Monday, May 20, 2013

Mistakes, Vulnerability, and Critiques


It has been almost five months since I last posted to this blog. I feel guilty about that. I started out about a year and a half ago with high hopes of being able to create content for this to share with you, my audience, and I was doing a good job – up until I returned to school last year. It sucked my time and my energy to blog away from me and I found that regardless of my desires, I had to re-prioritize  my life to put family, school, and personal writing first before I could return to blogging. It was a hard decision and counting the cost was more challenging than I expected it to be. However I recently published an article with the Evolllution, an online newspaper on adult education (you can find that article here), and I discovered in my bio that they linked back to my blog. A blog that hadn’t been given any new content in a long time. So I return to blogging at a pace I believe I can handle. One post per week. We’ll see how that goes.

My mother and I on Graduation Day.
This mistake of judgment is one of many I’ve made in my life. I’ve often over burdened myself because I’ve thought that I need to be perfect and that a perfect person could juggle 20 different hats in their life successfully. Some of my role models can do this, but that doesn’t mean that is a standard for me to attempt to live up to. Every time I have tried I have found myself dropping priorities and attempting to clean up the mess later. I’ve been doing that for the past eight years as I have been working towards graduating from Weber State University. I recently received my Associates of Science and it began a period of reflection for me on all that I have gone through to get there. Mistakes that were necessary for me to come to know the person that I am.

I have a tendency to overburden myself in seeking my own standard of perfection. I am very expressive in person, but I tend to blunt my feelings when I speak with others about them. I have a need to remain busy all of the time. I take all the bad things that happen in my life and use them to make lemonade which I tell people I like because I enjoy lemonade, only they can’t see I didn’t make the juice with lemons but rather with my heart. You see I’m afraid to be vulnerable. It terrifies me. So instead of allowing myself to be human and feel and express emotion, I numb myself.

Growing up this was an unintentional theme in my home.
I numb myself to get rid of the messages that run inside my head like the ones to the left. Doubts plague me about being smart enough, good enough, strong enough, stable enough. Though there is one place in my life I don't suffer thoughts like these that I suspect other writers do. And that is in the world of critiques. Anyone who wants to have their work read by others and valued has to learn how to have their work critiqued by others. At first this may not sound terribly difficult, but for myself and I believe a great many other writers the act of writing is expressing one's own identity in words. You expose yourself more fully than you can in any other medium, because you don't express just what you believe, or what you like, but the very nature of the thoughts you have. And someone else is going to tell you what they think of your thoughts. Kinda scary, yes? But it doesn't have to be. Here are three tips about how to receive a critique with grace.

One: Critique often hurts.
I know a writer who it doesn't seem to matter what is said to them, they just won't change anything about their story. It didn't make much sense until one day I heard through the grapevine in our class they only got one good piece of advice for their story. This was after having spent hours on their work trying to find things to help them. And it was a workshop class of roughly twenty students and our professor. I've puzzled for months over why they couldn't accept what was said. And it boils down to the fact that they were not willing to be vulnerable about their writing. And if a writer cannot be vulnerable they cannot grow nor can anyone help them to grow.

Anyone who spends weeks or months on a writing project, dreaming up things to make their fiction or poetry thought provoking, laugh worthy, or emotional has every right to be vulnerable about what they wrote. Personally I look at it like this, the more red that a critiquer can put on my story and still be invested in the world and learning more about it, the better of a job I've done. All the markings can be symbolic of the work I've put into my story. And by allowing another to invest in your world they can point out the things that you can't see while you are inside it. It may hurt like exercise does, but once you allow yourself to get used to it your writing will get stronger just like your body would.

Two: The critiquer doesn't know all you know.
This is how I felt that day, but less elegant.
Story time. So I had my critique group over one day and we were going over one of our members stories. I opened with the critique on this specific story. And I just tore into it, I saw so many things on the story level that just didn't make sense to me. Like why would a fortune teller allow someone close enough to have somebody watch what they were telling someone. Or why would a girl allow a guy to take her to an abandoned building to have sex. And it was strange because this was a person who I typically enjoy their writing. I just went at them honestly about how I felt about the work. At the end of my rant my group decided to inform me that the story wasn't fiction. It was nonfiction about the author. I wanted to crawl under the table and then out of the room. At that point all of my critique held no water. My points may have had validity for a different story, but not for that one.

Remember the critiquer doesn't know all you know about your story. If what they say resonates with you and points you towards crafting a better story note it. If it doesn't resonate with what you are trying to write or causes you to feel less excited about your story, it probably isn't right. And if what they say makes you angry note it especially, because often these are the things you need to sleep on to find out if they resonate or not.

Three: Listen and ask questions.
Critique is a unique time in the telling of a story. It is based on it that you are going to develop your next story. Listen for everything that you can. For this purpose some people only critique in person and they actually read the entire piece aloud. You get to hear peoples first hand reactions to reading your work then. That information is crucial to you crafting the story you want to tell.

Don't be afraid to ask your critiquer to get specific about what things they are having trouble understanding. If they say they can see a problem somewhere ask them why they feel that way. Require them to express their emotions about what they are feeling when you are writing. This allows you to know what you are guiding people towards emotionally. Writing fiction is all about what the reader feels as they read and if you don't know what they are feeling you can't create the emotional experience. Your vulnerability in writing is what creates their experience.

I'm at a place in my life where I have tried to stop numbing, but it is hard. It frightens me often and I try to open up to my wife and my friends what I am feeling. Often they help me to identify what is really going on inside of me and that is what I attempt to put into my writing. Having people you can trust with your vulnerability is a precious thing and shouldn't be taken lightly. This journey we call writing can take us through the storms of our own vulnerability and teach us that strength is not found in the numbing, but rather in opening up and allowing others in. But only if we let it.

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