The Hard True Things

This is me.

Okay, so it’s actually Jennifer Aniston explaining the Gracious Loser Face, but basically, this is also a way more svelte and professionally-groomed version of my Receiving a Critique Face.

First comes the moment of shock and horror. OMIGOSH, they found something wrong with it! They HATED it!! It’s not perfect!! It SUCKS!! OH, SWEET HEAVEN, I WILL DIE A FAILURE!!

But then I realize that perhaps this is not the end of the world. Perhaps this whole critique thing is actually a good thing. We writers pour so much of ourselves into our words that it’s hard to see ourselves as people, sometimes–as messy, richly flawed human beings who screw up and try again and get knocked down and get back up again and all that other tub-thumping goodness. But there’s a difference between striving for perfection, and expecting it.

Inevitably, I find that I read critiques in three phases. In Phase 1, I take the entire thing in one gulp, and all I notice is the bad stuff. Something didn’t work. Something fell flat. Something wasn’t believable. Then I have a teeny tiny nervous breakdown, certain that I am that most elusive yet terrifying beast, The Worst Writer Who Ever Lived.

Then I let the shocked face wear off, and in Phase 2, I read it again. That’s when I nod, and realize that, yes, that scene really doesn’t work, and that characterization really is off, and I can do better. This is also the phase in which I realize that there was praise in that critique, too, and that I actually may not get to lay claim to the title of Lamest American Novel–not this time, anyway.  This is the phase in which I applaud, overwhelmed with gratitude for the intelligence and insight of that wondrous creature, the Thoughtful and Generous Reader.

It took me years to become brave enough to put my writing out into the world. It’s silly, really–that’s what many of us are working towards, in trying to get published. But somehow it’s so painfully, agonizingly hard. This is an industry, after all, that seems at times to be in the business of devouring souls. It wasn’t until I got up the courage to face criticism, though, that I began to feel like a real writer–a Phase 3 writer. Because in Phase 3, the real magic happens, and the raw stuff of language and emotion is transmuted via the alchemy of revision.

So this is a shout-out to all my fellow writers, baring your souls in the trenches, and to all the people in my world who have been mighty enough to say the hard true things. Writing is magic, and while it’s largely a solitary magic in the beginning, in order to blossom from a spark to a flame, it needs to become more than one person’s endeavor.

We don’t read in a vacuum, and we don’t write in them, either. My novels are the children of my imagination, but it takes a village to raise them right. Here’s to my villagers, to all the ones who’ve helped to make sure that my books don’t grow up to be the crazy loners in the bunkers. Thank you for saying the hard true things.

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