Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Working with a Writing Mentor, Part 4: When Do I Get to Stop Paying Attention to Comments on My Writing?

Do you have to pay attention to the comments of others for your entire career as a writer? Doesn’t there come a point where you can actually edit your own work without any help? Hey, I hate to be the one to break the news to you, but almost all the good writers I know rely heavily on friends, editors, agents, and/or family members for critiques of their work.
Look in the acknowledgments of any book you enjoy, and you’ll see that writing is not a solo Lindbergh flight across a vast ocean. Here’s a quote from the acknowledgments of the David E. Hoffman’s book The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, which won the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction in 2010: “Four gifted colleagues at the [Washington] Post provided years of inspiration as well as valuable comments on the book…To my wife, Carole, who read the entire manuscript many times over…profound appreciation for loving support…” Sandra Cisneros, in the acknowledgments for her novel Caramelo says, “A writer is only as good as her editors.”
You do get to the point in your literary career where you have received the same comment enough times that you can remind yourself of that thought, and apply it to your own writing. You make progress as a writer as you internalize only the most astute and useful comments of your mentors and your peers.
I had the amazing good fortune to have as my mentor in college and in graduate school the poet June Jordan. June died in 2002, but I still feel her looking over my shoulder when I write, making her comments, applying her high standards. June always wanted to know if I had used the freshest possible language in what I was writing, without exception. Did I include and speak with respect about those whose concerns are rarely heard? Did I actually excite and challenge the reader? Is the writing sexy? I also remember the praise that she gave me, the very first time I met with her in 1975, when I was an undergraduate at Yale University and she listened so attentively to the poem she made me read aloud to her during her office hours. She squinted at me with that quizzical look she had, with a twitch in one eye, but also with an amused curve to her lips. Don’t forget the praise you’ve gotten from your mentors, either.
To sum up this series of blogs on how to deal with comments from others on our work: I see so many writers, especially newer writers, just shut out most criticism. They assume it’s going to dilute the purity of their personal artistic vision. They fear it will tear apart their new literary identity. But to refuse to listen to the best comments of others, or to listen to them and then basically disregard or forget them, is to doom yourself to the ranks of amateur writers who will never be able to bring their projects to the level of fine art. There’s nothing wrong with being an amateur writer, but I don’t think a single person reading this has that ambition in mind.


Other recent posts about writing topics:
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5

Friday, January 27, 2012

Working with a Writing Mentor, Part 3: When Should You Trust Your Mentor?

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The one person whose advice you should listen to absolutely without question is your mentor. Now, just by coincidence, I happen to be a mentor. Mentor is a word that comes from ancient Greek and means someone who has made endless mistakes over an entire lifetime. I’m joking, but it is true that over the course of decades in the arts, a mentor has made almost every possible error that a writer can make.
The reason this is good news for you, is that your mentor can perhaps prevent you from repeating some of those mistakes yourself.
In reality, the goddess Minerva in Homer’s Odyssey took the form of the character named Mentor to guide Telemachus in how to deal with those pesky suitors, who were hitting on his mom, Penelope.
Sometimes you don’t understand why your mentor is recommending certain changes in your work. Feel free to ask if you don’t see why your mentor is suggesting something. But at some point, if you are a creative writing student or a new writer, you sometimes have to take it on faith that your mentor is guiding you in the right direction. As the words of the spiritual go, We will understand it better, by and by.
That isn’t to say that you should follow your mentor without question. You should be particularly attentive to your mentor’s blind spots, and the places where your mentor’s aesthetic may not coincide with our own. Your mentor could be from an older generation. Things that make sense to your generation might seem odd to your mentor. Your mentor may be of a different background in terms of class, race, gender, sexuality, etc., and that might create areas of aesthetic disconnect.
That doesn’t mean your mentor’s advice is wrong, but it might mean that you have an area where your taste does not overlap. In those areas, just politely agree to disagree with your mentor’s opinions. But make sure you’re not doing that out of laziness about questioning your own assumptions or naiveté. 


