Monday, March 19, 2012


The one thing I want as a writer is to get better.  But getting better has a price.  Embarrassment.  No really!  Glance one draft back, and I realize just how bad it was.  And the more quickly I get better, the more intense the humiliation.  My writing group just spent the past few months reading my manuscript in progress.  While they read, I played around with it a bit.  A bit?  Well, to be honest, I started tearing the whole thing apart and restructuring it.  I even wrote a whole new Chapter One (version 9).
            While reorganizing, I noticed things like the development of the two main characters’ relationship occurred almost entirely in Chapter Three.  Other things happened like I went back to scan Chapter One (Version 8) to see if I’d missed anything I wanted to include in revised Version 9.  My old Chapter One read slow, flat, and purposeless.  And it was Version 8!  Maybe I should have celebrated my drastic improvement, but I spent a nauseous hour or so realizing just how bad a draft my writing group was reading.
            Which reminded me of another of my devastating writing exploits.  In grad school at NYU, I majored in Educational Theatre, which fulfilled my theatre bug and proved extraordinarily useful in teaching.  But what I really learned about theatre was that I loved making up the stories, and I wanted to write.  So my last summer in New York, I took a creative writing class.  I was feeling a little queasy about story I had to turn in, even as the computer lab printer spit it out and I dashed off to make twenty-five copies.  Oh well, I thought.  You can’t learn if you don’t get feedback.
            As I read my story aloud, that quiet came over the room that is not a good quiet.  Sometimes you don’t even need actual feedback to get feedback.  Your story can be so bad that the vibes reverberating off the room speak loudly enough.  YA even then, my story featured a high school girl who excelled only at the pottery wheel in art class.  And there on that wheel, she shaped a lump of clay so laden with symbolism that I’m sure even people passing by on the street outside knew the clay was supposed to be the girl’s identity.  It was so obvious.  It was so bad.  It was so obviously bad my professor (who, in retrospect, might have acknowledged my understanding of the need for an external story) had no choice but to tear it apart on the spot, and I’m sure my classmates wondered how I had the nerve to read it out loud.
            Well, I wanted to get better.  And I did.  Now I understand a story is not an essay.  You are not necessarily supposed to make a point so much as create as experience for the reader.
            But that long, tearful walk through Washington Square Park back to my dorm room is still pretty vivid.  How had I not known the degree to which that story sucked?  Back at the dorm, I explained what happened to my roommate.  “You did not write that!  You did not read that to the class!  Did you know there’s a song about that?”  She promptly pulled a Marvin Gay CD from her collection and played his song, “Piece of Clay,” for us which features such lyrics as:

Everybody wants somebody
To be their own piece of clay
True everybody wants somebody
To mold them, shape them own way

I kid you not.  You can listen to it yourself here for the full effect.  I really needed to hear that song.  We both erupted into painful fits of laughter, more tears streaming down my cheeks.
I actually looked for my lump of clay story so I could excerpt its terribleness here, but I must have burned it!  So why would I even admit to you that I had written something so truly bad?
Well, remember the abandon with which I dashed to class and launched into reading that story aloud?  Somewhere, deep down, I suspected there was something terribly wrong with my story, but I knew if I was going to get better, I was going to have to hear about it.  Sometimes, you’ve just got to go through with exposing your worst to get better.  And if you can learn to love a Marvin Gay song that makes you laugh at how bad your writing attempt turned out, I think you will be open enough to learn from feedback.
So this past weekend I met with my writing group.  And yes, there were parts of my manuscript that were still capital-B bad.  But what I really heard from my friends was this: I had given myself a lot of gifts in that draft even if they weren’t working yet, even if they were out of order or undeveloped or disconnected.  All I had to do was reinvent them.  My point?  You just don’t get that far unless you’re willing to show your lump of clay and laugh at yourself a little bit.

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