Monday, January 2, 2012

Tell Me What You *Really* Think

At my most recent writers' group meeting, I had a chance to see my main character through the eyes of other writers. This, you might say, is what writers' groups are all about. You get a bunch of writers together, pour them coffee, and then hand them a piece of your soul and ask them to chew it up and spit it back at you. Couched in kindness and good intentions, of course. 

I have never been good at taking criticism, regardless of how constructive it is. When I was young, I always talked a blue streak, perhaps with the unconscious goal of not giving anyone a chance to censure me. My uncle used to joke about it, and now I see the same trait in my son. But when I started writing, I learned to talk less and listen more. I actually took a class that taught me how to sit back and listen to critiques of my work without interrupting, defending myself or explaining my motives. I'm shocked I passed.

To get around this uncomfortable but necessary aspect of learning to write well, I tended to lean toward poetry and non-fiction. It sounds strange, I know. But when writing poetry, you are forced to distill your message and emotions to their bare bones. Interpretation is often necessary and personal to the reader, and the formulas of tempo, alliteration and line counts can actually help me detach myself from what I'm writing. The words I choose must have heft and clarity and get the job done. Non-fiction, on the other hand, is just that: facts. Verifiable, indisputable facts laid out in articulate and hopefully lyrical form: no critique necessary. It's either right or it's wrong.

Maybe this is why workshopping fiction pieces is so tough for me. My novel contains characters I've created, coddled and cared for over several months. They are close to my heart, warts and all. But they must be put on display and evaluated, judged objectively by others. And it hurts me to hear them dubbed cranky, inept and even 'too perfect' even though I know they are. It's as if they were my own children.

Thankfully, this means I am on the right track to writing a novel. I've created characters I care about (perhaps a little too much), who are human and make mistakes, and who need room to grow. The best advice anyone ever gave me about writing a novel was this: let your characters make bad decisions. You can imagine how hard this was at first. I didn't want my characters to get hurt, hurt others or make fools of themselves. But until I started letting them make bad decisions, my novel was very dull because nothing was happening.

Being able to detach yourself may work for some forms of writing, but I understand now that for fiction to truly take flight, it must be messy, ugly and full of the stuff of real life. So I can't let myself shut people down when they criticize my characters. No parent wants to be told they are doing a bad job. But every good writer needs to learn to take criticism, even when it's about their characters. How else would my characters--or I as a writer--ever grow?

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