Other recent posts about writing topics:
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Working with a Writing Mentor Part 2: Why It’s Difficult to Take Criticism of Your Writing

I understand how hard it is to absorb criticism in a world that is often indifferent to, hostile to, or resentful of your work as a writer. There are so many coworkers, relatives, and failed-writer English teachers who seem to feel it is their purpose in life to distance you from your creative self. To defend yourself from those who advise you against your creativity, you may sometimes build a bunker that you retreat into when you hear criticism.

Let me give you an example of how that sort of bunker can sometimes work to defeat you. When I was a much younger writer, I had the good fortune to have a book accepted by a great editor at a major press. I had written a poem called “Oranges” about the many people and languages that went into growing and bringing to market a single orange. The celebrated children’s author Marilyn Sachs advised me to edit the poem and send it out as the text of a picture book. I did, and to my amazement, it was accepted by Richard Jackson, who then had his own imprint at Orchard Books. If you’re a book editor at a major press, having your own imprint is like getting on Top Chef if you’re a cook. Dick Jackson had edited many writers who had written much better and more successfully for children than I had, including Judy Blume.
I first met with Dick Jackson in his office high up in a Manhattan skyscraper, with a view of expensive water. I was armed with all my defenses about what it meant to deal with a major press. I was sure he was going to try to censor the political content of my text. I also had in mind a politically correct poster artist I wanted to do the illustrations. Of course that artist had never illustrated a children’s book in his life. Dick Jackson politely informed me that he already had an illustrator in mind, a fantastic artist named Mary Szilagyi who, it turned out, was infinitely better known in the world of children’s books than I was. This was an incredible advantage for a novice writer, since it would bring the book to the attention of reviewers. I didn’t realize that at the time, though, so I resented that Dick Jackson didn’t take my naive suggestion about choosing an illustrator. My dander was up even higher at this point in our meeting.
Then Dick Jackson asked me to change a line that appeared many times in the poem. With each new person who helped to grow or ship or market this orange, I had added a line about the language that the person spoke: “Probably he spoke Spanish,” “Probably she spoke Creole,” etc. My aim was to show the multicultural sources of even the most familiar object. Dick suggested I change that repeating phrase to “Maybe he spoke Spanish,” etc. How did I know, after all, what language a certain individual spoke, and wasn’t that a bit stereotypical to assume that a farm worker spoke Spanish? Immediately I got defensive and retreated into my tortoise shell. No, I wasn’t going to let the multinational publishing industry tell me how to write poetry. I stood my ground and refused, despite his entreaties. How much I regret now not listening to him—the book was printed with the line as I wrote it, and it has never been reprinted as a children’s book since that first year, when it did sell quite well, thanks in large part to Mary Szilagyi’s wonderful illustrations.
My point is that you may assume that someone who is criticizing your work is against you, when in reality, that person is more likely than not for your text, if he or she is taking the time to read and critique it carefully. The longer I write, the more grateful I am when someone hands me a good suggestion for my work. It’s a gift. Now if I like it, I grab it greedily, and stuff it right into my text. I might not incorporate the suggestion exactly as the other person has offered it, but I will take it willingly, and with thanks, if it is an improvement over what I have written all on my own.

Other recent posts about writing topics:Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka


Friday, January 20, 2012

Working with a Writing Mentor, Part 1: Trusting the Advice


In the last few years I’ve had the opportunity to be a novice writer again when I tried to go outside my main genre of poetry to write plays. Since almost all of my earlier work was poetry, my first attempt at a play was basically a series of dramatic monologues, loosely stitched together. Luckily I had a very experienced mentor to help me in my first efforts as a playwright: the late Barbara Oliver, founder of the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, California; a veteran producer, director, and actor who brought many new plays to fruition. Barbara actually said to me after reading my first play, “You have to have the actors talk to each other when they’re on stage,” which gives you an idea of how unfinished that script was. Several years later, when I wrote my third play, Things I Didn't Know I Loved, based on the life and poetry of the Turkish writer Nazim Hikmet, Barbara Oliver read and critiqued many, many drafts of it.
Barbara provided me with numerous valuable suggestions on each version, telling me not to get too caught up in the research I had done, and dig for the drama in each scene. There was one scene in particular that Barbara objected to, but I wouldn’t let go of it. She quoted for me a comment she had heard the playwright David Mamet make, "Writing a play is like building an airplane. You have to get rid of everything that impedes the thrust." Think how streamlined a jet is. 
So Barbara convinced me to take out an entire scene that I was very attached to, a scene that involved Nazim’s relationship with the Turkish head of state, Ataturk, whom he had a complex admiration for and conflict with. But that scene didn’t move ahead the story of Nazim Hikmet’s life enough to merit its inclusion in the play. Working on my own, I would never have cut that scene, but at a certain point, I realized that Barbara just knew more than I did. She had decades of experience producing plays, some productions that had worked, some that had flopped, and she just knew. So I took her word for it and cut the scene. At times, you just have to go on faith and trust your mentor. I'll talk more about the mentoring relationship in my next few blogs.


