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