Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Thanks, #@!*!

by Kathryn Miller Haines

I’m in the middle of writing a new book and I’m having that wonderful schizophrenic experience where one day I think I’m on the right track and the next I’m convinced that, for the good of humanity, I should throw it all away and stop pretending I’m a writer. Also I’m fat and I shouldn’t have cut my hair.

It’s an exhausting state to live in, especially when the same sentence can elicit joy and confidence one day and despair the next. I find myself absolutely crippled by uncertainty at times, so unwilling to face the computer that I do anything to avoid it. Including picking up dog poo in my yard.

I know I’ll get over it eventually. It’s part of my process -- the least favorite part of the process -- though I suspect if I wasn’t experiencing it, that would be a sign that I was really in trouble.

Jennie Bentley’s post last week about criticism reminded me of my own watershed experience. I was in the first year of an MFA program, toiling away in workshops where I silently receded into the background and watched, with a mixture of fear and relief, as other writers were torn apart by their peers. Eventually it was my turn and in anticipation of my work coming up, I’d written a terrible short story. To start with, it wasn’t a fresh idea, but rather a fictional take on something a friend of mine had gone through that I thought was amusing enough to become a story (for whatever reason, that never goes well for me – if the idea didn’t start with me I just can’t write it). I think I chose to do that because I didn’t have as much invested in this idea that wasn’t my idea; if they tore it apart, if they questioned its logic, if they accused it of being an unbelievable experience. I could always remind myself that it had really happened and that would somehow mute their criticism. Of course, if it was the way it was told that was the problem, I only had myself to blame.

Mercifully, I don’t remember much about that workshop except I didn’t eat that day. And I had to pee. A lot.

On the bus ride home, I poured through the written critiques. Some were kind, most were not, but one in particular made my eyes well up in tears (there are few things as disconcerting as crying on public transportation). After tearing apart the story in every way possible, this fellow writer scrawled, “Why even bother writing? This is awful.”

I was devastated. No one had ever told me that I should stop even trying.

And because it was very easy give up, that’s exactly what I decided to do. I was going to drop out of the program and go to law school or something that didn’t involve the same level of personal criticism. My husband convinced me not to, but I was deeply wounded for the rest of that semester, believing that it was some sort of class-wide assumption that I didn’t belong there (as though I were important enough for them to reach this consensus). My stories were weak, toothless attempts to fly under the radar. I just wanted to survive.

And then the semester ended and my mother-in-law, quite unexpectedly, died.

We lost a brilliant, creative woman and my entire life was thrown into turmoil and suddenly that cruel, terse sentence no longer mattered to me. Put in perspective with everything else we were suffering that summer it was so inconsequential.

I think I became a better writer at that point. Or at least a braver one. That fall I approached my ideas, my way, and sought out peers who weren’t afraid to criticize me but at the same time recognized what I was trying to do and pointed out what could help me achieve that. I figured out which workshop leaders fit me better and realized that evenings in their company didn’t have to be experiences full of fear; they could be exhilarating sessions after which I went home revving to rewrite. Don’t get me wrong, I still never felt like I fit into that program, though I was starting to finally make friends. And every time I saw the man who eviscerated me, I fantasized about ways to return the favor.

To this day I wonder where his writing career is and if he’s aware of what I’ve achieved with mine. I wonder if he realized how much what he said affected me.

Mostly though, I want to thank him.


Gina said...

Kathryn -

I suggest you use that critic as a character and slaughter him in a particularly painful, messy way.

Things like that hurt, especially when applied to something as emotionally personal as creative work. When we get harsh criticisms, we believe they're true. When people say they like our writing, we suspect that they're just being nice. I think this happens because it's so hard to judge our own work. I've reread things I've written, thinking, "This is such crap!" and at other times thinking, "This is wonderful! I can't believe I wrote it!"

I think the watershed moment for me came when I had a small part in a play at Pitt's Studio Theatre. Another actress gave one of those performances that everybody -- audience and cast alike -- just had to stop and marvel at -- she was that over-the-top good. After the show, she went to the director in tears, apologizing for how badly she'd done. He assured her repeatedly that she'd been very good, but I could tell she thought he was just being supportive. She didn't believe him. Ever since, I've realized that it really is impossible to judge one's own art. We just have to try to do it the best we can, and hope that someone else will appreciate it.

Joyce said...

Excellent post, Kathy!

I had a similar experience in an undergrad English class. My what-I-thought-was-brilliant essay got a D! I agonized over that until some of us in the class compared grades. Everyone got a D except for one guy who was a star player on the football team and could barely spell his own name. He got an A. Kind of put it all in perspective.

I agree that it's so hard to judge our own work, especially now when I'm in the I-can't-write-for-shit mode.

Gina has the right idea--kill the guy off. In writing, of course.

Kathryn MH said...

Oh geez, Joyce, that stinks.

My favorite professor in grad school had a box of kleenex on his office desk for the emotional students who had come to plead their cases after getting bad grades. If you started to cry, he would very calmly push the box your way, and announce, before leaving the room, "take your time, get yourself together, and let me know when I should come back in."

It was a marvelous way of demonstrating that while it was okay to be upset about this stuff, emotion had no place in productive discussion about how to improve.

Martha Reed said...

Revenge is a dish that is best served cold.

I hated a boss of mine so badly that I made him the bad guy and then in the final draft I wrote him out of the story altogether so he won't even get that bit of immortality.

But I got credit for writing the novel. Sweet.

NL Gassert said...

Yesterday I avoided the computer at all costs. I did all the laundry. I cooked dinner (all food groups). I scrubbed the pots and pants. I scrubbed the bathroom. I sharpened all of my daughters pencils (boy, she has a lot of them; I wasted a whole ten minutes!). In short, I did all those things I usually don’t do, just because chapter 5 of my WIP sucks.

Today, I surfing the Net …

Later today, I will feel horribly guilty, beat my inner critic with some kitchen implement (I don’t spend enough time there to know the names for all the things …) and get back to work (thank god for the writer strike and there not being anything remotely interesting on TV).

KathyMH said...


Good for you for getting back to it! It's so hard to push those moments when everything sucks, but it's really the only cure I've found.

And I think we have to give ourselves permission to suck sometimes. Every word we write isn't golden and we shouldn't convince ourselves that it's supposed to be. That's what revision's for.

lisa curry said...

Joyce, your comment reminded me of something that happened to me in a Political Science class in college. I attended that class faithfully (can't say the same about all of them, but that one I did) and took copious notes. The night before the first test, a guy I knew who was also in the class but never attended, asked if he could borrow my notebook to study for a couple of hours. I said sure. When we got the results of our essay test back, I (the journalism major/English minor) got a B. He (the big dumb football player majoring in I'm-not-sure-what) got an A.

I was outraged! I said, "You NEVER go to class. You studied from MY notes, and YOU got an A and I got a B! How did this happen???"

He said, "Lisa, I can tell from your notes how this guy thinks. He's politically a dove, so I write what he wants to hear. You ought to try it, and see if you don't get an A, too."

I was skeptical, but on the next test, I tried it, and I did get an A. So I guess my big dumb football player wasn't so dumb after all.

And it was a useful life lesson -- KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE! No matter how well you write, you're not going to get anywhere with it unless you're writing what your audience wants to read.

On a sad tangent, I heard from a mutual friend that a few years after college that boy was shot and killed outside a bar in D.C. :-(

Joyce said...

Lisa, my older son is learning that lesson. He's in grad school and TAing for a prof who is hard to deal with. They have a binder in the grad office compiled by former TAs that tells them exactly what this professor wants and how she reacts to certain things.