Other recent posts about writing topics:

Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4  
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;  Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Getting the Most Out of Your Writing Workshop, Part 5:Talking Yourself Out of Writing Well—Ignoring the Comments of Your Workshop

Why write down all the comments that people make about your writing in a workshop? Because it’s hard to really hear that much criticism all at once. It’s a bit overwhelming, and mostly you're too excited by the attention to your writing to be in a completely receptive mood at that moment. Time is the best editor. Sometimes you’re eager to incorporate the feedback you’ve gotten and you want to revise right away. But oftentimes you need time to reflect on the comments, to see which ones roll off your back, and which ones sink in deeply.
Even if you carefully listen to and record all the comments about your writing in a workshop, there are all-too-many ways you can talk yourself out of making good changes suggested to you. Here are a few.
If the change that a workshop suggests turns out to be obvious, my first reaction is to think that this change simply has to be made, and the sooner the better! But then, after the workshop, when I’m back home, I start pondering the suggestion. If the suggestion was so obvious, why didn’t I see the problem myself? So if I didn’t see the need for it, maybe no one else will, except the few misguided individuals who happened to be in that workshop that day, so why should I start tampering with my writing?
A similar way to ignore good criticism is to start blaming your readers, instead of hearing their criticism. You might write a piece with the intention of being funny, for instance, but it could come off as self-righteous or angry to your workshop. It isn’t easy to make the difficult effort of rethinking your writing and subtly changing its tone. That takes a lot of rewriting, and most of us hate to rewrite. It’s much simpler to fault the criticism, and imagine that the others were just misreading you. That’s a dangerous assumption, since readers are your audience, and who else is going to appreciate your writing if not your readers?
Another way of talking yourself out of a good suggestion is a strategy I’ve seen my seven-year-old son employ very effectively, which usually begins something like, “Mommy, Daddy says I can’t have another dessert because I already ate cake at the birthday party.” My son knows that I will hold the line on not having two desserts in one day, but his mother can always be relied on to bend the rules when it comes to sweets. I’ve seen creative writing students and less experienced writers do more or less the same thing, playing a more indulgent mentor or faculty member off against a stricter one, just to avoid making a change to their work that, on a deeper level, they know will improve it.
Sometimes you might also think that the pure spontaneity of your creation will be spoiled by making the changes that a writing group or workshop suggests. You experienced that glorious rush of passionate creation while you were writing, and all those unfortunate others just don’t understand. If you make changes, the flow of thrilling artistry will evaporate during the process of correcting and editing. But that is the equivalent of saying that if you fall in love with someone you shouldn’t actually spend time together, because the perfection of your love will be smeared by the reality of being in that person’s imperfect presence. Well, some people actually do believe this, too.
Similar to this is the fear that some beginning writers have that they only possess a limited amount of creativity, and that if they cut anything in their work, nothing will arise to replace it. I don’t believe that creativity is like a diamond mine, where once you pry out all the gems, nothing is left, and you might as well block up the shaft. Creativity is like a fountain or a well, which flows incessantly—barring disasters. There’s more where that writing came from, so if it doesn’t work, don’t worry about deleting it.
Another way to avoid making improvements to your work is to use the lack of consensus in a workshop as an excuse for not listening to any comments. “If they can’t figure out what I should do to fix this,” you tell yourself, “why should I listen to anything they say?” Because some of their comments are more useful for this particular piece of writing than others, to put it simply.
You have to be diligent about editing and improving your work because you can’t really afford consistently to annoy or anger your readers. Your readers are not your sisters or brothers or your roommates. Your readers are like people you meet by chance at a party. They will only listen to you as long as they like. They can walk any time. You have to be attentive to what interests them, what amuses them, what moves them, and what makes them think—and conversely, what inconveniences, confuses, or bores them. There are many other authors they could talk to at this party. That doesn’t mean you have to reduce your content to the lowest common denominator, it just means you have to deliver that content in a way that both considers and buttonholes the reader.

