Reflection by Mary E. Latela August 27, 2016.
The following blurb was posted on Twitter: (8/27/16, n.a.): “You must be open to criticism. You must be open to revising more times than you think you can stomach if you refuse to listen to advice and constructive feedback, you will never get better. Allison Wynn Scotch.”
Initially I thought the advice was a little tough, that opening up your essay to others might cause pain. Then I read Elizabeth Kostova’s article in P&W (9/16) about her experience in a demanding writing course taught by Peter Matthiessen at Yale…..
Student were expected to read two essays written by other students, then write their comments on the copies. Class time included mild sharing individual responses “nice job,” “maybe another edit.” Then the prof encouraged them to speak up, to dig deep, but to remain respectful. He said “I gave this speech to the other section of the class and they lit into the next story like a pack of wolves, so the writer had to be led out crying. Don’t do that.”
Writing is such a solitary activity that the bond between writer and story is very intimate. Inviting someone else to critique can be scary. The point is to listen carefully to what is said, to ask questions, then to consider the reaction afterward, with a clear mind. What was appropriate? Was there some very harsh remarks? Would the writer let anxiety define her writing, not taking chances lest the others are quite limited.
I have known writers who share their every page with a spouse. Sometimes this works, but the emotional connection can shake an already tentative relationship into chaos. The author is, after all, totally responsible for his writing, not for pleasing a good friend or winning favors from others. If everyone in your circle of colleagues is mystified by a sample of writing, this may mean: they don’t “get it” or they are confused, or they don’t care for the author very much. It’s more like seasoning a stew. Only those who will be eating need to be given the salt shaker, even for a moment.