There is a fine line between constructive feedback and fiction workshopping, if not workshredding– and outright imagination abuse. Yes. There is emotional abuse, physical mental abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, psychological abuse, social abuse, spiritual abuse and even imagination abuse. No one talks about it. It is wrong, a form of artist exploitation perpetuated by romantic notions of the “tortured” artist “suffering” for art. Writing is joy, not pain.
What is so tough for passionate and genuine creatives is none of what we produce is really true. There is no fact whatsoever to anything at all which comes from imagination. It is nothing, intangible and immaterial, as breezy as the wind and unstable as water. If we get lucky, we might see a book printed or a painting hung or a film shown or a poem published. Otherwise, we have only imagined a wispiness to pass. This little-discussed characteristic of creativity is both its greatest ecstasy and its most dangerous vulnerability; for, anything which is not really true may be subject to others’ truths…which are just as untrue as yours.
I have felt violated and bullied as a writer. I expect to make edits, of course; I do not expect to continually receive disagreement to my imagination. In Chicago, I have been blessed with two fabulous writer groups of people ranging from those writing for pleasure and their lives to those who had book deadlines. In one group, not only did two novels emerge but so did a marriage and a baby. Another was a group of urbanites and teachers my own age, with our jobs and overall tastes and life goals in common. We were not only writing together but trying to find our places in the world, as well as survive tough Illinois winters.
What set those groups apart for me, from paid workshops and MFA classes and “writer” events, was I felt like Cher when she got her Oscar: “I don’t think this means I am “somebody,” but I guess I’m on my way.” For the most part, everybody in the group actually really liked and loved each other. We would have been spending time together even if we were not fated to sit around a table or floor wiping snot from each other’s noses when it was time to admit “This ain’t working” or “Start over.” The members would have been that one person at a job that I actually wanted to linger in the break room or go out to lunch with.
Other times, I felt like Josef K. in Kafka’s The Trial. Like that character before he tumbled down a maze of fool’s errands and distractions and trials and tribulations without knowing what he had done, I was left a frazzled mess. In that rubric, I was to sit silent as others praised writers they thought did a better job than the same thing I seemed to do–and sit through their lecture on these books they knew but sometimes I did not, all the while writing down their preferences and knowledge base like an apt pupil. That’s just unfair. I was not to bring up my favorite writers or anything I loved about my own writing. I would get a contrarian response to my own inclinations and inspirations. I was not to interrupt to say my mom was on the other line or I have to go to the bathroom or maybe even to ask: “Why are you doing this?”
I spend time with many people who write for work or as freelancers. I’ve seen them explode in stress from what seems to be a tenth rewrite for a publication, work assignment or meeting. For freelance journalists and academic journal contributors, the price for that work is fixed. Writers have already agreed to the dollar amount and will not make any more from continual polishing. Maybe because a concrete number is on the table, I have learned more from them about this unique form of bullying. Within the constriction of “job,” the writers are more pragmatic about edits, revisions, changes and literally bumping heads; it is hard to combine several minds on one issue or idea. I saw these “professionals” deliver short but powerful statements to make a project or writing that “needed work” become suddenly “fine” or even “good.” Those statements went along the lines of: “I have something else to get to soon” or “I have another deadline.”
Perhaps the more insidious side of imagination abuse are those who pose the opposite challenge: they tell you everything is perfect. If anyone tells me my raw work is perfect the first couple times out, I think they are either stoned or they just don’t care about me. I have actually told a few good friends I was helping (for free) with their work: “Your so-called editor is telling you this is good and ready because she wants you to keep paying for critiques on new chapters.” There is word for these bullies: ‘Preditors.’ Sending a writer out into the world with bad work they may never recover from is just a horrible thing to do, no matter the reason. To avoid bullying, I like to ask myself and others questions. I hope these can help others as well.
- Have I told a story someone besides me can follow and understand?
