in absolutely nothing! In every area of my life, in every facet of my career, I am a novice. I am not resolute in anything except my love for my family, my dear friends, and my love of God. Each day, I seem to learn something new about myself, and it ain’t always pretty. Yet, it leads me to a new self-discovery, and it makes me glad I’m not an expert at anything. This might sound counter-intuitive to you, so let me tell you an extremely humbling story which will illustrate my point:
Last March, I attended a writer’s conference. As a perk, for a nominal, additional fee, I could sign up for a one-on-one with an editor or agent of my choice, and he/she would read the first 40 pages of my novel as well as my plot summary, and of course, we would conference about them. I investigated each editor thoroughly, and I made what I thought was the perfect choice.
However, I intentionally reminded myself on each day which preceded our appointment that I must keep my expectations low and realistic. Thank God I did; otherwise, I would have been crushed by what she ultimately said to me. More importantly, I have come to believe that the editor with whom I met was simply another conduit that God used to speak to me not only about my writing but also about who I am as a person aspiring to be a writer.
When we sat down awkwardly on two folding chairs in a busy hallway, I saw the copious notes she had scribbled in purple pen across my pages. I sighed and bolstered myself.
As any writer knows, waiting to hear the inevitable notes on your work is like giving birth or allowing yourself to stand naked while the dermatologist checks for moles, or that nice lady at the tanning salon sprays you. Sure, you’ve washed and waxed, and you try to act like this is totally normal, but you actually feel totally exposed, and you want it to be over before it ever begins. My editor hadn’t uttered a word, but I had a feeling I wasn’t going home with a book deal.
She began by speaking to me about my book premise, which she liked. I felt gratified. She went through my plot summary and made suggestions, all of which made sense. I exhaled. However, I began to sweat and squirm profusely when she determined, “I couldn’t quite sympathize with your heroine, Nora. In fact, I didn’t like her much. Honestly, I found her petty and shallow.”
I felt my mouth gape open like a fish as I gasped for air. I couldn’t believe it! She continued to talk, but those two words looped in my brain. “Petty and shallow”!? If she had said my baby was ugly, I couldn’t have been more offended! I expected notes on my pacing or some of my plot points, but I never expected her to find fault with Nora! She is so funny in the novel. So candid, so honest, so sarcastic, so, well… ME!
Now, if you don’t write, you may not know that 9 times out of 10, a writer will balk at any kind of criticism because it strikes at the heart of who he/she is and what he/she has created. Each writer has a unique vantage point from which he/she writes. Although the same subjects are tackled again and again, each writer has his/her own way of communicating what he/she thinks about them, which is the direct result of every thought, feeling, emotion, triumph, or tragedy he/she carries with him/her at the time he/she sits down to craft that particular piece of writing.
Good, bad, or indifferent, when I begin to write, the real, vulnerable person inside comes seeping out. Writing is as close to exposing my self and my soul as I will ever come, for if what I have produced is honest, part of me will inevitably show up on the pages of whatever I have written. Otherwise, why write, right? Really, what’s the point if as a writer I will not honestly communicate the truth as I see it? Yeah, yeah, we can argue these points, but to me–and again I will say that I am by no means an expert on this– I do believe that my writing is based on every prior experience I have ever had, and it’s a way for me to make sense of the world.
So, even though Nora is an amalgamation of many people, I had given birth to her, so for all intents and purposes, she was me, or she had shades of me in her character. The editor didn’t know it, but she had just excoriated multiple layers of my being, and she had no idea she had done so.
Therefore, criticism, no matter how well-intentioned, is demoralizing to the vast majority of people, especially writers, because they believe it’s a direct assault on what they have produced on the page, and an assault on who they are as human beings. And it is, isn’t it? A critic can say it’s not personal, but he or she is responding directly to someone’s inner thoughts! So, it is personal whether the writing is a memoir, an article, a short story, or a Facebook post.
Everyone wants to be respected and validated. Acknowledging negative comments even when they are disguised as help, is an extremely difficult thing to do. It’s another rite-of-passage everyone wishes he/she could avoid, but unfortunately everyone who is human has experienced it. It might be necessary at times; however, it still smarts. I must remember this feeling next time I grade my students’ essays. Ugh! Right now, I am picturing the dark faces of my students who have just received their papers back from me after I tore them to shreds with my sharp, harsh red pen. Although my comments were meant to give them fodder for the future, they were unable to receive them with enthusiasm nor appreciation. Duh, and I wondered why everyone in the room shut down and was disgruntled? I am so stupid that sometimes it astounds me.
At this point in my story, some people reading this might be thinking. Well, Jayne, yes, you are, and shame on you! As an English teacher, you’ve read enough literature. The characters are fictitious, so Nora should not be based on you at all. You’re nothing but an amateur if you fell into that trap. It’s Writing 101! Only amateurs write about what they know. You’re an impostor. A fake. Your editor was doing her job, and you should be grateful she was honest and even willing to read your junk. You have no business writing. Those who can do; those who can’t, teach!
While this might well be how some readers feel about me right about now, I don’t agree. Again, I’m no expert.
Yet, some of you may be interested to know that I eventually let those two negative words act as catalysts to enable me to evolve further as both a writer and as a person.
Tune in on Wednesday, and I’ll let you know how!