Thursday, March 08, 2007

Read at Your Own Risk

By Lynne

Yesterday, I read the first few paragraphs of my novel at a writers’ workshop. Fifteen writers. One published, fabulous workshop leader. The adrenaline spilled from my kidneys and circulated at warped speed throughout my body. It felt good. This was what I call the gutsy reading. I was brave because I knew the piece was ready. I needed to take the risk to hear the feedback. I welcomed it. The good, the bad, or the overly critical.

This wasn’t the first time snippets of my novel have been shared outside writers’ group. My first reading of a portion of it I call the naïve reading. Two years ago, I went to a program all starry eyed. Infatuated with the idea of being a fiction writer. I couldn’t wait to share what I thought was my unique story. I got slammed. In retrospect, justifiably so. What I shared was purple, you could even go so far as to say amethyst, prose. All internal dialogue. Adjectives and adverbs and passive voice, oh my!!

The next several workshops I went to were my no way I’m reading affairs. With my first experience fresh, then indelible, I was never ever going to read in a workshop again. I vowed that the only kind of reading I would ever do would be the published author reading. The one where you stand up at a podium and read your work to supportive onlookers. And because you’re published, critique would remain polite, or at the very least out of ear shot.

Reading your work to anyone, never mind people you don’t know, is a major decision for a writer. In previous blog entries, we’ve all written about sharing our work in writers’ group for the first few times, and what a risky thing this was to do. Reading in a workshop, when you don’t have any idea of the group members’ personal biases, is even more perilous. Group members might like your work yet, want to help you bring it to the next level. (I’m an optimist) Or perhaps they really think you are ready to hear what’s not working in the piece. Some writers like to workshop for workshop sake. On some level, they enjoy the critical thinking process of pulling a work apart. And if there are agents or editors in the workshop, get ready to hear feedback that has a marketplace agenda.

For any writer, reading work in public, getting critiqued, and then processing the feedback is very heavy stuff. Fiction writing is so personal and the tastes of readers subjective, making you a bit more fragile when it comes to criticism. If you do choose to read, just go into it knowing that feedback is likely to be frank, and you may be a bit bruised by it. If you think you have a thick enough skin or you feel your work is ready—go for it. Watch out though, more often than not, feedback is more constructive or negative than positive. Many who critique leave no feelings spared.

I’ve highlighted types of readings I’m aware of: the gutsy reading, the naïve reading, the no way I’m reading, and the published reading. Are there any other types of reading? What have your reading experiences been like?


Melissa Amateis said...

I read one of my short stories that was published in my local college's literary journal. It was very cool and I really enjoyed it.

Now parts of my novel I've never read aloud. But hopefully one day I will!

Therese said...

I've read aloud only one time, at an MFA student reading--which was not a critique session but rather a program for the public.

But I've been in many writing workshops, where of course criticism abounds!

My very first critique *ever* was in my first semester of grad school, circa 2003: I'd just finished writing my second-ever short story (I was truly a novice!) and so volunteered to lead off for critiques. I was nervous, but eager.

Of the 14 other students, 12 responded very favorably. I was blindsided by the other two, who brought what I'll call sociopolitical extremism to their critiques--and very forcefully took me to task for writing a story that didn't align with their perspectives!

Which of course had nothing to do with how well the story worked in writing terms.

Oh, I was gun-shy after that!

(The story went on to final in a contest later that semester...and then was a runner-up in last year's Thomas Wolfe fiction contest. Sweet reassurance!)

My upcoming novel is not without a controversial element or I expect I'll hear some of the same kinds of criticisms--but thanks to that first experience I'm more prepared for them. :)

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Melissa-- You enjoyed a lovely published author reading. That's great. I'm not an expert here, but I'd be protective of your novel. Only read if you feel very ready.

Therese-- You're experience resonates with my first reading. The biases and agendas were swirling around me, making it hard to reflect on the positive feedback, and leaving me unsure of what to do with the negative. It is a very tricky part of the journey.

Congrats on the story going on to acclaim. I'm sure it put your experience into perspective. And yes, not-so-good experiences certainly teach us a lot.