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On Writing > Attachment to an Unfinished Work

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message 1: by Esther (new)

Esther | 83 comments Mod
For those writers out there who have actually finished anything to a point where they are brave enough to allow others to read it and/or to attempt to have it published - What's the battle been like with critics/editors/readers of certain parts that may, in all actuality need improvement/clarification and you as the writer? Are there certain parts that you have become so attached to that you can't see the piece without them? How have you been able to do what's right for the piece, despite your own feelings?

A guy in my fiction writing workshop stormed out of class on Tuesday because there were a few issues in his piece that needed to be clarified through some minor revisions. (Granted, he was being almost attacked by 2 of my fellow classmates who were trying to rewrite his piece altogether...they may have gone a little too far.) I can understand the attachment one might feel...I've felt the same from time to time...you've invested so much time into this one work that you can't imagine it any other way.

Just wondering how other writers have managed the feeling of attachment...


message 2: by Christopher, Swanny (new)

Christopher Swann (christopherswann) | 189 comments Mod
I explain this kind of thing to some of my students, and some of my fellow teachers...getting one of your academic papers savaged by a teacher is one thing, but getting a creative work criticized (even constructively) is another. Papers are largely intellectual exercises, and while I've had students get angry about the grade they earned, they don't tend to storm out of class, unless there's something else going on. It's a whole different emotional ballgame with creative writing. Most people who are serious about writing--even if, like the vast majority of us, their initial attempts aren't any good--pour their blood and sweat into their writing, and so getting it critiqued can feel a bit like having a conference with your child's lower school teachers who all seem to be saying your child is an idiot. They may, in fact, be saying that your kid is very bright but has a problem with staying on task or listening to direction. What you may hear is that the teacher just said your child is mentally impaired.

I think Faulkner said "Kill your darlings"--your most favorite passages, your most prized descriptions, might need to go on the revision chopping block. I realized I had to do this with some passages from my novel--at one point, a whole subplot and several chapters had to go. Initially I felt resentful about having to do it. I gave it time, went back to look at them with a (hopefully) more objective eye, and realized that the story would be better without them. My wife Kathy reminded me that I could always use that material in another book.

It takes time to get used to people not liking something about your writing. And it takes time to get used to the idea that someone who suggests that you cut out or revise something actually DOES like your writing, and that their suggestions are intended to make your writing even better. It also takes time finding those readers whose opinions you trust, but that's another topic.

Developing a thick skin helps. I had one agent call me at home to tell me she really liked my writing and that I should definitely continue, but that she couldn't accept my novel because 1) she just didn't have the time to take on more clients right now, and 2) because part of my novel is set in Ireland and, well, she hates Ireland. Honestly--everything about Ireland just really bugs her. I had to laugh, and the agent did, too, and I took the complements and listened to her advice and chalked up the Ireland thing as her problem (which she fully admitted), not mine. It doesn't mean I didn't have fleeting thoughts about drastically revising my novel, but they were fleeting.


message 3: by Ben, uneasy in a position of power; a yorkshire pudding (new)

Ben Loory | 241 comments Mod
i find that whenever i find myself "strangely attached" to any certain section of my writing, it is wrong. i get hung up on those sections because they are mysterious and i think they are saying something. when usually what they are saying is you have to say me better. i learned this over time by noticing that those sections were always the sections readers had problems with, the parts they didn't understand. "it's YOU who don't understand," i'd think, "those are the best parts!"

but they're not. so now i know that and now i have become pretty ruthless with my own stuff and very welcoming of comments. generally speaking i have found that pretty much all comments are are on target. the only thing i don't like is when people give you comments which consist of them just wishing they were reading an entirely different kind of thing, like, say, a haiku, or a piece of communist propaganda. that's kind of hard to deal with, but you just have to grit your teeth and remind yourself that soon it will be over and then you can hate them quietly from afar for the rest of your life.

not sure i addressed the question, but that's my answer.



message 4: by Patrick, The Special School Bus Rider (new)

