February 2, 2016

Throughout my writing life, I’ve tried–and often failed–to maintain a balanced attitude towards my writing. Tried to read the work I’ve produced with enough detachment to make judgments about what needs doing (or perhaps it’s more apt to say “make assessments”) without getting hung up about the worth of the work.

So often in the classes I teach, I have to talk students down off the judgment ledge. “This stinks.” “This is awful.” “I hate it.” “I’m going to tear it up because it’s no good.”

I know what it’s like to have those feelings. But when I do–and when my students do–I remind them that their thoughts are just thoughts, their feelings are just feelings, and that they don’t necessarily have any truth functional value. That is, just because we say “This stinks” doesn’t mean that it does. And just because we feel “I hate it” doesn’t mean that the work in process isn’t good enough for the stage it’s at or doesn’t have the potential to become a fine work of art.

I tell my students, “Our job is to write the work, to finish the work to the best of our ability. It’s a critic’s job to evaluate the work.”

This is why I don’t do group critiquing in my classes. Because I want my students to think only in terms of their own work; I don’t want them to have to mull over several (twelve, fifteen) written judgments of how well other people think their work in progress is coming along. We each have to find our own particular, and sometimes idiosyncratic and peculiar voice, and this takes time, time best spent without listening to others’ opinions which can derail us. As I tell my students, what would a critiquing session sound like with William Faulkner sitting next to Ernest Hemingway sitting next to Virginia Woolf. Can you imagine it? “Your sentences are too long.” “Your sentences are too short.” “Why are you telling the story from so many points of view? Stick to just one!”

The problem with all this is that it’s judging a work way before a work is completed, way before the writer has found her/his voice for the work or even learned what the work is about. Many of us write really incomplete, semi-incoherent narratives while we’re in process, and we don’t figure things out until very late in the writing process. In my own work, what the work looks like two or three months before I finish often is very different from the work I complete. That’s because it takes me that long to figure out how I want to tell the narrative. And once I learn that, I work quickly.

I’ve seen many a writer–myself included–stopped dead in their tracks when someone offers criticism too soon. Or at all. My particular point of view is that we should wrestle with our work until we’re satisfied that we’re finished with it for now. When we believe that there is nothing left for us to do. Notice I don’t say we should wrestle with the work until it’s good. Just until we believe it’s finished for now, and working for the time being.

It’s important for me to maintain a certain equanimity while I write to get a book to the finish line. And there are a few behaviors I’ve adopted that help me.

1. I don’t say “My work,” I say “The work”. “The ending of the work needs some refining: maybe I need a concluding scene.” Compare this with “The ending of my chapter doesn’t work: maybe I need a concluding scene.” I learned to do this a long time ago. I read a wonderful meditation book for people with chronic illness that suggested it was better for us to say, “The arm is in a great deal of pain today” than to say “My arm is in a great deal of pain today” or to say “Anxiety is present today” rather than to say “I’m very anxious today. The first allows us some distance, some detachment that automatically makes us feel better (at least that’s true for me).

Similarly, when we say “the work” rather than “my work” we take a step back from our attachment to the work, allowing ourselves to assess what needs to be done, not judge the work.

2. Never judge our work’s merits. Just think about what needs to be done next, one small step at a time. Judging will prevent us from doing the work that needs doing. Think, instead, of the work that needs to be done: this will make us feel more powerful. It will give us an action plan. “The beginning of the work needs some tightening, I think; I’ll try it and see what happens” rather than “I hate the beginning of my chapter; I don’t know what to do.”

3. Keep our work to ourselves until we think it’s ready. Don’t hand our work around and ask other people what we should do, not unless we’ve wrestled with it work for a very long time and we’re truly stumped.

And a word about asking another writer to read our work. . . .

We must respect the fact that the reader is giving up time to do their own work to read our. Years ago, I spent a long time reading the manuscript of a friend’s memoir. She gave me guideline questions to answer as I’d asked. When I finished, I called to talk to her, whereupon the writer said that she’d changed everything already and that we didn’t need to talk. Hours of my time wasted. That was the last time I read her work.


