than Mt. Everest. I haven’t gotten there yet. However far I may have trekked on my journey, however brilliant my occasional sentence, whatever the few accolades I’ve earned, this is the truth about me: I am not a published writer. Nothing I say to any other writer is any more significant or meritorious than anything that anyone else says about my writing.

This is my apology to Goodspeak:

It behooves me to be humble. Always very humble. You read my chapter and gave me the best of your thoughts with your critique. I was way off in my reaction and I’m truly sorry. Thank you for your effort on my behalf. You’ve made me a better writer.

 

Advertisements

Baring it All: The Challenge of Short Poems

It was the evening of April 30, the final day of National Poetry Month, and I had just realized that I was four poems short of my goal of 30 poems in 30 days. Dinner was almost on the table, Game of Thrones was cued up, and wine was ready to be drunk. I knew if I waited to write until after all of that, it would be too late. So, I decided to write some very short poems to get my count. I felt a little like I was cheating, but I reminded myself that short poems have as much a place in poetry as long poems do—haiku and senryu, being the most recognized forms of short poetry. I reminded myself, too, of the power and punch of “The Red Wheelbarrow”by William Carlos Williams, one of my favorite poems:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

 

With the clock ticking, I returned to an article I had recently read in Outside Magazine by Eliza Griswold. Griswold researched and wrote about an ancient Pashtun folk poetry form called landay which is two lines and 22 syllables long. According to this article, landays are written primarily by women, and share intimate life experiences, including heartaches, sex, reflections on war, a woman’s position in society, and more. Landays pack a lot into 22 syllables. Take this one, for example:

When sisters sit together, they’re always praising their brothers
When brothers sit together, they’re selling their sisters to others.

(Incidentally, the syllable count changes when the poem is translated, which is why the above poem has more than 22 syllables.)

I decided to give the form a try.

What’s deceptive about short poetry, and short form poetry, specifically, is that it looks so easy. You’ve got limits, both line and syllable limits, and often, as is the case with haiku, senryu, and landay, you’ve got content limits. Haiku must be about nature, senryu about human mishaps and quirks, landay about life stories. Simple, right?

Writing in a truncated form like this requires you to leave things out. And knowing that you must leave things out to fit the form, means that what you leave in is all the more important. With only a handful of syllables, your poetry becomes bare, almost raw. An awkward line, or not-quite-right word can’t hide behind its better counterparts. It’s all out there, which means, of course, that any neuroses you might have already harbored as far as your writing goes, gets heightened, amplified.

As I began to piece my landays together, I looked again at the ones listed in the article and thought about “The Red Wheelbarrow.” None of these poems employ complicated language. There are no clever turns of phrase. No difficult literary devices to speak of. Nothing immediately sensational. They are simple, spare. What they all do, however, is withhold something, and this doesn’t just apply to their form.

Take “The Red Wheelbarrow.” We are told that “so much depends” on the wheelbarrow, but we don’t know what. We are given a scene, but no overt characters. The characters are implied: someone must exist to push the wheelbarrow, someone must feed the chickens.

In the landay above, we don’t know why the brothers sell the sisters, or why the sisters continue to sing their brothers’ praises, even after being sold. We don’t know precisely why this separation and inequality exist between the sexes.

This conscious withholding in content is what allows these short poems to be so powerful. With what little information provided, readers are left to fill in the blanks, to lend color and substance to the image that has been just barely sketched for us by the author.

In the end, I wrote my four landays. It was an exercise in holding back, and in being careful with language. I felt the weight of my words more so than I usually do. I felt as if I was playing with a Rubik’s cube, turning words this way and that, sliding words in, sliding them out again, until I had my perfect line-up of syllables, until each word packed just the right punch.

Here’s one that I produced, on the eve of April 30, just before food, fantasy, and wine:

Discharging

The boys come home, each in their time. Some look for-
ward: cabs, dates, summer; others burn to go back.