‘He needs approval of his work by others in order to be reassured that the vision of life he believes he has had is a true vision and not a self-delusion, but he can only be reassured by those whose judgment he respects.’ WH Auden in “Writing”
I’m not very prolific when it comes to submissions. Most of my submissions have been half-baked ideas or revisions sent before their time. Thanks to two years of living in Peru, life has slowed to a glacial pace. which makes for interesting lessons in patience. It also gives me a lot of time working on my writing. I do more revising than ever. My latest piece, for instance, was an exercise in what Lynn Emanuel, author of Then, Suddenly, calls literary fluency.
“(Mistakes) are a kind of rupture, and out of that rupture can grow all kinds of interesting things,” she said on Vernon Lott’s documentary Bad Writing. “They are the sign of something… of an ambition that you have…or a way of writing that you want to move into that you haven’t yet. Sometimes they are a kind of critique of your own fluency.”
Moving into that kind of writing first requires courage. For me that meant asking a new fiction-writer friend and Pushcart Prize nominee, whom I’ll call MR, to look at a draft over the holidays. That allowed me the pretense of patience, if not the ability to gain some distance from the piece. When the last shreds of confetti and fireworks wrappings were swept away, I read MR’s critique. There was a change of diction here. A compliment there: “You have a clear vision for this piece, and the prose is solid.” Then the constructive part came: “(I)t reads like an excerpt, and not a stand-alone.” He suggested a solution to the piece’s greatest problem: Change from a double to a single narrative arc. He was spot on. I was thrilled. Especially because he offered a look at a later draft.
Fueled by desire to see the thing published, I set out to work revising it. Slash. Dash. Tighten. Tweak. I implemented his changes and sent it back to him. I felt proud of the piece. Just like when my Spanish proved fluid enough to travel solo around Peru for 10 days. My ego wasn’t inflated for long after that trip or upon receiving MR’s second critique. My Peruvian colleagues called me out on my hubris, pushing me into uncomfortable territory with phrases and verb tenses. MR revealed that I wasn’t so fluent in writing either.
“There’s too much back-story and exposition. The story posits more questions than it has time to address… Tone down the exposition and let your eye for description and sense of place guide the narrative. The protagonist’s guilt is poignant and complicated, and deserves more attention,” he wrote.
Who's Story Is It?
My heart plummeted. MR’s red and green edit marks burned into my head. Bloody hell, I thought, that’s not a critique; that’s the work of Edward Scissorhands. Is this my work or is he turning it into his own? Was it the genre difference, was it my feminine voice, was he just high on himself for having been published in enviable places? Irritation skewered my concentration. I just wanted to bandage my piece back together and shove it into editors’ hands, see the damn thing published. Instead I sought refuge in cyberspace.
Fellow writers told me when to stop listening to critiques and start listening to my instinct. A humorous piece on revision addiction and another on beta readers distracted my fingers from fumbling with my piece’s structure and characters, narrative arc and tone. In Bad Writing comic writer David Nadelberg slowed my spinning mind. “It’s not about ‘Do you care enough about an idea to write it?’ It’s about ‘Do you care enough about it to rewrite it?’”
Hold on. Rewrite. Do I care enough to rewrite it? That brought everything back round. I had asked for MR’s input. I had yearned for that level of input. Wasn’t that what I needed in order to forge head?
Still My Story
I sat back from my computer. Listened to the voice whispering within to check my patience. I’d practice patience then. Take the weekend off and gain yet more distance from the piece.
Monday rolled around and so did another look at MR’s second critique. This time I saw that he hadn’t shredded my piece. He had acted like a bonsai master. I implemented most of his suggested changes— and made new discoveries of my own. I polished that draft until it spoke. It may not earn me a Pushcart, but it’s fluent enough to comfortably travel into an editor’s hands.
Nichole L. Reber is likely taking a break from writing by watching a baseball game as you read this. Talk with her about nonfiction via Twitter, chat about publishing on Facebook, or read about her travels on her blog.
Follow Not Bob on Twitter @robertleebrewer
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