Retro: The Writerly Review, June 17–23

Here’s what happened at The Writerly Life this past week:

Cane chair in sunlight

The week kicked off with with the Sunday Wordle: June 17. (Playing around with words is such fun: no agenda, no 300 pages to revise, no agent search . . . . Ahhh.) This wordplay resulted in a poem, of all things. The Wordles, in case you don’t know about them, come from The Sunday Whirl. If you’re a writer looking for a fun way to loosen up the brain, go to The Whirl and give the Wordles a try. They work for fiction, memoir, poetry (and blog posts!) . . . whatever strikes your fancy.

Monday Discovery: Mellow Yellow Monday— Mellow Yellow Monday challenges photographers to come up with something yellow. This week? Sunflowers! We’ll see how many more yellows I can come up with.

The week ended with a bang:  Read It and Weep (Not) deals with the role and responsibilities of the reader–which are considerable–in a writing partnership or group. This post grew into a two-parter. . .

Read It and Weep (Not), Part 2: The Writer’s Role offers the other side of the critique scene: the writer’s part, whose work is “at stake” in the feedback scenario.  

So if you haven’t checked out this week’s posts, I hope you will.

There’s a great conversation going on in response to Read It and Weep (Not) and Read It and Weep (Not), Part 2 regarding how writers share work. I hope you’ll enter in by leaving a comment. I’m learning so much from my readers!

Have a great weekend, y’all!

Read It and Weep (Not), Part 2: The Writer’s Role

“We all end up needing thick skin, to an extent, but also need to be able to trade work with peers whose advice we know will push us, in an environment of trust!” —from Elissa Field: comment on Read It and Weep (Not)June 21, 2012

“If you’re like most writers, no single thing will help your writing more than learning to use feedback well.” —Jack Rawlins, The Writer’s Way (emphasis mine)

Today’s post is a follow-up to yesterday’s Read It and Weep (Not) which addressed the role of the reader in sharing writing. We older or more experienced birds who have participated in workshops or swapped our work for a while may have the thicker skin Elissa Field refers to above. I say may have, because I still feel vulnerable when I put my work “out there.”

Journal with mark-up
http://www.microsoft.com

Let’s assume, though, that the readers of our stories have given their all, and now we, the writers—isn’t it fun to say that?—get to receive comments. Sometimes we receive them in a writers’ workshop where not only do we hear comments, but we may also hear a discussion of the work as though we’re invisible (because in many workshops, that’s our job as writers during the discussion of our work: to be all eyes and ears but remain silent). Most workshop leaders set the tone and establish guidelines for feedback, so generally, it’s a pretty safe place to be, or at least I’ve found it so. Not everyone is so lucky; see my story in the earlier Read It and Weep (Not) post about the poet who left the building.

Squirming in the Spotlight

These days, writers also participate in writing partnerships or groups online where it’s possible to gather in chat rooms, forums, or “Skype” and experience some of the same connections a “live” group has. Whether you’re in a real group or a virtual one, the first order of business for the writer receiving feedback is to be as focused as possible. Here are some tips:

  • Listen. Jot down key words or phrases, just enough to remind you later what was said. Why? Because if you’re absorbed in writing down every word, you’ll miss something important. A comment stings? Note it, move on. Don’t let it distract you. Your purpose is to learn as much as you can about what your trusted readers believe is working, what isn’t, and why.
  • Bite your tongue! Many workshop leaders will ask writers to be silent until the comments end. Then you can ask questions or re-visit comments if you need clarification. The writer’s instinct is to jump in: “But wait! That’s not what I meant!” Or “You’re completely missing the point. Didn’t you read . . .?” Bite your tongue!

Trendy, Timely Reads

Others exchange work by email, which takes away the face-to-face element but can still be productive. I swap work with a couple of writer-friends I met at workshops whose writing and work ethic I respect.

Let’s say I get a story back, marked up using Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature (which I personally like; it allows the reader to mark passages and insert comments) and/or with a summary comment of her impressions of the story. I read through it and skim the comments. I try not to “talk back”! I read it again, making my own notes. If I have more than one reader (and I advise you to, if at all possible; it’s helpful), I look for trends. If different readers point out the same issues, then I’d better have a closer look.

Whether you’re working “live” or by email, avoid the pitfalls Jack Rawlins describes in his book, The Writer’s Way. 

Don’t be defensive about your work. Deep down, don’t we want to be told the story’s wonderful, don’t change a thing? We need to ask ourselves what we want: to get the pat on the back that’s almost a dismissal, or to make our work the best it can be. We have to be open to honest feedback, or we won’t learn a thing. If additional explanation seems necessary, the story may not be clear. Often, stories are much clearer in our heads than they are on the page. There may be holes we aren’t even aware of.

