It’s common in this day and age to view writing as something anyone can do, and do well, with a modicum of effort. The number of memoirs from first-time writers is at an all-time high in the submission buckets of publishing houses everywhere. Self-publishers and the American ideal of democratic accomplishment encourage the hobbyists: don’t let the elitists convince you that writing is hard– prove them wrong! Well, I’m going to take an unpopular stance here and say only a small fraction of those who write are writers and only a fraction of writers write well.
I think anyone can learn to write, don’t get me wrong, but I think only a small number of people is willing to do the learning. Learning, unfortunately, involves thinking critically about what’s on a page. Learning means feeling and being vulnerable. Learning is hearing that a scene has failed to mean anything to a reader; learning is missing the mark completely on a verb and having no clue how to fix the problem. It’s hard. Writers invest little bits of themselves in whatever they produce– to say nothing of the time, effort, and patience it takes to put all those words to paper in the first place. It’s a doomed writer, however, who believes that this personal investment imbues a draft with artistic value, or to an audience, any value at all. First drafts have little to do with art; first drafts are the outline of art. The real art happens in revision, in the judicious application of criticism.
We’ve all seen the new writer who hasn’t yet come to understand what a boon criticism is to his or her draft. They huddle in corners of peer review groups, lips trembling, clutching at copies of their draft and refusing to let go. They shove unedited first drafts into your submission buckets with a cocky, “YOU’RE WELCOME, EDITOR,” and call you a bitch when you send the rejection letter two weeks later. They don’t care what anyone thinks, because they just know they’ve done it right, and if someone doesn’t get it, well, that’s not their fault.
Accepting criticism, learning that it’s given in an effort to help you hone your craft and connect with your audience, is just the first step. The second is learning what criticism to apply and when. I have many dear friends who, in my humble opinion, write on a level I’m unlikely to equal. One of them posts frequently on Persephone Magazine. What I admire about this friend is not just her ability to sit back and accept criticism, but also her ability to decline– politely– to use it. There’s not a scrap of arrogance in that decision for her; she weighs each criticism, maybe even toys with her draft to see if it fits, but ultimately, she thinks critically about the effect upon her draft as a whole and makes the final call accordingly. I’ve known this friend for years and have seen her writing improve in direct relationship with her ability to accept and use criticism.
A writer must consider many variables when weighing criticism: will this suggested change alter the voice of the piece; is the criticism a difference of opinion or an actual flaw; does this suggested change make the meaning clearer to the reader? Simply nodding your head and doing everything someone suggests isn’t good enough, because you hold the power and the responsibility, you get to take all the credit and all the blame. Using criticism means not just hearing it, but dissecting it, thinking critically about it, absorbing and exposing oneself to it. If it were easy, everyone would produce Works of Awesome.
But for the writer who knows better, criticism is a means of comfort, a path to healthy pride in the product of a great labor. Honing a tool is an inherently violent process– cutting, pressing, pushing– but a dull tool does nothing for its bearer.
Do you remember the first time you submitted a piece of writing to criticism?