Tonight was my second night at the Unofficial Rice writing circle. So far, this has been a great addition to my summer. It has been so long since I’ve attended a real workshop and even longer since I’ve had a workshopping group that has met on a regular basis. Not to mention, they have the perfect balance of both warm and fuzzies and honest critiques. Because they back up whatever they have to say from the text is discussed, I trust them completely.
But tonight as I was sitting there on the couch, my mind began to wander. I realized that my editing style has changed over the past year, maybe even over the past six months. I think the change started to occur last Christmas break when my duties as Fiction Editor for Rice’s literary magazine, R2: The Rice Review, truly started. I read all of the fiction submissions in a period of about two weeks. It was a wonderful assignment for me. I love reading new work and I rarely get the chance. But on the other hand, this assignment did have painful sides to it. First of all, I couldn’t reveal anything about these pieces of fiction to anyone; it would be unfair and disrespectful to the authors. As someone who has been helping friends with their writing for years, it was also difficult to put my red pen down and just read. It pained me to know that I couldn’t give any tips to these writers as to how to fix these pieces. Instead all these critical comments built up inside of me.
By the end of winter break I finished reading the submissions, wrote down my opinions, and came back to Rice. Then we had to narrow down the huge pile of entries to just 6-7 for actual publication. This is when any and all of those negative comments came out of hiding. During discussion, I would blurt them out for the greater editorial board’s consideration. Before this experience, it would have pained me to say these things aloud, to be so critical without any balancing compliments. Now I began to see that my harsh criticism was more helpful to get the job done. And then to really hammer the point home, I also interned at a small press last semester where I helped with submissions. I learned quickly that the same principle applied: if I had more negative comments than positives within a few pages, then I should place the manuscript in the “No” pile and move on. It was the only way to move through the looming pile of unsolicited submissions.
In the end, this post is an apology for the members of my new, supportive writing group. I feel as if my comments on each Google Document tend toward the constructive criticism as opposed to the confidence-boosting comments. I’m not quite the same sweet girl who used to critique her best friend’s essays in elementary and middle school. But at the same time, this isn’t an apology. As I have learned from my time in the writing community, gathering proposed revisions and honest feedback is more valuable than collecting compliments. The writer should learn to recognize the polished, brilliant parts of the writing–the moments that glow–on their own. If it feels right, then it probably needs to be protected in subsequent drafts. It’s the rough patches that a writer can’t always define or confront without the help of someone else.
Thank you summer writing workshop for the heart-warming comments, but thank you even more for telling me where the dialogue becomes stiff and for asking the hard questions about my characters’ actions. They will make me a better writer.