Other recent posts on writing topics:
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6

Friday, January 13, 2012

Synchronicity in Writing Workshops

I’ve noticed that there is a curious synchronicity in writing groups or workshops, where on any given day the works that people bring in often seem to resonate with one another, or overlap in eerie ways. At the last meeting of the poetry group I’m part of, Thirteen Ways, the first person read a sonnet about a prisoner on death row who was executed. The next person brought in a prose poem about working in an office, but using the metaphor of a prisoner at a Devil’s-Island-like penitentiary. Another person read a poem about sharecroppers in the South in the 1950s, and the last poem spoke about a shanty in the country. It was almost as if variations of the same mind had written these.

The only poem that didn’t obviously fit was my own, which was about kissing, but then half my poems are about kissing, so I’m not counting that.

What to make of these surprising resonances that always occur in writing workshops? The great French poet Charles Baudelaire, usually a hard-edged, cynical guy, wrote in one of his most mystical poems, “Correspondences,”

Like long echoes mixing in the distance
Into a tenebrious and deep unity,
Vast as the night, as brightness,
Scents, colors, and sounds resonate.

That’s also true in the themes and images that individuals bring to a writing workshop. Does this mean we are all part of a Jungian collective unconscious goo that squishes together at our edges? Maybe. I’m too much of an old school existentialist to sign on for that, but I have to say, it does give me pause when I see those correspondences in every single workshop and writing group I attend. If nothing else, it testifies to the fact that when we write, we are communicating at the deepest levels of consciousness, where hard individuality tends to melt into a more fluid state of mind. This synchronicity in workshops reminds me that writing is one of the ways that we connect with each other most profoundly.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop, Part 4: Consensus--Nurturing Grandma or Wolf Pack?


What if everyone in your creative writing workshop agrees, more or less, that a certain change is necessary in one of your works? I would write that suggestion down in large letters with multiple asterisks, and I’d underline it. I would think very long and hard before I ignored any advice with that strong a consensus behind it. The chances are good that advice that arrives in that form is worth taking, though you usually have to bend it and massage it a little so it makes sense on your own terms.
But it can happen at moments that workshops will take on a wolf-pack mentality, and everyone will jump on a certain little thing in a poem or a prose work and critique it en masse. This is generally a sign for you, the writer, that you need to pay extremely serious attention to this comment. But—on occasion—it can be a sign that you are on to something exciting, and that all your critics are completely wrong. If the work that provokes this wolf attack is edgy, scary, and your peers and even your instructors all jump on it exactly because it is some of the bravest work you’ve ever done, maybe they are just not ready to hear it yet.
So how do you know if a consensus is really a wolf pack? If you look and listen, you can feel the difference. What are the tones of voices? Are the other writers in your workshop trying with gentle humor and support to help you with your blind spot? Or are they showing their own blind spots in their panicky, nervous, or hostile reactions? There is a difference between a grandma and a wolf—look for the big teeth. 

