So many people walk around this earth with no idea
how to communicate their gifts to the world.
But you, dear writer, have already found your language.
Now it’s simply time to trust YOUR voice.
With love and total belief in you,
“I’m sorry. It’s really rough.”
“I know it’s not very good, but . . .”
“What can I say? It’s a shitty first draft.”
I’ve said all of the above about my writing.
And I am not alone. I’ve heard these things said by other writers.
A while back, I found myself typing a “stop the presses”
email to a beta reader, an email in which I intended to ask her not to read the
manuscript I’d given to her less than 48 hours earlier because I had already
identified a sentence that absolutely needed to be removed from the second
chapter and I was suddenly acutely aware that the entire manuscript needed
another read-through, some serious edits, perhaps a sacrificial burning. I
intended to follow the please don’t read request with an apology and a promise
to fix as much as I could, reprint it, and bring her a clean copy, but that
this could take a while—months, perhaps years.
Luckily, my son came into my office to say hello while I was
typing. He asked what I was up to, and when I told him, he said, “Stop typing.
Don’t send that, Mom. Seriously, listen to me.”
I lifted my fingers to hover over the keys.
“Hands away from the keyboard.”
I turned and saw his expression, full of exasperation—and
empathy. My son is also a writer. He gently explained that he’d recently read
some advice about the editing process: How it was important not to tamper with
your manuscript once you’ve given it out to be read by others. How you should
never denigrate it when you ask someone to read it. How listing a bunch of
caveats predisposes the reader to find fault and search for the errors and
flaws they know must be there because you, the writer, told them errors and
flaws were there—plot holes, caricatures instead of characters, thin dialogue,
missing arcs, hokey endings. According to you and your “sorry, it’s rough, I
know it’s not very good, but what can I say, it’s a shitty first draft,” it’s
all there, and your readers feel obligated to find it.
Thinking of all the caveats I’d already given my reader when
I handed over the manuscript, I lifted my fingers completely and promised not
to send the email.
That wasn’t good enough for my son.
“Delete it, Mom.”
Hours later, it occurred to me that if I sat down in my
hairdresser’s chair and she said, “I’m about to give you a crappy haircut,” or
if my dentist said, “I’m not really that good at this whole teeth thing,” I’d
probably get up and leave—at least I’d like to think I would. And I began to
reconsider my defensive caveats. Why would someone want to read my manuscript
when I start with a list of reasons they shouldn’t? Why do I, as a writer, plant
seeds of doubt and inadequacy? Why do we, as writers, sell ourselves short? Why
do we constantly disparage our work?
So, I came up with a theory—perhaps it’s because we know
it’s highly possible (damn near certain) that someone out there won’t like what
we’ve written, and it’s easier to handle rejection or criticism if we’ve
already not liked it or criticized it ourselves.
The thing is, even bestselling, prize-winning,
genius-labeled authors are not always appreciated. Someone out there can’t
abide Tolstoy. More than a few people can’t get through Joyce. There are
well-read individuals who do not understand Faulkner—at all. Someone doesn’t
like Hemingway, Kingsolver, Saunders, Barnes, Doerr, Tartt, Johnson, Egan. And,
though it may happen, I want to believe writers such as these did/do not turn
over manuscripts to friends, editors, or agents with the words, “This isn’t
Writers benefit from constructive criticism at every stage
(I always value receiving it), but I am writing this blog to issue a challenge
to myself and all of you reading it: Stop introducing your work with negatives.
Drop the defensive caveats. Try “I hope you enjoy it” or “I welcome your
I welcome your feedback.
Anastasia Zadeik has been telling stories ever since she was
a little girl sitting around the dinner table with her brothers and sisters,
using every single second of her three allotted minutes to “share the most interesting
thing that happened to you today,” learning early that flash non-fiction is
tough, particularly for someone fond of details and embellishments.
Now a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach, Anastasia enjoys helping other writers find their voice and refine their work. She also continues to love telling stories to a live audience; she regularly performs in So Say We All’s VAMP and has had three pieces selected for inclusion in the San Diego Memoir Showcase.
She’s currently working on Capture the Light, a novel about
loss, self-determination, and the power and limits of love.
I love my Read and Critique Class. I really do. Every Saturday afternoon as I drive home from class singing along with Adele or the soundtrack of Les Miserables, I review in my mind the critiques I received from my fellow writers in the class.
My mind swirls with all the comments.
“Love this first paragraph.” “Great grounding!” “Ugh, I was confused in page two. Who’s Nick?” “Your descriptions are spot on, but this one is so over the top.” “You can get rid of page four.” “I hate your mother.” “You do dialogue so well.” “This is so repetitive.”
By the time I get home, I am too weak to even look through the notes my classmates have scribbled all over my pages. I set my pages on my desk and leave them.
I’ll save that for tomorrow. Or maybe never.
My husband can tell if my critiques were positive or negative by my face and body language when I walk in the door and he asks, “Did they like your scene?”
Writing is tough. Writing is painful. Especially Memoir.
I love it. I hate it.
We writers need a strong shell. Simply showing your work to other writers is frightening. Reading it out loud to them is even more petrifying. All of our insecurities about our writing ability and storytelling skill are ramped up when we read the story of our lives in front of our peers.
Will they judge our technique, will they understand it, and will they relate and sympathize with the story? What if they hate it? What if they laugh when it’s not supposed to be humorous? Should I even try to write?