Forasmuch as I love my favorite books, some people just hate those books and don’t get them at all. Yet, even though we may differ on our romantic notions of a book (or not) and our emotional connections to it (or not), we could tell you the same thing in terms of what happened in the book. We are clear on the plot. We can name the characters. We know what they did. We know why they did it. And, I might love that or I might hate it. The point is, the writer had a job to do in communicating a story to me and they managed to do just that.
Whether or not I am offended by prurient elements or bored by vampire depictions or unchallenged by a Harlequin aesthetic has no value to the author as a criticism. There is someone out there who will feel differently than I do. Your reader should be able to tell you what happened in the story, however long it is and in whatever form. If they can do that, most bets are off. If I can do that, I can respect the writer no matter what I feel or not about their writing.
- Can you picture these characters in real life: as live beings, saying these words, doing these things?
Now, I am not going to sit there reading all my work out loud unless I’m struggling with it. But I do read dialogue out loud. I want to be sure that what I think I hear characters saying is something they would really say if they could materialize–which I am happy to say they do not. But otherwise, they are just unrealistic pawns for my own speeches–and not for words they really have to say. Editors, readers, workshop partners and mentors should be on the lookout for your characters’ bodies and voices at all times. If Sally sounds like Sue, and Darius is moving like Trey, and Gretchen is off in the corner like composite alien we have no idea what words or actions to expect with, then we need to hear that.
However, the charges must be specific and pointed and rooted in the text–not simply because someone does not like the character, or knows people who would not do what your character does, or would do something differently from the character. The point of depicting human life and living in words is to spark readers to do just that: ask questions about how they would live a situation, how they maybe have lived a situation already, or who they know in that situation. If they do not agree with your characters all the time, that is okay and that is just like life. But writers and authors don’t need disagreement to their characters and their characters’ lives or actions. That is judgment. They need judicious and targeted reality checks when the people or things they have created run too far off-base of what an audience can relate to.
- Can you tell me the tone, theme, main character(s), climax and resolution of my story?
Yep. It’s that simple. What we learned in English class back in middle, junior and high school is really all that counts. We received a condensed litmus test for any piece of literature in any form whatsoever. Forever. Any classic piece of literature which has survived the test of time is quite clear, memorable and defined by those five aspects in the eyes of most readers. As a writer of imagination, and not reportage or facts or non-fiction, I must confront those elements at some point. Sometimes, they confront me.
A surefire way to stop writer bullies in their tracks is to request some report on those five elements. To request a baby essay or speech on those elements keeps the conversations rooted in your WORK– and you get help with your actual images and words, not tangential issues or farfetched opinion or imagination bullying. It turns the tables on writer bullies; they twist from a passive position of waiting to find fault and into an active position of working with you. It is a mutual test that winds up the work most in the long run.
You can always just say “You just don’t like my work.” That is honest if you are continually told “This would be good if only if only if only if only”…yawn. Somebody will have to say “No, I don’t” or admit “Yes, I really do!” Perhaps thought they were helping you or it was fun to keep playing. No matter what, you will know.
- What does my spirit have to say?
Take a cue from Joan Didion and Johnny Cash: respect yourself first, and then don’t back down next. Your spirit will tell you when your work has reached its fullest potential. This is the strongest voice you have. If you get through the above four explorations intact and with agreement on weak spots in your writing, and dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ and hit Spellcheck, you should celebrate your accomplishment. That’s it. Love yourself and love your work. And despite any discomforts or disagreement or open-ended questions (which good writing is actually supposed to inspire anyway), your readers and editors and workshop partners and critics should love what you love because they really do love you.
Most importantly, do not be a writer bully yourself. Be kind to yourself and other writers always. We are not curing cancer or storming forts or blasting off to the moon. We are aware our hundreds and sometimes thousands of hours do not save a life in the immediate moment, like brain surgery or operating the jaws of life. But, I like to think I am saving lives down the road. I am trying to have fun and to give it. I am trying to give love to then have it. I am looking for any imaginary truths in life’s storms. Nothing is true anyway.