Saying Yes to It: Responding to Critique

handwriting“Never allow a person to tell you no who doesn’t have the power to say  yes.” — Eleanor Roosevelt

” . .  . you write a book and while you write it you are ashamed for every one must think you a silly or a crazy one and yet you write it and you are ashamed, you know you will be laughed at or pitied by every one and you have a queer feeling and you are not very certain and you go on writing. Then someone says yes to it, to something you are liking, or doing or making and then never again can you have completely such a feeling of being afraid and ashamed that you had then when you were writing or liking the thing and not any one had said yes about the thing.” — Gertrude Stein

A client writes:

“I’ve struggled all week trying to modify/open/deepen/clarify/intensify [these] chapters. I agree that they would benefit from it. Yet every time I try, I wind up being didactic, expository, redundant. Never organic. Never fresh. Never vital.

“This is not a new phenomenon…I’ve always had a tough time acting on critiques. In fact the only time I’ve been able to modify my work is when it’s being published or produced and I’m dealing directly with the editor or director and even then the changes are usually pretty minor.

“It seems my writing is like a jigsaw puzzle and if I pull out a piece I just keep looking for something the same shape to fill the space. And go slightly crazy while I’m looking for it.  So this is really my own process dilemma. I’m in a bit of a quandary…

“Any helpful hints about how  to  better utilize a critique would be greatly appreciated.”

One of the most important ways to support yourself as a writer is to understand yourself, your way of working, and to support that way of working. Critique is a complicated animal. If it comes too early, it is often just a way of teaching a writer basic technique: how to turn ideas into action, summary into scene, how to cut what’s not dramatic and raise the stakes on what is. If it comes in too vulnerable a moment, a writer, anxious to please, may make changes in reaction, in fear.

In order to be helpful, critique must be absorbed. What is unhelpful must be disregarded, and a writer does well to build up a strong instinct for what must be disregarded. What remains, then, is an arrow, pointing to a hidden door in the text that needs to be opened, or a hidden wall that needs to be removed.

This kind of critique must be put in conversation with the storytelling instinct, processed until something vital and fresh emerges. This goes beyond response.

If one of my basic writing rules is “whatever works,” another is, “doubt efficiency.” Anything that seems easier or appears to be a short cut will inevitably frustrate, impose, divert. Instead, you must meditate, absorb, integrate and finally return to the creative state and see what emerges.

One final note: we rarely know if what we are writing is good or significant while we are writing it or shortly after. The voice that judges the work is not that of our deep reader self but the anxious harping of some face concerned about the public eye. So you will not know right away if the changes you are making work. That, too, will take time, will take absorption, will lack efficiency.

Breathe into it. You are writing, and that’s the point.

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  1. Oh, how I needed this incredibly sane and thoughtful entry, Elizabeth! I’m poised at a midway point in my novel ms., wondering if I’m crazy or foolish, wondering if any of it will come right and become a STORY someone would like to read one day. . . and I look ahead and start doubting my instincts for how the story will / could unfold. I LOVE that Stein passage! and I love your phrase “doubt efficiency.” In this world where even writers sometimes appear to be in some crazy Alice in Wonderland race, or some Olympics sports event, it’s so reassuring and energizing to hear that one should “doubt efficiency.” Thank you.

  2. so simple and cogent and true, Elizabeth. I’m just finishing a book and dread starting the stupid-phase. I aso agree that the pace and timing of absorption has everything to do with how it works. It’s amost as though a writer must have a process for understandng process. Thank you for this.

    • Harriet and Thaisa–Thank you for your comments! I am honored to have two such great writers reading my blog, let alone benefiting from it! Harriet, yes, it’s a funny upside-down world but over and over I hear writers wanting to come up with a process that is more efficient than the one they have that works. Yes, Thaisa, a “process for understanding process” because it’s not supported by the usual concepts of work. For example, day dreaming and looking away from the project are two vital elements in writing that probably don’t fly in the corporate world!

  3. Yes, thanks, Elizabeth, for sparking our Facebook discussion with your blog! I thought I’d crosspost here for those who aren’t part of that discussion.

    As you say, daydreaming and looking away are vital elements, and it’s so important that we recognize and honor them. I had to step away from a critique of my current novel entirely–really remove myself from the work for a couple of months. I’ll admit to having more than a few moments of doubt. Was this valid daydreaming? Trusting my subconscious to do its work? Or was it work avoidance? But then, after weeks and weeks of not actively thinking about or working on the novel, I sat up in bed one 3am with a string of ideas to scribble into my journal, and here I am, revising away. Gah, it’s hard work–I wouldn’t mind a little of that short-cut efficiency right about now!

    I’m going to take the final section of Elizabeth’s comments to heart and not judge whether it’s working or not until I’m through and have let it steep for a bit. Then I’m going to think about the first bit – about the power of YES!

  4. Elizabeth —

    Thank you for this beautiful entry! The tricky thing is that since writing is usually hard (every so often it’s easy, tricking us so that we’re like the narrator of Denis Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” — “I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere”), it’s difficult to tell when it’s justifiably hard and needs to be hard and when we’re making it hard because we’re on some wrong track and the inner mechanism is locking up accordingly.

    Sometimes a critique helps us figure out where the lockup (or lockdown?) is coming from, and we’re excited to get moving again. But then sometimes the critique just reinforces the self-doubt, at least until we find our own way to incorporate it. (Again, are we just being stubborn or is the critique — though undoubtedly right — off-track for what we’re trying to do?) I’m always aware of this as a teacher, and keep reminding people that I’m often wrong and that they’re the world’s expert on their own work. Though sometimes it doesn’t feel that way to them (or to me when I’m writing).


    • Sarah–This is the bind, exactly, but very few sources are reminding us that we might know, that we can trust ourselves, and that time is often the ingredient required to know whether it’s just hard or locked up. Gentle forward motion until we detect that that is, in fact, a full stop wall before us and not a difficult moment . . . I heard Denis Johnson say that he’d written “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” as a poem and had even sold the poem to (or placed the poem at) a magazine, when he realized that it was a short story and had to withdraw it from publication! So his example is particularly useful to us. Thanks for adding your wonderful insights.



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