I'm most honest with this group of trusted writing friends. And yet, I've recently put my writing into a variety of different hands. The result: I became blocked and paralyzed for a while, sinking into a winter of stalled pages and forgotten ideals. The critique itself was largely positive and helpful to my overall work. But, like most writers, I'd braced myself for more. And of course, I have to remember the law of averages...which meant that one negative comment would come. And when it did, I let it take the legs right out from under my work.
Over the course of the past few weeks, I've been writing and reading, and looking for inspiration to get back on track each day. And now, I'm finally back on top and pushing forward again. But in the event of the inevitable next time, I've chosen a few simple ideals to restore me to sanity again.
1. Who is your first...and second reader?
Who is that one person that can name your problem...put a finger on your work and get you back on track? My husband has always been my first reader. He always hears me out, and gives it to me straight every time. My second reader is that other writer-the one who's entrenched in the work too. She can look me in the eye, tell me the truth, and I know I won't fall apart.
2. Don't disregard your own common sense.
Ask yourself, 'Does this comment match my belief about this work?' If not, set it on the back burner, ask a lot of questions around it, and then enlist a few other opinions as well. Like a bad novel, a snap judgment can be an awful thing. My dad always said, "Always consider the source." If it's a caustic, hurtful comment, that doesn't seem in the least way right to you? A comment like that will never move your work along. The purpose in critique is to find absolute truth as best you can...to find that one trusted opinion that knows story and is well-seasoned at reading story, and knows the market as well. If you do get a lot of opinions that match that one, then, of course, you have a problem on your hands.
3. Establish a good boundary: you are not what you write.
Don't wrap yourself in steel, (Natalie Goldberg) but perhaps a little dark purple velvet will do. Keep a healthy distance, so you and your writing are separated in a way. You are not your writing. Earlier on in my writing, that was hard to believe. If it works, it'll show itself. If it doesn't, perhaps it simply is not there yet.
4. Shut the door...and write like your hair's on fire!
Self-doubt is poison. There's a time to write and a time to be critiqued.
Stephen King says, "Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction can be a difficult, lonely job; it's like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There's plenty of opportunity for self-doubt. If I write rapidly--I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that's always waiting to settle in." (Stephen King, ON WRITING)
5. Do I have to take this or can I let it go?
Writers have to take critique with a kind of grace and tough-skinned welcome at the very same time. In the end, the process is mine. I have to put the work away for a while, and begin to let it go. Later, I can trust my gut, and actually begin to have a clue.
In WRITING DOWN THE BONES, Natalie Goldberg says, "Give a piece to one hundred people, you could possibly get one hundred different opinions--not absolutely different, but lots of variations. This is where the depth of the relationship with yourself is so important. You should listen to what people say. Take in what they say. (Don't build a steel box around yourself.) Then make your own decision." (page 157)
For today, thankfully, I'm unstuck. I've got all that I need to get back on track with my work. I'm spinning words and images are floating around in my brain. Writing, like old age, is certainly not for sissies. But the cycle, the torture, the magic in the words and the images that float around in my head? It's what I love more than most anything in the world. And in the end, it's that gentle return to laughter that really makes that shift finally happen for me.