This cycle’s topic could not be more timely. This morning I will meet two other women writers for the first meeting of a newly formed critique group. Except I will not call it that. The word ‘critique’ and all it implies, has kept me from meeting with other writers for most of my writing career. (Two exceptions, both promising, were interrupted by circumstances beyond my control. Oddly, neither experience made a dent in the protective barriers I’ve placed between myself and the dreadful possibility of criticism.)
All this time, I’ve avoided exposing my work-in-progress, afraid, afraid, afraid. This fear is my enemy, she is almost my pet. She is the giant cat behind bars, I am the dog in the foreground, peering off the deck and trying to get the courage to jump off into a new sentence. .
When I analyze this emotion, I’m befuddled. Other writers are – and always have been – the gentlest of my readers. They understand the process. They know how fragile is a writer’s ego. They have, from the time I began to write many years ago, been sweet to me. Pat Conroy wrote me a postcard full of encouragement. Joyce Maynard got me my first publishing gig. Julianna Baggott offered to blurb my first novel. Jodi Picoult and Carlos Eire were kind enough to read it and praise it too. Joshilyn Jackson wrote unbidden, a stranger, to tell me she’d loved my book, back when she was a member of the Girlfriend’s Cyber Circuit. Janis Owen, Lee Smith, Cassandra King, all whispered compliments at various points along the way.
I have been blessed by the encouraging words of other writers: Paul Shepherd, Umi Deshpande, Jon Jefferson. I’m lucky enough to find myself in a town full of talented artists, including Barbara Hamby, Diane Roberts, Maria Geraci, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, Mark Winegardner, Mark Mustian, Jeff Vandermeer, David Kirby, Andrew Epstien. We are so lucky, in this small city, to worship words, and to enjoy one another’s readings. To heft a glass in celebration when a new book gets published.
So why have I closeted myself? Why have I failed to take advantage of the most basic revision tool in most writers’ repertoires?
I believe it’s my imagination. That’s the real snow leopard. I can, in a double back-flip of neurotic acrobatics, decide that anything nice that anyone ever uttered was the product of some vast conspiracy of kindness. Or pity. That all these people, including my agent, Laura Gross, who I call “the author whisperer” for her ability to coax me out of my madness, have met in secret tunnels to rescue my otherwise doomed sense of self. (Yes, I am that important! Yes, I am, as Anne Lamott said, “the piece of shit the whole world revolves around.”)
Decades ago, my therapist asked, regarding the painful anxiety for which I was seeking her help, “What is it you think you get from this, Sheila?” I came to understand that my distress was a distraction. Telling myself the worst could happen, dwelling on disaster, saved me from having to perch myself on that most vulnerable ledge of hope.
Now, as I think about this very particular fear of being critiqued by other writers (or anyone at all) I see the similarities. Am I afraid to believe I might be capable because that is, in a sense, a call to arms? A call to try, to really try? To put out onto the page everything I have? If I fail, the fall will be spectacular. Worse, it will be witnessed.
It is here I must remind myself that a workshop is a place of ordinary labor, of continued toil. It is not the last judgment, it is not Mr. Everest, not the mythical beast guarding the gate at the hall of a guild to which I will be refused admittance. The only gatekeeper is me, and she has, for far too long, kept me from seeing the workshop not as a sacred cow but as the muscular draft horse pulling a plow. I could continue trying to till the creative soil myself, or I could harness myself up and get accustomed to the rough unfamiliar textures of reins and wood, to the pull of legs not my own. Yes, I could get kicked in the gut. But maybe I’ll find myself enjoying having a little push, a little pull, all aimed at making this harvest and those to come, a richer, more rewarding pursuit.
This post is not the first time she's exploited her dog to make a point.