I made a big mistake a few weeks ago in my approach to a piece of writing critique. I am always honored when asked to read something and offer my thoughts. My goal is not only to help the writer say what they want in the best way, but to leave them feeling encouraged. In this instance, the result was opposite of what I intended and it’s because I didn’t consider closely enough the situation of the person asking for my input.
I’ve been involved in creative writing groups for a couple of decades, both giving and receiving critique. The groups I’m in now consist of members who really do root for each other and offer great support. But that support is underpinned by certain mutual understandings, including the fact that we all realize your creative baby is your baby. When I return a piece of writing with a bevy of comments, I’m in no way saying I believe the author should adopt every one of them. It’s much more in the spirit of, “Here are some things to consider. Based on your own intention and creative vision, I’m sure you’ll know which of my suggestions will work for you and which to ignore.”
Here’s a common request from my creative writing buddies: “I’m way over the word count limit I need to meet. Please help me find places I can trim.” I’ve sent this plea out myself. When given this focus, I look for every possible opportunity to discard words and offer up my list as a sort of restaurant menu. Here are options I can offer. Choose what you want.
When a friend who doesn’t do a lot of creative writing, much less participate in critique groups, asked me to look over a speech she needed to give because it was longer than allowed, I took my usual approach, giving her as many options as possible so she could figure out which ones worked best for her. It turns out I needed someone to critique my critique method. I should have thought more about her lack of experience with receiving this kind of feedback. I hurt her feelings because she took the large number of comments as an indication that I thought her writing was truly terrible. In fact, I thought it was a great speech and wished she could give the whole thing. I was only trying to help her fit it into the allotted time.
I missed the most important element of constructive criticism, which is a close look at the person on the receiving end. In hindsight, I see I could have taken the time to explain beforehand what I’ve said here, that my suggestion were for changes I thought she could make, not necessarily changes she should make. Saying it right up front would have given her a lens with which to view my comments the way I intended them. Trying to deliver this information later wasn’t the same. It sounded like backpedaling. She couldn’t unsee what had already imprinted itself on her mind.
Hurting feelings is my least favorite thing in the world to do. I will fret over this longer than she will, I’m sure. But I learned an important lesson that I hope will help the next person who asks for my feedback on their writing.
I see I haven’t checked in here for a while. I’ve been a little busy helping to organize a union and reading The Count of Monte Cristo, both of which turned out to be huge time commitments. The two efforts came to fruition within a couple of days of each other. Saturday I finished Alexandre Dumas’ 117-chapter epic tale, and on Monday the state of Missouri announced the results of our union election, which we won with 65% yes votes.
Both efforts held surprises for me. Union organizing — gaining big new insights into people I thought I knew. I saw aspects and layers previously hidden to me, most of them good and inspiring, with a small handful of disappointments. The number of hours spent looking at spreadsheets was not something I had anticipated. And I didn’t do nearly as much of the work as some of my colleagues, bless them. Count of Monte Cristo — a lot more drug use than I expected. The psychedelic 1970s had nothing on the 1800s, it seems. There were some truly trippy scenes. Ease up on the hashish, there. Also, a young, early nineteenth century female character who wished to avoid marriage and live independently.
Of course, I was also working both of my paying jobs during this time. So all of this labor movement activity and classics reading led to late nights, with Zoom meetings followed by just another chapter or two. I honestly don’t know how anyone ever runs for office. The stress of campaign-type activities nearly did this introvert in. Often, after yet another meeting, followed by phone calls (shudder) I’d promised to make, or an elaborately-arranged meeting with someone who wanted to sign a union card without being seen to do so, I found myself with an actual need to lose myself in the drama and tension of a fictional character’s story. It was somehow cathartic to transfer the intensity of my feelings into the life and perils and plots of Edmond Dantes, wrongly imprisoned, losing everyone and everything he loved, seeking revenge but unexpectedly finding his heart warring with itself in his resolve.
I’m a different person than I was at the beginning of 2022. This has been the year I determined to pursue some long overdue goals – getting a seat at the table in my workplace and finally pulling The Count from it’s decades-long spot on my to-be-read list. I’m a union woman now, and someone who can speak with knowledge about a Dumas classic.
We’ve won our election, but there’s still organizing to do around electing officers, contract negotiations, etc. And there are enough literary gaps in my world to spend a lifetime filling them. But I might take a breath or two and enjoy some lighter pursuits before plunging myself into the next intense adventure.
Spotted on my walk home from work. Umm…that’s my street. I should be okay on foot, though. Right?
I checked our city’s website after seeing this and determined it is, in fact, my very block that is slated to be under construction. Maybe someone could have told us in a more direct way? At least we know now. And it will be nice when the potholes are gone!