Last night I attended my monthly writing group, but I didn’t enjoy it. To be honest, my head wasn’t in the game. I’m still recuperating from my trip to the west coast last weekend. All I really wanted to do was curl up in a chair with a book and a glass of wine. But I forged ahead because I had committed to being the group’s facilitator. So like it or not that meant I had to go.
Once we started talking about the writing, it was obvious the other writers were not interested in critiquing their pieces. They wanted affirmation that the writing worked as is. And though I continued to try to interject suggestions and comments about the work, there was palpable resistance to feedback.
Now maybe my issue is that my feelings were hurt because the other writers didn’t seem interested in my
advice. As obnoxious as it may sound, I pride myself on my experience as a writing teacher. I wanted to be able to share my understanding of their pieces and to ask the questions that came to my mind. But in retrospect, I’m convinced the real problem was the lack of a clear group objective.
If the writer simply wants to be heard and the group critiques the work, the writer is going to walk away with hurt feelings. If the writer has specific questions about what works and what doesn’t work, he or she has to be open to listening. I know it’s hard to hear what feels like criticism of our work. But knowing who we are writing for puts the feedback we receive into perspective. If we are writing for our own edification, it doesn’t matter what others think. If we are writing to communicate, we need to know where the holes are. That doesn’t mean other people get to write our stories for us. It means that we have to learn to look at our work more objectively. Call me a stickler, but I think it’s a waste of time when the writer defends what isn’t there.
I totally understand the urge we have to defend our work. It is like protecting our children. And on more than one occasion, I have been poised for battle.
Recently, I submitted the first twenty pages of my novel to my local writers club to be critiqued by a New York Times Best Selling Author. I mention her credentials because she referenced them several times in our 15-minute meeting and even more in the nine-page letter she wrote. The self-promotion annoyed me almost as much as the fact that she tore my twenty pages apart with her suggestions and chicken scratch. I wanted to defend my writing to her. I wanted to explain why she was wrong. After all, I had rewritten those pages a half-dozen times. I pooh-poohed her comments, telling myself that she didn’t understand what I was writing. I chalked the whole thing up as a waste of time and money. But after I had some time to cool off, I realized there must have been a part of me that needed an objective look at the work. Why else had I submitted to be critique in the first place? I read through her comments again. Some had value. Others did not. I got over my hurt feelings and started yet another rewrite.
Too often we view feedback as a correction, reminiscent of some elementary school teacher scolding us for making a mistake. My first grade teacher, Sister Ernesta, is one of the voices in my head that admonishes me for my writing. Not to mention the fact that I personally blame her for my horrible handwriting. Who hits a six-year-old on the hand with a pointer for tracing over her letters? But I digressed.
The point is feedback isn’t a correction. It’s an opportunity for a writer to understand how the reader experiences your words. It’s raw data on what works and what doesn’t work. And the beauty of a group of writers working together is that no one person has it all figured out. So you aren’t bound by anyone’s suggestion. There’s a synergy in the process that creates fertile ground for new ideas and insights.
Maybe I didn’t enjoy last night, because I more focused on being a facilitator than a writer. Not bringing my own work to the group made it easy for me to forget that the process of sharing establishes the trust and safety necessary to have honest conversation. Being elevated by the collective energy of our peers makes us better writers. It takes a group to raise a writer.