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: 
Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop, Part 3: The "Ally"

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At the opposite end of the spectrum from the people in a writing workshop who want you to write the way they do, there is sometimes a person whom I would call an “ally.” An ally is a person who might be from a background similar to yours, who has something important in common with you. Your ally really “gets” your work. Even when the rest of the workshop seems to be deeply skeptical about a particular piece you bring in, your ally will often defend your writing, and sometimes even serve as your ambassador to the workshop, to help the others understand an element of your work.
Because your ally is so sympathetic to you, his or her suggestions may or may not be that useful to you, beyond representing you to the rest of the workshop. Your ally may not have the distance to see a flaw in your work, or may be too friendly to you to point it out.
But take all the encouragement and support you can from your allies. We all crave encouragement and support. I was once in a workshop with a famous poet who shall remain nameless. Whenever someone said something positive about his work, he would bark, “Just tell me about the problems! I know about all the good things in my work.” Well, bully for you, Mr. Poet, but the rest of us actually need encouragement. It helps us keep going, so we can make more mistakes. 

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: 
Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop, Part 2: The People Who Want You to Write Like Them

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I once taught a creative workshop in a high school where there was a talented young senior I'll call Jules. Jules was all of seventeen but he could write up a storm. But being a teenager, he hadn’t figured out yet that the world would not fall apart if others wrote differently from the way he wrote. He loved fantasy and elaborate imaginary worlds. Jules could create them with great detail and humor. But if anyone else brought in a story that had a realistic basis in her or his life, say a story about a girl taking an airplane by herself for the first time, Jules would suggest tossing in an alien with a phaser, definitely a flying saucer, and maybe a little time travel to the thirty-first century. After a few weeks of this we all just good-naturedly cracked up when Jules made a suggestion, because the subtext of his comments was always, “Why don’t you write this the way I would, and not the way you would?” Jules represents an extreme end of the spectrum.
When you receive a comment in a writing workshop, one of the things that you do have to pay extremely close attention to is whether that person is asking you to write the way he or she would, rather than asking you to bring your own vision to its sharpest focus. But how do you tell the difference? You have to be as savvy as a Jane Austen heroine, sorting out who is the Mr. Darcy who really loves her for who she is, and who is the Mr. Wickham out to persuade her to join in with his own nefarious scheme. It’s not always easy, but it’s necessary, and it can be fun, if you view it as a plot of its own.

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: 
Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop, Part 1: Whose Comment Are You Reading?

Many writers attend workshops to get comments on their creations. Workshops can be incredibly helpful, but they can also be confusing. For one thing, people’s reactions are often completely contradictory. “I especially love the ending,” says one person in response to your latest opus. Then the person sitting adjacent comments, “It’s good, but you really lose it at the end. The whole piece falls apart on the last page, where it becomes trite and predictable. That doesn’t feel like the right ending for this piece at all.” So who is right? How can you tell?
You have to pay very close attention to all the comments that people offer about your work. I write down every single comment that anyone makes in the writing group that I show my poems to, no matter how trivial or unfamiliar or wrong a remark may seem at first. But I also write next to the comment the initials of the person who made the remark. When I hand comments to a writer, I always put my name or initials on the copy.
Why? One of the things you need to identify is the aesthetic of the person who is making the comment. Sometimes you know that a person has a certain bias that you may or may not agree with. Let's say you've written a sestina about working in a fast-food joint (I'm thinking of Jan Clausen's wonderful poem, "Sestina: Winchell's Donut Shop"). You bring it to your workshop and someone says, "I love the idea of your poem, but I don't like formal poetry. It's too stiff. Why don't you rewrite it as free verse?" This comment might be accurate, but it might completely miss the point that you wanted to see if the sestina form could be used for such an unlikely subject as fast food donuts, and whether the repetitions of the sestina form could reflect on the monotony of fast-food jobs.
Even if Elizabeth Bishop were to rise from the grave and bring to your writing group a great sestina, you know in advance that workshop member would jump right in and say, “Liz, I have to tell you, I hate formal poetry.” That doesn’t mean that you always have to agree with this member's comments. Put her or his initials next to that advice, and keep in mind that person's artistic preferences. You need to observe and analyze the taste of those who give you comments, and figure out where it does and does not overlap with your own. In fact, that’s not a bad way to figure out you own aesthetic, by measuring it against the comments of others. Listen carefully to everything your peers say, even what they say that has nothing to do with you, or even to do with writing. You’ll find that certain critics you can usually trust on certain questions, and you can rely on others for completely different issues in your writing.

Other recent posts on writing topics:
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6