All I know is that as hard as it is, it is also the best thing we writers can do–join a class or workshop with other writers and share our words with others taking the same path who are as vulnerable as we are. I promise, each class gets easier. Our writing improves. We keep writing and growing. And, if you are lucky, you find kindred souls to reach out to when you doubt yourself, who will be there for you in those dark moments. And there will be dark moments.
Now I must stop and go over my notes from yesterday and, either way, positive or negative, they will force me to think outside of my box. Perhaps I’ll make a tweak here and a change there. All I know for sure is that I will be a stronger writer, my scenes will improve and my book will be better because of my amazing read and critique class.
Originally from Biloxi, Mississippi, Laura L. Engel has lived in Southern California for 50 years. She and her husband, Gene are the proud parents of six grown children and their spouses and “Grammy and PaPa” to nine exceptional grandchildren. Recently retired after 35 years as a regional sales representative for a national title insurance company, Laura left the corporate world and plunged headlong into writing her memoir in 2017. She has completed the Memoir Writing Certificate Program with Marni Freedman and currently serves as President of the San Diego Memoir Writers Association. She has won a place in the San Diego Memoir Showcase twice with scenes from her memoir. Her scene, “Secret Son,” was published in the anthology, Shaking The Tree, in 2018. Along with SDMWA, Laura is also a member of the International Women’s Writing Guild, Thought Leaders Who Write in San Diego, and Writers Ink. Recently Laura was interviewed by Dani Shapiro for her Family Secrets Podcast.
Laura’s memoir in progress is You’ll Forget This Ever Happened ..The Story of a Mother’s Love and Secret She Never Forgot. Please visit Laura’s website: https://www.lauralengel.com and listen to her podcast at: https://www.familysecretspodcast.com/podcasts/the-secret-son.htm
FB…@ laura l. engel author
I write about the weather often because I live in Minnesota, Land of 10,000 Extremes. 2019 has been full of them. February’s –30-degree temperatures (without windchill) burst pipes in a building on the college campus where I teach, requiring classes to be moved out of the building for an entire semester. In May, five inches of rain fell on an otherwise ordinary day.
Minnesotans consider spring sacred because it’s relatively moderate. My favorite part is tulips that bloom outside my home’s back door. Their hardiness, beauty, and short-lived presence after long, dark, brutal winters never cease to inspire me. I obsess over them. Once their green leaves push through the soil—and sometimes through the snow—I check on them as if they were pets. When they bloom, I stare at them giddily for a few minutes every time I step outside. When fall comes, I buy and plant additional bulbs because some Minnesota winters kill even the heartiest souls. And because I firmly believe one can never have too many tulips.
Like a tulip, a student essay I graded this spring pushed up through final exams’ black stress and white blanket of papers to present a colorful bud. The student mistyped our textbook’s title, The Composition of Everyday Life, and Microsoft Word autocorrected it as The Composting of Everyday Life.
Initially, I sighed with irritation.
Then I giggled, amused.
But when I stopped to think about the phrase, I fell in love with it.
Composting everyday life seems like a perfect definition of writing. Creative nonfiction, especially, requires cutting through experience to find its most colorful or flavorful elements. Reflecting on and working with those parts to create something worth consuming. Revising to eliminate waste. Celebrating the fruits of my labor. Allowing the waste and myself to rest. Using the waste to prepare the soil for future projects.
For me, the hardest part of writing is eliminating waste—better known among writers as killing my darlings. I’m a teacher, so I overexplain everything in early drafts. Cutting passages I labored over hurts, but it’s less painful when I think of it as composting instead of throwing away. That mindset was especially helpful recently, as I wrote a book proposal.
I’ll be honest: Creating a proposal was among the hardest and grossest things I’ve had to write, and that includes my Ph.D. dissertation. Aside from the strict format and application of phrases like “poignant but inspiring” to my writing voice (eeeww!), I resented putting so much work into something I might never need. There is no consensus among agents or publishers about pitching memoir. It’s narrative, so some want it pitched like fiction, which doesn’t require a proposal. But it’s nonfiction, so some want it pitched like a how-to or research-based book, which does require a proposal. Most don’t specify, leaving the writer to make her best guess. And forget about consensus as to what belongs in a memoir proposal. One thing all agree on, however, is the need for a chapter outline, and that was the toughest part to write. I had to summarize each chapter of a book I’d revised over and over to add layers of complexity and subtlety (I hope!) by boiling it down to one typed line per page.
While painful, the outlining exercise proved (I grudgingly admit) informative. I began to see my book’s potential in new ways, to question links among themes that had previously seemed as obvious as rotting vegetables, and to identify weeds I’d thought were flowers. It made me want to revise my entire manuscript again (while also laughing with hysterical madness at the very idea). The proposal and the additional revision it inspired seemed like wasted time and effort, but in truth, it was composting: revisiting early drafts and remixing the book’s ideas to create a layer of nutrients that would feed the final draft’s blossoms. Composting makes the process feel more like pruning to make the bloom healthier than throwing away something nature and I worked hard to grow. So I cut, mix, rest, and then sift the draft, letting “dead” passages fall away, perhaps to feed future projects. If nothing else, the process creates improved writing skills.
I can’t say that revising will ever be as fun as watching Netflix or riding horses, but it’s certainly less malodorous when I think of it as composting rather than trashing.
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