What can you do when running away from difficulties isn’t an option? Sit with your discomfort & try to learn something: http://firstdaypress.org/standing-still/.
Today my article “Start Bending Over Backwards for Yourself” appears in The Indie Chicks. I’m excited to be part of a magazine with a mission to inspire women to become “self-empowered, driven, independent, and confident.”
This topic–how to find your voice, believe in your own convictions, and realize you don’t owe anyone anything–is something I’ve struggled with throughout my life. I’m finally making progress but it’s something I have to remind myself every day. To celebrate the publication of this article, here is a story about the dangers of bending over backwards to please others with your writing.
By the time I went off to earn my MFA in Creative Writing, I had written a first draft of a novel. I had big dreams for this novel, not least of all that I would work on it during my two years in the program, turn in a brilliant final draft as my thesis project, and field offers from agents before the ink was dry on my diploma.
I wasted no time in submitting the first chapter when my turn in workshop came. The following week I received twelve written critiques of my manuscript, including the professor’s. It was a little overwhelming to absorb twelve different takes on one chapter, as well as twelve different sets of suggestions on how it should be changed, but I was eager to get to work and eager to please. I rewrote the chapter to incorporate all of my classmates’ opinions as best I could. Then I submitted the revised chapter to workshop. But the problem with trying to please my readers in a class where critiquing was not optional but homework, was that they were never pleased. Each new revision yielded me twelve new sets of comments.
I’m sure you can imagine what happened to that chapter. It was like a quilt, once thick and purposely patterned, that suffered too many changes until it grew threadbare and asymetrical. In short, I let the workshop run away with my novel. By the time I stopped submitting chapters, I hardly recognized the story I held in my hands.
Having learned this lesson in my first semester, I put my novel away until the following year, when I began a one-on-one “tutorial” with one of my professors. This, I thought, was my golden opportunity. Twelve readers had been too many but one smart and supportive reader would be just what I needed to finish my book. As the fall approached, visions of book contracts once again danced in my head.
Can you guess what happened next? There was no book contract. There wasn’t even a finished novel. After much debate over what kind of people the characters should be and what they should be trying to do with their lives (i.e. the plot), after lots of frantic re-writing as I tried to please my professor, whose suggestions and expectations began to feel like a moving target, he said, “This isn’t my book. I’m not writing it or trying to get it published. I don’t care what happens.” His point, I eventually realized, was that it was my book. I needed to have a vision for it, a vision I was committed to. The ability to receive constructive criticism, to be open to suggestions, isn’t valuable unless it’s accompanied by discernment.
Four years later, I am much more confident in my writing voice and my vision for my stories. Workshops are more useful now that I can take the comments that help me realize the story I intended to write and leave the rest in the recycling bin. “It’s my story” was one of the best lessons I learned in graduate school.
Have you ever taken home an object that seemed useless, only to discover meaning in it years later? Read my latest post for The First Day here.
I am very excited to start blogging for The First Day, “a quarterly print journal and online magazine featuring fiction, nonfiction, visual arts, and poetry that highlights the individual experience of beauty, faith, journey, and growth.”
My posts will appear every other Tuesday. The first one, “I Did Not Want This,” is about accepting big life changes.
My first published poem, “Is it because I don’t know how to be alone,” is available now from Almost Five Quarterly. This is the story behind the poem.
My previous apprenticeship in poetry ended with the last of my lovesick college days. After that, I didn’t think myself capable of writing the stuff. So last January, when I started typing what would become “Is it because I don’t know how to be alone,” I thought I was writing flash fiction. The first draft was a long paragraph that I sent to my husband. I said it was a story about a person who discovers she can’t connect with others in the way that she would like. My husband sent the paragraph back to me with line breaks. I think this should be a poem, he said.
“Is it because…” (the title was originally the last line) was written out of the frustration I was feeling at the time—with myself, with my life, with the non-fulfillment of the internet. My feelings were nothing new, not even to me. But that winter I felt lonely and bored with an intensity that frightened me. So I wrote about it. And writing about it became this poem, my first in over seven years.