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.