It was late morning, and I got called to Joe’s office. I climbed the winding stairs and told his assistant I was here for an appointment. She showed me in, and I sat across from him at his big mahogany desk.
“You can’t go to meet the Postmaster General wearing that, Andi. Those shoes are not appropriate.”
Now, putting aside the obvious power play with the desk and the calling to the office, he had a point. I was wearing huge bubble-toed Doc Martens, black with white stitching. I was absolutely ready for a great indie concert and not for a very important business meeting.
But man, did he make me mad. I called my boyfriend crying. I called my mom crying. How dare he criticize my clothes. How dare he call me out. How dare me, after all I had done. How dare he.
It has taken me years – 16 in fact – to see that maybe he was right. Maybe I would have been taken more seriously – at the ripe old age of 22 – if I dressed the part a little more. Maybe I didn’t have the skills or the experience to overcome my outfit at that point. Maybe.
In my face-to-face writing workshops, I have three rules:
- Be specific in both your positive and negative suggestions.
- Never confuse the narrator with the writer.
- The writer cannot speak during critique and cannot talk about the comments given for at least 24 hours.
The first two apply to the critiquers – they are intended to help them critique more effectively and to keep the writer’s defenses about her/his life to a minimum.
The third, though, that is all about the writer. It is too easy for us as writers to jump to defend if we speak during or right after critique. It’s natural – we have (hopefully) put good effort into our work, and we want to protect it and ourselves from what feels very much like an attack at the time. So I just shut that down. No talking – just writing notes. Later, the writer can ask me or anyone else questions.
The thing is that most writers never do. Very rarely do I have a writer come back to want to defend a choice to me, and if they do, I try not to engage because the voice that’s speaking there is one of fear, not growth. And for them to grow, they have to be able to take critique – even their own critiques that come in revision.
But mostly, no one comes back. It seems, they consider the suggestions and find merit in some if not most of them. And they find the strength to ignore the ones they didn’t find useful. They get to be better writers.
When we’re doing this vulnerable practice of splaying open our glistening ideas on the page, it’s so easy to want to close up. Some of us even do that before we get anything written, and then, our words come out bland, our language stilted. We have decided we cannot write this thing, and so we sabotage ourselves.
And if we’re brave enough to be open and vulnerable as we write, then critique asks us to hand our livers or our lungs to other people and let them run their grubby fingers over them. This takes immense bravery and extreme strength to not wrench those precious organs from the people holding them. . . believe me, I know. Oh, do I know.
But the benefits, the benefits of sharing ourselves so widely, of passing our hearts and our stomachs to people we trust, those benefits are massive. We find tumors and dead sections, and we find the way this little section, tucked behind our livers, shimmers with energy and life that we want to see more. We just have to be wide open to it.
So did Joe do me a favor that day when he pulled the high and mighty boss routine and created what I call “The Doc Marten Fiasco”? Yep. He taught me that I should wear pumps when I need more authority and respect and that my Docs are perfect for the meetings I am really made to attend – the ones that don’t happen in office buildings.
What about you? What has critique taught you in life and in that specific part of life called writing?