A few years ago I stumbled upon an article and related Vimeo produced by Ira Glass, the host and producer of PRI’s This American Life. What he said so accurately reflected my personal writing experience that I’ve never forgotten it. In fact, his words revolutionized my thinking about the creative process:
“What nobody tells people who are beginners—and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit.”
Every writer begins with a gap between taste and skill. The question is, how can we push past the gap and emerge relatively unscathed? The answer is *gulp* constructive criticism.
Okay—I see you wincing. You probably remember (as I do) your mother calling you out on some childish behavior and saying, “I’m telling you this for your own good, you know. It’s constructive criticism.”
Our mothers were right.
Winston Churchill, who weathered a storm of criticism, put it this way: “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”
The problem is, we avoid pain. We crave encouragement and praise. We need that, too, but a necessary part of the process of writing a first novel is learning how to take (and use) criticism—what writers euphemistically call feedback. This summer I had the privilege of providing feedback on the work of two unpublished mystery writers, one through the MWA Midwest’s Hugh Holton program, and the other through Guppies’ Fantasy Agent Project. In both cases the experience was a joy because my authors combined great stories with solid writing skills. Providing authentic and enthusiastic encouragement came easy, and I hope my suggestions for improvement were helpful.
During the process, I thought about feedback I’d received early on in my journey to publication. Painful? Yes. Helpful and Encouraging? Sometimes. This week on Miss Demeanors I’ll be blogging about pre-publication feedback in its many forms—manuscript swaps, critique groups, beta readers, independent editors, online writing classes. What works. What doesn’t.
Every author needs feedback. No writer can see his or her own work with an objective eye. The key is bridging the gap between taste and skill without giving up.
What kinds of feedback have you received—or given—in your writing journey? Was it helpful? Hurtful? How are you dealing with the unavoidable skill gap in your work?