6 Responses to “Equanimity”

  1. Kirie Says:

    This is so great, Louise, as always! I had a wonderful writing teacher when I was eighteen, the writer and professor emeritus Eugene K. Garber. I’d only shared my writing with my family before that, assembling them on the beach to hear my first short story or “submitting” my research papers to my parents, starting in seventh grade. Dad would tear it to shreds as if I was a college student, as he was, and Mom would tell me what was good about it. As I knew my parents loved me, I was grateful for this help. It helped me train to be a writer.

    But when, at eighteen, I landed in Gene’s writing seminar for the round the table critique, it didn’t work for me at all. Kindly, Gene told me after class that I could just work with him one on one. (All these years later, I still share stories with Gene!) In graduate school, during those group critiques, I would try to please everyone. This would cause migraine. For years afterward, I could barely write at all. I’d literally lost my voice. I still can’t even do a “salon” reading with peers.

  2. Hannah Says:

    This post felt profoundly life-affirming, as so many of yours do. Thank you.

  3. I love this post and thank you for it. And yet, group critique is a common feature of the majority of writing classes. So how does it work in your classes? Are you the only reader for your students? Do they work alone for most of the semester? I’m curious.

    • writingalife Says:

      Each class, we go around the room and discuss the challenges in our work. I encourage the students to be as specific or as general as they choose to be. If students are writing about profoundly difficult subjects, for example, they might choose to be silent about the subject of their work. As we go round the room, we discuss process. I teach them what I know about challenges when we begin, when we are trying to establish a draft, when we deepen, when we finish the work. I invite students to work with rather than against the process. We also examine memoirs–I often use works that have been published by my former students to let current ones know it’s possible to publish work begun in my class–to look at, for example, how to deal with time, place. We do a lot of in class writing, not from prompts, because I believe that the writing has to bear relevance to the students work, but based on what we’re learning about form. For example, I’ll ask them to go through their work and mark every time they indicate when an event is taking place. Then use some time to be more specific so a reader knows when what’s happening is happening. We use classes to discuss the structure of their works (near the end of the class) and they often work one on one or with chosen writing partners. (I discuss how I work with mine in my book “The Art of Slow Writing.” But students don’t hear or see each other’s work until we have a reading at the end of class. And then if they choose, they can read the whole thing.

      I ask students to submit work at intervals throughout the semester, not to critique it, but to ensure they’re working. I ask them to ask me questions they want answered. Mostly I respond by saying what I’d like to hear more about. What I found interesting. And then at the end of the semester, I write a full critique based upon the criteria for a memoir that we’ve established in class (such as: the reader knows when and where the events are occurring).

      Using this method, my students always write profoundly important work. I promise them at the beginning of class that if they don’t write the best work they’ve ever written using my method, I’ll pay them back for the course. So far no one has asked me to do that because their work is that profound.

  4. I thank you for your response and find it absolutely fascinating! I’m a retired college prof, taught college writing for decades, everything from the intro course to nonfiction, tech wrt etc etc. Anyway, I regularly used group critique. It was the “thing” to do. Then something really odd happened after a sad event in my life. My mother became ill and for months I took care of her, right up to the moment she died. During that time, I continued working and kept up my journal wrt as best I could, the place where my truest feelings of sadness and anger came out. About a semester after she died, I began thinking about the force of all that private writing, writing that no one else had seen. And I kept thinking that if students were “free” to do the same thing in class, what difference would it make? So I created a course on writing and creativity where we read a bunch of stuff on the creative act, wrote publicly, but all the while students kept a semester-long “hidden writing” project. The only thing they had to do was let me know in periodic “updates” how it was going. Then, at the end of the semester, they turned the whole thing into something they could share. This isn’t exactly what you’re talking about, I guess, but it became a powerful way for students to avoid all kinds of public and self-censorship and explore for themselves what they wanted to say. And lets face it, it’s what I do myself all the time – constantly going back to my “hidden” journals for reminders, ideas, quotes, etc etc. So this post, Louise, meant the world to me!!!

  5. writingalife Says:

    What a fabulous model for a writing class allowing students to experience both freedom of expression plus preparing something for an audience!

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