Does Critique of Your Writing Hurt?

Yesterday my new writers group held our first session of slow torture  helpful critique. Since it was the first, members were hesitant to volunteer. I stepped up as I have pretty thick skin when it comes to my writing (or so I thought). One of my editors told me years ago she loved working with me because I was perhaps her only client who was not “married to every word.” I’ve always been open to learning how much work can be improved and never took the corrections personally. I wasn’t even sure why any writer would.

Until yesterday.

The sample I offered was an excerpt from Tales From the Family Crypt. I chose the chapter where my father dies in my house. I felt it showcased the humor, (yes, even at the death scene) poignancy and overall tone/style of the book. Group members had read the excerpt in advance and came prepared to share their feedback. It started well. The first reader said “I love Sid!” Sid is my dad and from the little bit she read, she was enamored with his peculiar and spectacular character. As he’s been dead for 20 years it was lovely for me to know he still had it and I succeeded in painting a compelling picture of him. So that made me feel warm and fuzzy.

Two more members spoke and praised the work overall. Said they completely enjoyed the excerpt and wanted to read more. (I gave them copies of the book on the spot!)

The next reader basically said he questioned the narrator’s (aka me) motivation for being, well… somewhat bitchy in telling this story of family dysfunction in the first place. He said he wonders about anyone who tells a story in which the narrator is sane and everyone else is crazy. I responded I understood his point and perhaps if he had been able to read the entire book he wouldn’t have felt the same way. That’s the difficulty in working only with an excerpt and not a complete work, I suggested. But, then I had to ask, “But what if the narrator (aka me) IS the only sane person in the group?”  I mean I had no control over what the siblings in this story did. It’s nonfiction.

The next person was complimentary about my writing. She said she loved the way I wrote; my style is easy to read and wonderfully descriptive. She asked a plot-related question I attempted to answer graciously. She added she thought I could have developed the death scene in more depth. I agreed to look at it again.

Here’s the thing, I thanked each speaker for the feedback and I thought I was accepting all criticism gracefully.

But then the group moderator suggested I stop being defensive and perhaps wait until all the members had spoken before I responded.

What? I was defensive? I thought I was just responsive. So I’m left wondering what happened to my thick skin? Have I become married to every word? Or is writing a memoir a whole different animal from what I’ve written before — parenting books and children’s books?

How do you handle critique?

Running, Mediation and Writing

This morning I ran a few miles outside for the first time in many months. Running time has often been meditational for me and today was no different. While I try to quiet my mind what usually happens is thoughts that must push their way through the quiet do so and interrupt my meditation. When that happens, I’ve learned to go with it and investigate the thoughts in order to let go of them.

That’s when I had the epiphany. Writing is a meditational process and much the same way as in meditating, you may be writing or attempting to write one thing but other thoughts keep pushing through. There’s a reason they push through; they demand to be investigated.

Years ago I set out to write a piece about my dad who had just died. I meant to write a loving tribute to a wonderful man with a beautiful soul. But here I am, many years later and that same piece of writing morphed into a full memoir about family. I didn’t mean for it to do so, I just couldn’t keep those thoughts, the concept of a family’s big picture dysfunction, from creeping in. I had to investigate them. So I did and before I knew it, it was a book.

And now I can let it go. And pick up where I left off. Back to meditating and musing on love.

If you find yourself writing and thoughts keep crashing in, maybe you are writing about something which needs to be tabled so that you can focus on what keeps bubbling up to the top of your mind. Then, let it go.

Is Memoir An Indulgence?

I wrote my reply to the commenter who said, “Memoir is a challenging genre.” I agreed wholeheartedly and added my thought that memoir is an indulgence. To indulge means to yield or to gratify a desire. Its connotation often indicates participating in an activity that isn’t necessarily good for you but is pleasurable. You indulge in eating chocolate or drinking wine or even in gossiping. You do it because you want to, not because it’s good for you.

I think memoir writers like me indulge in some way. Or, perhaps I should speak only for me. I indulged; I satisfied my urge to tell the story of my extended family as I experienced it. Perhaps telling the story wasn’t a good thing, it hurts some of the family members to have this truth out there in the world. But it felt good.

So, did I indulge? I think so. Do all memoirists do so? What do you think?