Come to the writing partnership with questions. What are your issues with the work? Where are you stuck? Where do you have a gut feeling something’s not working?  Each writer will have her own issues, and those issues will change from one project to another. Get them out front.

It isn’t the reader’s job to tell you what to do (although with specific problems, she might offer suggestions); the reader’s job is to ask questions of the text and to respond to it with honest insight and knowledge of craft.

Don’t be submissiveThe submissive writer wants her readers to “fix it,” or she thinks she has to take advice that goes against her better instincts. Before deciding to follow someone’s advice, put the story away for a while. Then pull it out and ask yourself, “Do I want to do this? Would the story be better for it?” Drop your defenses, but don’t roll over and play dead. Ultimately, the work belongs to you. After careful consideration, decide for yourself which advice to heed and which to ignore.

And finally, a note about your manuscript: make it as clean and error-free as possible. You want your readers to concentrate on substance. It’s not their job to do your proofreading, and a messy manuscript distracts from the main purpose.

Reading and sharing each other’s work is indeed a partnership. At its best, it’s a collaborative effort that makes the work stronger. So be brave. Be open to the possibility for change. Put your work out there!

What are your feelings about receiving feedback? What have you learned that you’d like to pass on to writers who may not have had as much experience as you? Please add your “feedback” in the comments. Let’s continue the conversation!

It’s a Wonder-filled World

My third-born son and his daughter are off on an adventure this week. They are in New  York City to celebrate her thirteenth birthday. He decided a couple of years ago, when his oldest turned thirteen, that he would take each child (there are four of them) on an “adventure of choice” for that special birthday–just Dad and Kid. His son chose a rafting trip in Georgia and a Braves game. Pretty easy. Doable. A Guy Thing.

NYC

It’s a Wonderful Town!

When he asked his daughter back in the spring where she wanted to go for her birthday, she said, in her lovely, a-bit-melodramatic way, “Oh, Dad! I want to go to New York!” He was more than a little taken aback, I expect, but he’s worked hard to pull this trip together–a special time with a special girl who’s growing up fast. They do that, you know, these children and grandchildren. They seem to go from floor-walking  nights to terrible twos to first grade to “Where are the car keys?” overnight.

My son sent me a text message right after they landed in NYC. “She’s freaking out!” he wrote, which about says it when you’re in that city for the first time. They’ll see a play or two, take in the Metropolitan Museum, MOMA, and Central Park, Strand Books, and do some of the usual sightseeing.

Mostly, she’ll see a world that’s very, very different from hers, even though she’s spent most of her young life in Atlanta and Memphis–cities, but not cities in the sense of New York. Not colossal. Not stupendous. Not larger than life. I expect, knowing her sweet, caring nature, that she’ll be disturbed by the street people. That’s a hard dose of reality, but I hope, I pray it won’t overwhelm her wonder. Maybe it will become part of her vision of what her life can and will be, of how she can make a difference.

What a birthday! What a gift is wonder, tenuous and rare and without price.

But wonder is something we grownups often lose along the way. Disappointments, failures, loss, illness, betrayals–the big doses of reality keep our eyes to the ground, not like we’re looking up at the Manhattan skyline in amazement. I remember that feeling. I wasn’t thirteen the first time I saw the big city. I was in my twenties, but my “freaking out” was much like this child’s. Somewhere along the way, though, I forgot to keep looking up.

Re-discover Wonder!

Granddaughter Lucy at three

So here’s a tip for you, if you’re mired in child-rearing and work and housework and tending to elderly parents, if you’ve got your nose to the grindstone and don’t think you have time to look up. This applies especially to my writer friends who, regardless of age and stage, struggle to fit the writing into a “life happens” schedule.

It’s possible to re-discover wonder. You find it in the smallest things: hummingbirds hover at the feeder; something you’ve planted takes off and grows, blooms, yields fruit; music gives you goosebumps; the waves just keep on pounding the shore, timeless and immeasurable. You find it in your children (or your grandchildren), when you see reflections of yourself and their parents and your own parents, generations come together to make these remarkable individuals. You imagine their lives years from now, who and what they may become. It’s wondrous. Miraculous, really. And that’s just the real-life side of wonder.

Wonder on the Page

There’s wonder, too, when the voices come in your head and you put words on the page. When you re-create your own life experiences. When you make characters, lives, places, worlds. When you make the stuff of poetry. When you read your words aloud, new words that didn’t exist before you put them together just that way, and really hear them. Wondrous. Yes.

This child, my granddaughter, has the writer genes, for sure. She reads voraciously. She acts, she sings, she writes poetry. I encouraged her to take a journal with her on this trip. I’m hoping she’ll share some of her observations–her words–with me.

So happy birthday, Granddaughter. Life is wondrous indeed. It’s nice to be here.

Today, look up. Discover something wondrous in your world. Write about it. Read it aloud and hear your own voice. Tell me about it here.