Patrick (horrorshow) | 269 comments Mod
I remember being on both sides: criticizing others' materials and being criticized. When I tried working as a Features editor, it was a miserable experience to be delicate and still get flamed for it from the writers who think their precious purple prose just can't simply be changed. I would rather be a writer getting critiqued and I usually listen to comments like "I do not understand what's going on in that scene" or "Why do you write it that way?" rather than "This writing sucks and blows at the same time like a reversible vaccumm."


message 5: by Esther (new)

Esther | 83 comments Mod
Ben wrote: "i find that whenever i find myself "strangely attached" to any certain section of my writing, it is wrong. i get hung up on those sections because they are mysterious and i think they are saying something. when usually what they are saying is you have to say me better. i learned this over time by noticing that those sections were always the sections readers had problems with, the parts they didn't understand. "it's YOU who don't understand," i'd think, "those are the best parts!""

Ben - Thanks! That makes complete sense to me. I've had those moments ...I think I'm being clever and realize later I was just being vague.



message 6: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
I was a writing tutor in college. One of the first things we learned in the class I had to take to become a tutor was this: Most people have significant personal attachment to their writing, and the tutoring session is a delicate balance between what you say and how you say it. People are delicate, no matter how confident they seem. You have to be able to read that, work with or around it, and *then* say something like "your conclusion isn't really saying what it needs to say."

I used to say I wasn't a writing tutor, I was a writing therapist. It sounds like an odd thing to say, but sit down with enough people for an hour - people whose papers appear to have been bled on by professors, people who come in angry or practically in tears over a paper on Shakespeare, and that doesn't even touch the creative writing students.

Those people (I was one of them, all 4 years) are really touchy. I think it's because when you're younger a lot of what you're writing about comes from personal experience. It's true to you, but when it comes time to put it on paper - does it ring true or is it a good story for others - that's the big question. Some writers never really emerge from that personal crucible thing. I don't know what that guy was writing about, but storming out of a workshop is a pretty dramatic, emotional response.

Personally, since I started writing again I've been able to distance myself enough to have trusted readers give me honest, direct critiques and I always take the feedback as someone honestly telling me what works and what doesn't. As long as I can get that amount of distance, then the critiques I do get really work well for me. It's probably because I see it more as a profession and I've been hardened over the years by criticism in other areas of my life. Also, I don't write about my parents any more. Done, done and done.

Now, editors, etc. and the whole publishing industry, I don't know shit about, other than having worked inside it. Others here know way more.


message 7: by Esther (new)

Esther | 83 comments Mod
I think it also hits the younger writers more because they're still testing the water and wanting desperately to receive some sort of validation and encouragement to continue doing what they love.

I will say that the guy in my class had a very hard week. He had submitted a different story in his creative writing class and was given a thrashing from the teacher, so I hear. Other students even said it was brutal. I think he was still sore from that when the students in our class started in on him.


message 8: by Jonathan, the skipper (new)

Jonathan | 609 comments Mod
. . . great posts . . . swanny, i think it might've been tennessee williams who said "kill your darlings" . . .not positive, though . . .

. . . the trick is getting good editorial feedback and knowing good editorial feedback . . .when i hear good feedback from the likes of hugh or michael or my agent or my editor, i get excited . . . i love fixing stuff . . . i have no patience for writers who are defensive about editorial feeback . . . they'll never be any good with that attitude . . . to my way of thinking, a writer should attach him/herself to serving the narrative and be willing to do whatever possible to serve that end . . . i think it's tougher for young writers to take because they have thin skin . . . the good ones thicken up quick . . . after a while, one should be able to recognize and distinguish between good editorial feedback and bad editorial feedback . . . there are some editors out there who will bully a writer into their own vision of a story, so before i consent to working with an editor i try to get a feel for their vision of the story . . . i've had a couple friends at big houses who felt like their editors changed the book they wanted to write, and ended up very frustrated by the experience . . . this where readers like pops and hugh and marge and others in this group have been invaluable to me personally, in helping me really define a work and solve problems and find missed opportunities before i get to an editor proper . . . my agent gives amazing feedback, as well . . . she helped me bring lulu and west of here to new levels with pretty short conversations . . . this is my favorite part of writing, the problem solving . . . i do my best work when my objectives are clearly outlined . . .


