Painful Pleasure: the Critique Crisis — Pro’s vs. Amateurs

Many of us amateurs have grown up with stories about the author who first published at sixteen.  Or the one who never bothered with a second draft; or even the writer who wrote one line a day until their book was done, and sold their book!

Insert the one you heard here.  There are quite a few such tales.

We style ourselves as artists, hunched over our laptop/ typewriter/ paper, pursuing the words we just “have to get out.”  (Insert your metaphor of struggle here.)  We visualize this process as an individual thing, a solitary quest, a burden and blessing which no one else can quite understand.

And all of that is absolutely true.  It’s also a steaming pile, left on a sidewalk in winter, stinking up our worlds.

After attending two, yes TWO conventions (thus, I have become an EXPERT!!!), and attending as well as participating in discussions around writing and publishing, my paradigm has shifted.  I would posit that many professional writers do not make their quest a private mission.  I would suggest that quite often they utilize the input of other people.

Depending on the writer, this could be friends that read and give feedback.  It could be editors who fill their documents with scratch marks and send the author sulking to their redrafts.  Or it could be groups, called critique groups: small (ish) gatherings of hopefully like-minded individuals whose purpose is to help each other along and kick each other in the rear.

And this, friends, is where we really get into “Pro’s vs. Amateurs.”

Minds laden with the stories and images of artistes, and what it means to be an artiste, amateurs walk into a critique group seeking validation and praise.  Our hearts patter, our hands tremble.  We pick our best, we put it before the group, dread thrumming through our limbs.  Thinking: they must love it!  Oh they must!  Please, let them see…!

The Pro knows their story has problems.  Of course, in all likelihood, the Pro also carries some version of the above.  But they have learned that writing in isolation, in most cases, will result in a product that… well, let’s just say, “isn’t as strong as it *could* be.”  A Pro will bring a story to a group (or reader, or editor) with a different need and assumption: I know my story isn’t “finished,” help me figure out what I’m missing.

Not to say one can never be published if one doesn’t seek another’s opinion.  Nor would I say that everyone writes the exact same way or is equal in their writing ability.  But I would say that generally, most people stand to make their work stronger by utilizing the input of readers and critique groups that are a) honest and b) have good intentions.  The writer will gain more from the input if their own motives are aligned with improving, rather than showing off or seeking validation.

This is where “Painful Pleasure” comes in.  Because, you see, you will know a good critique group (or reader) because they will have something to say about your piece.  Whether it’s a part they didn’t get, or something that didn’t work, or an overall feeling of not feeling anything.  In all likelihood, regardless of how many times you have gone over your story, there are things you are not seeing.  Good feedback will show you what those things are.  YES!  It hurts!  It Hurts SOOOO Good!  Because in this process, your story will come out shiny, strong, more powerful than ever!

Finding a good crit group has been described as “somewhat like dating.”  Just because you find a body of people willing to read your material, and willing to spend time talking to you about it, doesn’t mean they are the right group for you.  In fact, just because they are great with someone else doesn’t mean they are right for you!  Find people you can trust, who have the best of intentions, who are honest (even if it hurts), but aren’t going to just try to make you write the way they write, or make you say what they want you to say.  It’s a fine balance.

At the end, weigh each comment and see what works and feels right for you.  Developing the ability to more or less neutralize your ego, so that you can honestly consider feedback, is a skill unto itself.  Any writer is at risk of losing their voice if they simply accept every bit of feedback given.  At the same time, if you aren’t open and receptive, you will continue to miss the things you were missing all along, and your story will never be as strong as it could potentially be.

Good luck to you all, keep writing, and keep honing your craft!

— Arley

Welcome to My Blog

Welcome to my blog.

I have struggled for days, wondering what I can write here that may be meaningful or helpful.  The process itself is fascinating.  Our culture is obsessed with the idea of “qualifications.”  Like many, I tend to internalize this obsession.  I mean, What gives me the right or authority to say anything about any topic?

To oversimplify, I attribute this habit to the medieval/ ancient idea of one individual being better than another.  Distill this over time, and you have a clash of people struggling with themselves and each other, everyone wanting to be heard and desperate to feel worthy.

In the land where “All Men are Created Equal…” (and don’t even get me started on that!) we clearly don’t believe that all “MEN” remain equal after creation.  We preface statements with credentials, we add our letters after signatures; and if we have no credentials to present (arguably, many who do have credentials, too) we are insecure about speaking.

Obsessed with “qualifications,” we often believe people who we should not believe, simply because they have credentials that are meant to indicate their superior understanding of a given subject.

If you are reading this and you feel you have something to say, something kicking at your chest and dying to get out, and if you are afraid that you don’t have the right to say it, I want you to know that I believe in you.  I believe in your right to say what you believe.

We place too much importance on “being right.”  I think that’s a big part of the problem.  Let’s all agree that we don’t have to get it right, that it’s more important to discuss, to discover, to learn, than it is to “be right.”

At the same time, I have to acknowledge the people who work very hard and stretch themselves in order to earn some of those various credentials.  Their journeys are often no small thing, and achievement should be celebrated.

Nonetheless, I’m drawn to stories of people like Frederick Douglass.  In the 1800’s, was it possible to be less credentialed and qualified than as a slave?  Conversely, being a slave “qualified” him to speak “authoritatively” about slavery and equality.

Or one of my favorite poets, Langston Hughes.  When he started writing poems, he didn’t have any letters or degrees.  He wasn’t completely uneducated.  But if he were just starting out now  and walked into a room full of what we consider “experts,” he might not even be given the floor.

I advocate exploration and dialogue, I want to tell you all that you have special knowledge, a collection of unique experiences, and a perspective with potentially earth shaking and life changing truths.  I encourage you to ask questions.  I want you to push yourselves, educate yourselves as much as you can.  Not for the sake of believing it makes you an authority, but for the purpose of improving your understanding about the world and yourselves.

I believe the moment you think you have all the answers, when you feel there are no more questions one can possibly ask about a topic, you are probably missing something.

So, I tell you this.  I have no letters, no credentials, no qualifications.  There is nothing that makes me more special or more of an expert than you or anyone else.  But I shall Blog, I shall speak my truths and raise my questions in my Blog.  Perhaps you will find a sparkle, a fleck of silver or shard of crystal.  Hopefully your mind will also buzz with questions and ideas, and we can explore together.