Monday, March 11, 2019

Criticism, Clarity and Voice Along the Writer’s Way

Whenever I hear a writer say she stopped writing because of a mean comment, a lack of encouragement, or, worse, the spiteful jealousy of another who questioned just who she thinks she is to say she is a writer, I feel her pain. It is years before she again picks up the pen, attempts to put thoughts on paper—or takes the courageous step of coming to a writer’s group to read her work aloud.

The inner child has been wounded, but, interestingly, the flame to write is never totally extinguished. It’s like breathing, something she has to do. When she does become a writer, however, there is a powerful freeing, a transformation of spirit and mind. Of saying, ‘I don’t give a damn. Let them judge. Who cares?'

In memoir, too, there is often this disclaimer from new writers. "I’m not writing this to hurt anyone." Or this: "I worry about being too preachy." There is a fine line between being 'preachy' — a fit of rage, let’s say—and clarity of thought. There is a fine line between intentionally hurting someone and writing with honesty and insight. I also remind women to ask themselves when was the last time they heard a man say he was worried about being ‘preachy’—worried about hurting someone?

I admit that even for me, a seasoned writer, I can spend hours, days, coming back to a piece, rewriting and revising, angsting over whether the lesson, the insight is clear and transcends just me and my own little world and offers something to the reader. Almost every week I blog, I submit my work for publication, am working on a new memoir. I am always writing, teaching writing, always working at my craft. Still I must ask myself: Have I avoided the rehashed reflection, the side trips that slow down the narrative, the clichés?


The writer thinks about elevating what she writes to the “literary.” I quote Chekov, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

We are painters, appealing to the reader’s sense of poetry and literary prose. I like to think this comes with practice and it does, but sometimes—just like prayer and just like poetry—that perfect metaphor, that turn of sparkling phrase that entices and invites the senses—appears when you least expect it, a gift, otherwise known as divine inspiration.

There are many critics out there. Some have agendas. For centuries, men were loath to cede the literary pantheon to women. Your mother might have been one of them, too, when she told you not to write. It wasn’t about your talent, it was about her not taking the risk herself to write, to seek out her voice. Taking criticism to heart is self-defeating, a sure way to kill the muse, to give up and go back to watching television or dabbling in a useless pastime.

Time spent writing is never time wasted. Sure, it’s hard. Maybe because everything we write is a conscious choice, meaning we chose this word, not that word, this phrase, not that phrase, this truth, not that truth. We write despite those who tell us it is a waste of time, caution us to be more 'circumspect', humiliate by saying it is beyond us to ascend to that lofty perch and write.

Give yourself the freedom to say things in your own way. Welcome the dialogue, the comments, the work others put into answering the writer’s questions. What is missing? Did this resonate? Listen and learn. Store, don't hoard, criticisms—good and bad—to ponder along the writer's way.



kathleen pooler said...

Susan, your words of wisdom resonate as I recall a basic writing course I took at night school when I was in my early 20s. I was filled with a passion to write, excited to put my words on a page. But when I received written feedback, I was devastated by the red slashes and side comments..I remember one phrase in particular "your writing is trite". I didn't realize that this was my beginning and writing was a skill that required practice. We are all a work in progress..I shut down for years, resorting to a personal journal instead. I still fight remnants of that phrase..your writing is trite' but I've learned over time that anything worth doing is worth doing right, worth doing my way. Beautiful and relevant post. Thank you!

Susan G. Weidener said...

Kathy, I never took an adult night school course but this is definitely a cautionary tale about who they get to teach those classes. Trite. Ha! Tell that to Nicholas Sparks whose critics love calling him "trite" but whose books have, at last count, sold over 105 million copies. Thank you so much for sharing your experience here and also letting other writers know the importance of perseverance and moving on with the belief in working at the craft, but mostly believing in yourself and your story.