For the longest time after grad school, maybe in reaction to being workshopped so much I could hear twelve different responses to every line I put down on the page, I crawled into myself and stopped showing my writing to very many people. Friends would have to beg to read it, and even then, once I’d been persuaded to show them my mostly unpublished stories or certainly, definitely unpublished novels, I couldn’t be in a room and talk to my friends about what they read. It embarrassed me to have it floating there, off the page, where people could praise it or punch holes in it or whatever they chose to do. I didn’t want to face even compliments, and any talk of my writing made me painfully uncomfortable and fidgety, desperately seeking changes of subjects or any reason to run away. (Is that the phone ringing? Whoa, do you smell fire? Gotta go!)
The whole point of writing is to be published and have people read you, is it not? I did want to get published—I just felt so uncomfortable talking to people who read my stuff. (Yes, for years I called my writing “my stuff.” I still do sometimes.)
So much of it is about trust, you see. Not everyone is a good reader of fiction-in-progress. Some people can say an offhand thing that can crush you for months. Some people like everything and so you can never really know when something’s not working because everything works for them. Some people would never read your work in the real world—it’s just not to their taste, or interest—so why bother forcing them to be your audience today? Some people read your “stuff” and then months later show you their stuff and it’s so similar to your stuff in weird ways and you’re not sure what to say or how to say it or who influenced who. I could go on. It’s difficult to find a good reader for your work, someone who has the time to read when you need them to, and gives you the kind of feedback you need to move forward and not get you stalled in mud and self-loathing and despair. It’s a lot to ask of a person, too. I mean novels sure are long.
I’m thinking of this today because I have very few readers. Very, very few.
One of them is the person I share a bed with: E. Of all the novels I’ve written over the years, and the multiple drafts these novels have gone through, I think it’s safe to say he’s read my books dozens of times. Talk about patience. And generosity.
I’m revising 17 & Gone and coming up against a big question—like an enormous riddle my genius of an editor has set out for me, and I want to come back to her with a solution. I want her to like said solution. So inside me is this roar of questions and a battery of hammers telling me I’ll never get it right, and I keep coming up with this idea or that idea or this other one, but I realized, I can bounce these ideas off of E. We can talk it through. And I wanted to fall to my knees in gratitude for not being so alone in this.
A writing confidante will help you feel less alone.
The thing is, yes, I have an editor and yes I have an agent, but it’s not smart to show every little version of something to either. I want their fresh eyes on my strongest work. When I turn in this revision, I want them both to say I hit the mark… or I’m very close to the mark if I just move over a few feet to the left. I don’t want them to have seen five different choose-your-own adventures and a muddle of who-knows-what so they can’t even keep things straight anymore and they just want me to be done with it already so it can get off their desks. An editor or even an agent shouldn’t be treated like a critique partner… no matter how much you trust them.
I also think it’s important to find writing confidantes whose taste you trust. I showed the previous draft of 17 & Gone to two writers. I trust them—as people—and I also trust their taste. I like the books they like. And maybe more importantly I think they are amazing talents themselves. I believe in their vision. (Not to mention that they reached out to me to say they wanted to read my book; I’d never show someone if they didn’t ask me first.)
But even showing them was immensely difficult at first. In the past, feedback from others on a manuscript could cause me to give up on a book forever. Or just lead me off in a wrong direction until I’m left with a broken, crumpled mess of stilted words. In this way, it’s more me than you. Because timing is everything. I am now very careful to not show my writing too soon. I have to hold it close for as long as I need it to be cradled and only when I can read it back without cringing can I hit Send.
Thus ends today’s sensitive-creature confession.
Who are your writing confidantes? We all need at least one.