by Tasha Seegmiller
Last month, I attended my first residency for an MFA in Writing from Pacific University. While there was some trepidation about going back to school at 40, and a bit about how the workload is all going to fit into my life, the main nervousness was surrounding how the instructors and members of my critique group were going to respond to my writing.
This isn’t the first time that I’ve sat live while people talk about my work – I have the good fortune to be a member of a critique group that meets in person every two weeks, each of us critiquing 15 pages for the others and receiving feedback in return. I’ve come to understand that logic and reality don’t always mesh.
Very quickly, it was clear that the critique I thought I was going to receive was not what the instructor wanted to talk about. And I’m of the very strong opinion that when someone takes time to talk about and work through your writing, your job is to listen, take notes, ask for clarification, and then allow time to process.
Still, sitting there, I could feel all the defenses within me clamoring to jump out, to rescue, to protect.
This is a lesson that almost all writers are aware they need to learn. They are probably also aware they have learned it. But I also think learning to sit with the discomfort of a critique is not a lesson we grasp after the first instruction. With that in mind, I’d like to offer a few suggestions on how to be okay with this difficult part of being a writer:
1. Try really hard to remember the critique isn’t about you.
I get it. You have put effort into creating something you feel strongly about, characters you dreamed up, a setting that feels just right, a plot that is balancing all the things. But when someone is talking about your work, they are talking about just that – the work. Not the creator, not the idea, but what they can read on the page in front of them as it has been presented to them.
Critique partners and beta readers don’t have access to how the whole story unfolded in our head, they can just see what is on the paper, and they are taking time to provide insight into their reading experience to help the story be better.
2. Take lots of notes
When a critique starts taking a path we didn’t expect, when we thought the story was just right and then it wasn’t, our bodies often perceive this as a threat and then we enter fight/flight/freeze mode aka the moment when our body is responding and our mind is no longer totally in control.
When this happens, just keep writing down what people say. Seriously, you’ll get to the manuscript a day or two later and not remember anything that was said, let alone what you might be able to do to fix it. Just remember that the way you feel will generally relax a bit as you step away from the situation and you want to still tap into those benefits.
3. Get back into your window of tolerance
This is a term I learned lately, which is a place where you can sit with things that you don’t necessarily like without amping up or checking out. This is the part where the passionate physical response we may have had gets a chance to recognize that we aren’t in danger, that we don’t need to be ready for a rumble or a run.
For some people, returning to this window is really easy. For others, deep breathing, a walk, or just time is necessary to convince all the systems within us designed to keep us alive that it’s a critique, not a sabretooth tiger, and we are okay.
4. Be objective
This is why the window of tolerance is necessary. After receiving a rough edit or critique, and getting back to a safe space, pull out those notes, revisit your own, and see the piece as they did.
You might have to chant to yourself that the critique is about the writing, not you. You might need to break out what a colleague of mine calls emotional-support Oreos. But then read, listen, study, and learn from your own writing.
5. A caveat
There are times when, good intentioned as they may be, a critique partner, beta reader, agent or even editor will make a suggestion that after you’ve gone through all these steps, still feels wrong. Okay. You are the writer. It’s your story. And just because someone suggests something doesn’t mean you have to do it. Honoring every single suggestion will lead to a story you don’t recognize. But I would recommend if you don’t want to accept a suggested change, you take the time to write or talk out why. Even if it is just to yourself. If you are going to write something a certain way, you should be keenly aware of the reason.
So what about that hard critique I got?
Just kidding, it’s not. The readers were right. Their complaint was that the story started too slowly, that they couldn’t see the conflict, that they weren’t sure how to connect with the character.
I needed to write those pages to get her in my mind, but the reader doesn’t need them to join the story where the book starts. So I opened a new document, did a quick outline of how I’d like the scene to progress, what I want the reader to feel about the character, and then I started writing it, pulling in some of the lovely images I’d created before.
Because of intentional feedback from others, I had my attention drawn toward a blind spot that (surprise) I didn’t know I had. A blind spot I might have continued crossing into, unknowingly.
And you know what?
The story is better.
How do you go about processing, editing or revising your work after a critique?
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Tasha Seegmiller believes in the magic of love and hope, which she weaves into every story she creates. She is the current president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and studying in the MFA in Writing program at Pacific U. The former high school English teacher now assists in managing the award-winning project-based learning program (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. Tasha married a guy she’s known since she was seven and is the mom of three teens. She is represented by Annelise Robey of Jane Rotrosen Agency.