I got to attend LTUE this year and while I was there, I realized I wanted to develop an attitude towards all writers (and other artists, but mostly writers for reasons I’ll explain in a sec) even if I didn’t think that they were as good as me, or that their story idea was dumb. That attitude was one of encouraging, excited positivity. Because I’ve been a Gatekeeper about “real” writers in the past, even if my definition steadily got looser as I matured (I’ve never been a gatekeeper towards other types of art). But when I go to LTUE, I try to do as much introspection as I do…er, well, this year, running around not getting to listen to any panels due to a baby.
This year’s introspection led me to think about my writing group. I met three of the four members, all at LTUE but separately. When I found out they had a writing group all together, I was shy about asking to join because they’d talked about how nice it was they could be exclusive due to having had several groups where someone sucked. I don’t mean at writing, mind, but at giving and receiving criticism. That really kills it for a writing group. I was afraid they’d find my writing level below theirs or just otherwise not trust me. When I asked to join, they said they’d talk about it, which freaked me out. They’ll have a conference and decide I’m not good enough!
Wait, I’ve had anxiety that long? Didn’t realize. Huh.
Anyway I was just being anxious – aaand that continued after they accepted me in, because I was afraid they’d kick me out. And this is where positivity comes in.
When my friends criticized each others’ works, they looked the writer in the eye and just laid out what was a problem. No sugar coating. This is a writing group, the point is to point out what could be better and what’s wrong. The writer nodded, took notes, scowled at themselves over stupid mistakes. Then when it was the critiquer’s turn, the writer now critiquer did the same thing as the critiquer now writer reacted basically the same. My friends have thick skins, and they’re comfortable in their works.
I do not have a thick skin. I don’t now, but I am comfortable with my story and today, when I’m the critiqued, I do the same thing. I nod, type a note, and laugh at stupid mistakes with my friends as they just hit me with everything they found in the story. But I was freaking out that they’d kick me out of the group because when I first came in, my skin wasn’t just the soft “never been critiqued before”, it was more of a kind of “raw, sore, and bruised” metaphorical skin. And they told me critiques straight, one after another, and I nearly, or actually, cried. Every time. For every person. For like the first month or two or three.
It was irritating. I didn’t want to cry. I knew they weren’t telling me I was a bad writer. I knew they were just saying they thought it could be better. But it was a reflex. It was like someone pushing on a bruise and my crying out in pain. Because honestly that’s what it was. And thank goodness my group seemed to understand what was going on, just that it was a reflex and I just wasn’t used to positive, blunt critique. They didn’t ease up on me, but they did encourage, and they’ve been helping me to grow a thick skin.
This is one reason I call them my friends. I still have some sore spots, and they catch them, and they encourage and help old wounds to heal. My metaphorical skin was so damaged because growing up, people told me to shut up a lot, like actually to shut up*, told me that my ideas were stupid, and someone actually told me that my love of storytelling was a psychological delusion and I seriously needed help and really needed to see a therapist to help me overcome my delusions. I’m serious.
*In all fairness, I did talk a lot, and sometimes the “stop talking”s were totally warranted. But. A lot of them…let’s just say that my conditioning still lingers since I can have an audience obviously captivated by a story they asked me to tell them, and then in the middle of it, realize I’ve been talking a lot, freak out, and break the captivation to ask, “I’m so sorry, am I talking too much? You totally have my permission to interrupt me and tell me to stop.” Less now. Still a thing.
There were people who encouraged me, too, especially my mom. And that’s why I kept writing and telling stories anyway. I might have quit if it weren’t for them.
And that is why I’ve decided that gatekeeping is stupid, and I’m sorry. With my introspection on my writing group, and how much they’ve helped me overcome conditioned insecurities, and realizing how much work had to be done and how much more there is to go, I…don’t want anyone else to go through that.
And if they are, I want to be someone who encouraged them to keep on going anyway, rather than adding to the boos that make it harder for them to do what they love. I don’t want to add bruises. I don’t want to be that kind of person.
While I wanted to be honest, because I have always believed in being sincere, I also wanted to be positive about other peoples’ ideas regardless of what they were, no matter how bad or cliche. I wanted to be enthusiastic about their trying to write a book, which is hard. I wanted to listen to the story. Sure, even the agonizing play-by-play, because giving the agonizingly long play-by-play meant so much to me. Although, I also was prepared to shoosh people if I asked, “What’s your story about?” and they started in with a play-by-play, which I would follow with, “I asked what your story was about. You need to be able to tell me in about three sentences tops. That’s called an elevator pitch. Every time someone asks, work on that pitch. If you would like to tell me the whole story, I will listen. But first, think about the elevator pitch, and give that to me.” (I didn’t have to shoosh anyone. Go people I talked to at LTUE this year!) But that’s…part of encouraging. That’s positive critique. The underlying message is, “I believe in you so I want you to do better.”
People who criticized me in the past didn’t give that message. They said, “You’re annoying me; I’m humoring you because I have to; you aren’t good enough; stop telling stories.” My writing group tells me, “I believe in you so I want you to do better.” It took me months to start to hear that when they said what was wrong with the chapter, and stop crying, stop hearing the echoes of “You aren’t good enough.” I don’t ever want to tell that to someone else. I don’t want to discourage them from writing, or make it hard for them to hear constructive criticism the way it’s meant. I’m only going to be positive from now on.
As a wordsmith, I’ve had to learn how much you sometimes have to polish (and use rock-related metamorphoses processes with) a story to change it from an unattractive rock into a gemstone. I’m starting to learn now that sometimes writers are the rock – talking strictly with skill – seeing as how natural skill is hardly anything compared to tenacious practice, and as it turns out, intolerance of the polishing process is detrimental to the production of the gem. Sometimes the polishing process is telling someone about your story that needs more work. Sometimes it’s starting with a stupid, cliche idea or character and working from there. Sometimes it’s realizing a story you thought was great is unsalvageably bad. But it’s never having someone tell you that your passion is annoying or that you aren’t good enough.
I believe that if you want to do this writing thing, inside you is a diamond waiting to sparkle and I want to see it.