The first time I showed someone a story I’d written, I thrust the pages at her and fled her office. This was in 1992, another lifetime, when I’d come to realize that if I wanted to write someday, I’d better start writing. The someone was an ideal early reader—intelligent, compassionate, wise. She read the pages and thanked me, asked me about how it was to show them to her. (Yes, she was my therapist, who not incidentally, helped me figure out that if I was ever going to write someday, I’d better start writing.)
Not all readers since have been so gentle. Nor should they be. When I show my manuscripts now, it’s criticism I want: good criticism, based on craft and intuition and what readers want to know. And yet, although I now hand out my work with more equanimity and distance, I still find myself thrown at times by the experience. What is it that happens when we share our work?
In the years since I left the early version of what went on to become “Bees for Honey” in my therapist’s hands, I’ve gotten praise and big scrawled HUH??s in the margin. I’ve found comments of “overwritten” and “we get it” next to descriptions and metaphors I lovingly massaged into shimmering prose. (See?) I’ve received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and I’ve had other reviewers refer to Mollie as “the male narrator” and “often tedious level of detail.” In years of grad-school and summer-conference workshops, public readings, and publication, I’ve developed an armor.
Ah, but note that word “armor.” Think about what it implies. Is it “armor” we need, or something else, something a little more porous? But how porous, before we get diluted and washed away?
I know writers who love revision, who happily tear apart their own work to put it back together again. I am not one of them. I like the freedom of the blank page, the wide open plane of possibility, of not yet being wedded to one character’s motivation. Once the gun’s on the wall, I have to figure out how to discharge it, and when someone makes a suggestion, I’m all too eager to take it—rather than figure out the best way (strike that: the inevitable way) on my own.
Our readers become a part of the dialogue, which can be exhilarating and affirming and confusing. Their voices take part now in the chatter and what ifs, the try this, no, that, the trial and error. We find ourselves thinking, What will Michael think of this? Or, Here, this’ll make Annie happy.
I’m better at keeping other voices at bay than I used to be, but I often feel uneasy the day after my work’s been discussed. Slightly hesitant, unsure. I tell myself the obvious (just as I advise my students when their work is discussed): the writer makes the call. One reader feels one way about your main character; another feels the exact opposite. What do you do? You listen to what you know. And, along the way, a good reader will help you find what you know.
Over the years, I’ve disregarded plenty of comments without a second thought and taken many with eager gratitude. But the ones that have stymied me are those that point to a weak spot. I get so attached to a character, fully developed in my own mind, that I can’t see how he or she isn’t working on the page. And when someone points it out, I panic.
Or at least react. “I am Chris!” I cried out one night, after my writers’ group had been discussing how they didn’t yet understand Chris. Was he a creep, or just eccentric? A reprobate, or just pathetic? He felt static. Etc.
So yes, the armor. But here’s where the porousness comes in. I heard what they said about Chris’ his less-admirable character traits, traits by the way that I had intentionally put there. I went back to the places on the page they’d pointed to, and I got to work. Not to make him citizen of the year, or even less eccentric–but to help the reader get him, see him, know him. I benefitted, and more to the point, so did Chris.
What about you? How do you feel when you share your work?