Monday, May 20, 2013

Growing a Writer

In the previous post, I concluded by writing, "As long as the comments are offered by someone who cares, the writer can continue to grow." An anonymous reader called me out for using the word "cares." S/he writes, "In my experience, caring isn't enough to ensure comments are constructive." Yes, just because someone cares about the writer and the writer's work, the comments may not be useful; there are many more factors to consider. So, agreed. We'll leave the word "cares" aside for the moment. Instead, I'd like to focus on the word, "grow."

Part of growing as a writer is learning how to decide when to ask for input, and then once it is received, if that input is useful. The same anonymous writer asked me if there were "deliberate parts of your creative process during which you are/aren't open to comments?" Some questions to determine when and if follow.

First, I have to look at what I'm writing and why. If it's a blog post, well, I write, rewrite, hold my breath, hit "publish," and let go. A blog, by nature, invites comments: sometimes useful, sometimes not. For my mini fiction/prose poetry blog Sidewalk Story, the layout isn't designed for comments, but I don't feel I want or need them; just knowing that someone might see the stories keeps me posting. Recently, I decided I would plan an artist's book that contains some of the Sidewalk Stories, so I asked my pals in my writing group for a list of their favorites. I was pleased that one person gave me some valuable comments as well.

How did I know those comments were valuable? A couple of times he wrote, "Consider dropping the last line." Why? I wondered. As I explored the stories with his comment in mind, I realized I had tried to tie each one into a neat, explained package rather than letting the ending vibrate on its own. It was nice of him to write, "Consider." Words like "try" and "consider" are much friendlier than demands or exclamations.

But what about more typical work, longer stories, poems that I might send out, work I might present to the writing group? Two main considerations stand out for me: 1) either I have questions about the work that I don't seem to be able to resolve, or 2) I feel satisfied but need to know if there is anything or confusing or unsatisfying to the reader. Sometimes having a distance from the work, say a few months or years, will make absorbing the comments easier. Sometimes I feel secure enough right now to be able to consider them. If you have a commenter that has, as our anonymous commenter writes, "emotional intelligence, a willingness to be vulnerable themselves, and skill at communicating," any time might work out just fine. I hope all of us are lucky to know people like this!

Some other reasons to show work:
  • Check spelling and grammar
  • Opinion on choice of subject
  • Flow
  • Sequence and how the story unfolds
  • Word choices
  • Rhythm
  • General feeling or overall mood
  • Vividness of scenes or characters
In addition to asking for a specific type of comment, when you show someone a piece, you have a responsibility to indicate the style of input you want. You might only want to know about something on the list, above, or you might want to know a few things, or you might just want praise and encouragement. In any case, you should let the other person know if you would rather have a hard or soft critique, and then be open to weighing the comments carefully, whatever they may be.

Input surrounding objective questions is going to be easier to accept than general subjective reactions. To be willing to consider substantive comments of any kind, you will have to try to leave your emotions aside. You might ask yourself, "Is this true?" and "How is this true?" or "If this isn't true how could someone think this?" or "If I don't agree with this, why don't I?" It's also a good idea to have someone simply describe to you what they think is happening in your piece. You can learn quite a bit based on what they tell you, how they tell it to you, and what they leave out

When I was in school we often read our pieces aloud to the class, which was a fast way to get input. Hearing yourself read aloud in front of an audience can help you learn quickly (especially if you are listening to yourself). Did you stumble on any words or phrases? Anything sound bumpy or not quite right, either rhythmically or from a character or plot standpoint? Of course you also get immediate audience reaction: laughter, murmuring, gasping, groaning, and silence.

It isn't easy deciding to be vulnerable and showing work. And it isn't always easy understanding what is useful and what isn't. It will likely vary from piece to piece, from commenter to commenter. Practice and experience helps. Asking objective questions of yourself and about your motivation helps. It's complicated, sure. But challenges like these can help us to grow as writers and as human beings.

Alisa, age six

See more about group comments at this post, "Writing Workshops and Art Critiques," and the link to Notes for a Writing Workshop

Thanks to Anonymous for the constructive comments that prompted this post.

1 comment:

Monica said...

Excellent. A post to return to. Will consider reading the site mentioned.
As an aside, the use of anonymous is totally inappropriate. A worthwhile commentator should not hide.