“If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, ‘When you’re ready.’”
David Mitchell, Black Swan Green
Yup. That’s about it.
No, but seriously, I have such a love/hate relationship with feedback and writing criticism.
On the one hand, I hate it. Showing people a chapter you’ve written is like saying, “Look, here’s my baby. Tell me if you think it’s ugly.” And they do. You slave over your words, you climb up a mountain with them, and when you finally reach the top, someone pushes you over and you tumble back down. It’s really, really hard to get writing feedback, especially when you truly care about a project. When I was in my writing program in college, I couldn’t look at feedback on my poetry and stories immediately after our work was graded. I would get my work back, and– while looking away from the top of the page where the grade was– would fold it in half and tuck it, unseen, into my backpack. In my room, I would move it to a desk drawer where it would sit– still unseen– until it was time to work on the next draft; usually by that time, the sting would have gone out of it a little bit.
During my senior capstone, I had to learn how to handle criticism. I met every single week with my advisor, who could cover the whole front and back sides of a sheet of paper in red ink full of suggestions, deletions, squiggle underlines (bad), straight underlines (good), and the word PUSH. There would be more red ink from her than black ink from what I’d originally written. In addition, every week, I sat down with a group of seven other writers, and we critiqued each other’s work aloud in a local Caribou. At the beginning of that semester, I would pray before I had to meet with my advisor; I was so nervous for her critiques and so scared I might cry in front of her.
By the end of that semester, though, I had learned how to handle criticism– and better yet: I had learned how to take the criticism, revisit my writing, and make it better. When I graduated, I had a senior portfolio I was proud of.
So on the other hand, I love criticism. I love that my friends who love reading and writing, words and metaphors, can see the potential in my drafts and that they are willing to put the time and energy into reading them and making suggestions. I love that they can pick out the obvious flaws that I somehow just cannot see. They tell me when my characters aren’t being true to themselves; they find big-picture concepts that are a little off and help me correct them. I have realized that the mere fact that someone is willing to offer feedback shows that they are investing in me and my writing, shows that they believe it has a future, one they want to buy into.
I’m so blessed. I have the most incredible writing group. Anna, Rachel L, Jaidyn, Rachel R, Carra, and Addie. We meet once a month to share life, stories, poems, and commiserations. They are all completely brilliant and care deeply for me and my novel, and I am so, so grateful for their help on this journey. Along with my writing group, I also have wonderful beta-readers in Elyse, Stacey, and Mary. My faithful blog readers Brienna and Melody too! My mom and sister are rockstar readers as well.
In addition, I have been getting help from Ben Barnhart, this incredible editor in Minneapolis, and of course, I went to the Big Sur Writing Workshop too for an intense look at my first two chapters. I have come a long, long way from those early days of feedback– now I seek it out. It’s still not easy; make no mistake. It’s hard. But it’s good.
In fact, for me, it’s the only way I can take my writing to the next level.
How about you? How do you feel about feedback and constructive criticism?