message 9: by Hugh, aka Hugh the Moderator (new)

Hugh | 271 comments Mod
Jonathan, thanks for the kind words on my reads. It's an interesting give-and-take; sometimes it's a bit easier to be honest about some key thing that is bugging you when you know the other person is receptive to thoughts.

Like the rest of you, I've met plenty of writers attached to writing that is far too precious. Many years ago, I was in a writing group (which could be a thread unto itself) in which a woman wrote poetry suffused with Nature imagery that was invariable highly sexually charged. Rivers were constantly "rushing into the damp embrace of the mossy rocks". The roots of trees "dug their aching arms into the Earth".... You get the idea....

She would read these poems aloud and you could see people peeking up over the printed copies and casting slightly amused glances as the rain clouds "unleashed their life-giving joy on her upturned face./'More', I laughed."

The first couple sessions, everyone smiled thoughtfully and talked about the powerful images and she was overjoyed to sit back and revel in the feedback. I pretty much kept my mouth shut... but you can only do that one or two times before you are directly asked: What do you think?

I said something stupid like: feeling there was a tremendous amount of emotion buried in these poems but where I got tripped up was the way poems that seemed so rooted in Nature has such strong language linked to human sexuality and I found myself wanting to know a little bit more about the human emotions -- and human beings -- behind them.

You could have heard a pin (or the delicate needle of an aching pine) drop.

"Human sexuality?" She was floored. "What are you talking about?"

I fumbled. "Or - or maybe a better way to say it is: human intimacy. Like the part where 'the moon buries its face in the sky's shoulder/I want to touch the moon and heal it'"

Another person who was trying to save me asked her a bit more directly. "You don't think there are sexual images in some of these poems?"

No. Not a bit. After that night, she left the group.

A few months later I ran into her in a coffeeshop as we awkwardly stood in a line together. I asked her how she was doing.

She said: "Great! I finally finished that collection of poems and took them to Kinko's. I had three copies bound -- and gave one copy to my therapist...(beat)... HE loved them."

True story.

All of which is my roundabout way of saying, I think that while many young writers may be a bit defensive; I've also seen plenty of older writers who have become so used to hearing their own "voice", and rationalizing what they may see as their Style -- that it becomes all the more important to find honest feedback -- and then grin and bear it.

And finally, the recent New Yorker piece on David Foster Wallace talked about his own tendency to go along with editor on his first book -- and only over time, did he develop a more discerning sense of what to embrace and what was a part of himself. I'm certainly not there yet; but as mentioned above, the first challenge is opening yourself up to honest feedback and that's tougher than it sounds.


message 10: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
I can't help it. I have to post it. I can't... stop... myself!

Oread
Whirl up, sea—
Whirl your pointed pines,
Splash your great pines
On our rocks,
Hurl your green over us—
Cover us with your pools of fir.

That one is by H.D.

Jeez. That's like looking at an O'Keefe painting and saying, "What pretty flowers." Or Mapplethorpe photographs and saying the same thing.


message 11: by Patrick, The Special School Bus Rider (last edited Mar 20, 2009 02:18PM) (new)

Patrick (horrorshow) | 269 comments Mod
Hugh wrote: "Jonathan, thanks for the kind words on my reads. It's an interesting give-and-take; sometimes it's a bit easier to be honest about some key thing that is bugging you when you know the other person ..."

I honestly wish you would have ended this story with "annnnd her name was Stephenson of Prescription for Love fame! True Story. " for the shock value.




message 12: by Hugh, aka Hugh the Moderator (new)

Hugh | 271 comments Mod
Shel wrote: "I can't help it. I have to post it. I can't... stop... myself!

