Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Critiquing: "I just don't get it"

A student of mine wrote an honest e-mail saying that a critque I provided on a fiction piece irritated him. Certainly, I wasn't trying to irritate him. He asked my opinion, I gave it, and he didn't like what I said. Should I have been more encouraging? Should I have cited more well-executed turns of phrase?

It begs a good question: why invite criticism of work when it will only irritate or crush the fragile ego that every writer keeps hidden in a well-buffered room of the brain? We spend years plying the craft, reading about it, improving our skills, and when it comes to feedback, we cringe and hope only that it's softer than the last round. It seems ludicrous we'd put ourselves through such torture, only to make the suggested improvements and submit it again. It's asking someone to tell you your face is ugly when you think you're making the best of what you have. Flannery O'Connor when asked if writing programs were stifling too many young writers uttered her now famous phrase: "My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher." That's a real pick-me-up, isn't it?

And how hard is it to stomach criticism when the critiquer just doesn't get it or is not of the same caliber writer as you? Maybe we should all adopt the Kerouac approach. Write insistent first drafts, don't change a word, and proclaim their urgency and the beauty of first thoughts. Or maybe we should listen to Anne Lamott: write the shitty first draft, thank the good Lord it's over, and revise, revise until the work is no longer an embarrassment. Maybe you're like me--an inveterate reviser, so attached to writing and erasing and writing again that unless someone yanks the damn thing out of my hand, I'll rip right through the page. Walt Whitman revised Leaves of Grass his entire life. John Irving rewrites until he drives himself to drink. It's a compulsion I know well (the revising, that is). And why do I rewrite like a obsessive compulsive? I'm avoiding feedback. Work that isn't finished is permitted to be bad. Works in progress, by their very definition, are not polished. Never underestimate the convenience of a good excuse. But like all things, we must come out of the room eventually, manuscript in hand, and share the words. If you want to see it published, you will indeed share the words and solicit feedback from a test audience. Even Spielberg would nod his head at that one.

The tough answer about criticism is you take it. Writers lack objectivity about their own work. It's why I can't see I've used the word really three times in one sentence (when I shouldn't be using the word at all). It's why I don't catch the bad dialogue ("Hi, Danny"), the cliches ("wide as a house"), or the dangling participles ("She had brown hair weighing a hundred and ten pounds")--this after reading it ten times through.

The way to accept criticism is to ask for it ONLY when you're ready to receive it. Ask for it too early, and the catalog of opinions will confuse you. Ask for it when you're too fragile, and you might give up. Employ the readers you trust, whose opinions you respect, and filter all results. But be careful. Just because a reader may not be as articulate as you'd like doesn't mean the criticism can be ignored. Sometimes "I don't get it" is more powerful than "your use of the objective correlative resonates with me."

We must all learn to leave ego at the door, to make the writing about the writing, not the writer. If you need to hear that you're wonderful, give the book to your mother. If you need to hear the truth, share it with a teacher or writing colleague. It's horrible medicine, but it's what makes healthy (and publishable) books. In the end, when my agent says, "We're not getting the response we hoped for with the novel," I have three choices. I can give up. I can curse the literary establishment for being tone deaf to my lyrical genius, or I can write another book.

I'd like to say, I just shut up and start writing, but in truth, I give up (for about a month). Then I throw darts at a map of New York City for about another month. And then (alas) I get my ass back in the chair and start the next book. Flannery O'Connor wouldn't be happy, but my mother would.

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