Oread
Whirl up, sea—
Whirl your pointed pines,
Splash your great pines
On our rocks,
Hurl your green over us—
..."



You raise a good point and I should clarify... I made sure to point out that I wasn't saying that she should "put human beings in" (which gets to an earlier point made about trying to force someone to write a Haiku...) just as I wouldn't tell O'Keefe or Mapplethorpe to "put some more humans" in their paintings or photographs.

Overall the poems sort of just SAT there. They were descriptions in the same way that a bad painter might just paint a lily or take a photo with a cellphone WITHOUT the artist's lighting and nuance that makes you sit up and say: "Wow"... Not "wow" in the sense of "Heh, heh. You see those naughty bits?" But rather that they are revealed as erotic.

Her poems never quite got close to erotic because the language was so bald-facedly pedestrian (and in part because she had no idea it was even present) -- sort of like bad porn where the scenes are described with such comic literalness and straightforwardness that they are shown up as completely unbelievable.

Haiku is probably an appropriate topic here since through a description of nature you evoke a feeling that, because it isn't described literally, is all the more moving.




message 13: by [deleted user] (new)

Patrick wrote: "Hugh wrote: "Jonathan, thanks for the kind words on my reads. It's an interesting give-and-take; sometimes it's a bit easier to be honest about some key thing that is bugging you when you know the ..."

HA! That would have been funny.



message 14: by Lauren, Cream Cheese Angel (new)

Lauren Soderberg | 80 comments Mod
Shel wrote: "I was a writing tutor in college. One of the first things we learned in the class I had to take to become a tutor was this: Most people have significant personal attachment to their writing, and th..."

LOL I'm in a writing tutor class right now (and actively tutoring as well) and what you just said perfectly describes all the non ESL students I have.


message 15: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
I was re-reading this thread and a story of my own popped into my head. It's about the time I learned that once your darlings are out there in the world, you have no control over how they are read and interpreted, and the best way to deal with it is to simply be gracious...

I was lucky enough to have an encouraging, wonderful poetry professor in college, who helped me get up the nerve to send some of my stuff out to journals. There was one poem in particular I wrote that was not all that bad, was even printed in one or two places of no consequence. It's probably the one thing I wish I had saved from all of my writing -- which I sacrificially burned on the grill (a la Pump up the Volume) when I was 24, officially "quitting" writing to take up the task of making a living.

Anyhoo, the poem was a pantoum called Cancun. It was one of those gift poems I wrote in about an hour that my professor liked a lot. It got great feedback in class. On the surface the subject was abortion but really, it was about how a person gets themselves through a painful or traumatic event - how we use repetition, telling ourselves it will be all right, focusing on something external (in this case, a poster of Cancun) to move beyond the pain we are currently experiencing even as it invades our every thought.

My professor told me that I had to get used to reading my work, if I had any hope of becoming a professional writer. Start small, she said, so I signed up for some Womyn's Coffee House thing in the only women's dorm on campus at my school (DC has odd laws about brothels. There are rules about how many women can live together, the number of bathrooms, etc.).

I get to the coffee house. My friends are there, my professor is there. I sit on a stool in front of braless women living a razor- and hairbrush-free existence -- mind you, in 1993. I read that poem and another horrifically gruesome one I wrote about a woman so obsessed with being thin that in a fit of ecstasy she slices pieces of herself off with a meat cleaver in front of a mirror. Worthy of Palahniuk, it even mentioned Oprah.

After an hour spent listening to some unbelievably bad stuff, mixed in with one or two good pieces, with a tilted head and a courteous expression on my face -- after all, they listened to me and we are supposed to be a supportive community of writers -- I was choking down some bad university food and worse coffee with my professor. A woman came up to me and took my hand in hers. She looked into my eyes and with a solemn expression said, "That was the best pro-life poem I've ever heard."

"Thank you," I said. "Thanks for listening."

My professor said, "You handled that well. For a minute there I thought you were going to let her have it."


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