A few weekends ago I took a writing workshop at Grub Street in Boston called “The First Five Pages.” There were 12 of us crammed into a tiny conference room with an overcompensating table, literally putting our backs against the wall. We were an eclectic bunch, from courtroom thrillers to YA to feminist literature to Sci Fi to spiritual awakening to Parisian love story to plain ol’ novel (that would be me).
The instructor–an agent–not as in secret (although they are a mysterious bunch, eh?), read our first pages prior to the class and gave us feedback, out loud, in front of the group. This brought about considerable squirming, nervous twittering, fluttering of eyelids, gnashing of teeth, nail biting, stunned silence from some and borderline belligerence from others. And I hadn’t even had a cup of coffee yet.
Afterwards we were paired with someone to review our feedback and rewrite our beginning as much as we could possibly bear. My person was the Parisian love story. She hated her feedback and promptly took off after lunch.
I think the instructor felt a little bad. She Freddy Kruegered my pages. Pointed out the boring, stereotypical writing, the deadly opening sentence, the distracting jump in time, the superfluous language. Then after a ridiculously meager lunch (I was rushed and barely got a cup of soup in me) where I lost my person, I was alone, treading water, trying to maintain my dignity. Trying to ignore my dried up contacts and my growling stomach and the stale air wheezing in and out of me like an ancient Hoover. Trying to figure out what the hell to do with these 5 pages.
It’s hard to let people read my writing. I’m terrified they’ll think it’s crap and then certain they’re lying or drunk if they like it. Usually feedback paralyzes me. I stop writing for weeks or months at a time, even when the feedback is positive. It exhausts me, makes me feel like I had a quadruple bypass and I need to be in ICU for a while.
But this time I got it. Immediately. I knew exactly what I had to do and I believed it would make my novel better. And it did. I wrote a new opening line that day. I started in the middle of the action and stopped meandering my way into the story. And the instructor liked it–said she was proud of me. Like Mrs. Kleeman in 5th grade when I finally figured out how to use there and their correctly.
We all need feedback. What are we doing that’s fabulous, how are we screwing up? But it kind of sucks. It has to come in the right way, from the right person at the right time. A word, a tone of voice, even a raised eyebrow, can make the difference between having it soak into your skin like a good lotion or having it tear the skin right off of you (sorry, it’s that Freddy Krueger thing again).
For me, writing feedback is like personal feedback. I usually forget the good stuff but I never ever forget the bad stuff. That’s probably why I’ve never tried to get published. I’m not ready for the feedback. But I think it’s time to deal with it. To accept some of it as just the stuff you need. The stuff that gets you thinking, makes you better, actually helps. So thank you Sorche Fairbank. You are a damn good teacher and I bet a hell of an agent.
I plan on getting more feedback. Taking other workshops, sticking with my Writers Group, listening to my blog readers, and maybe one of these days, actually sending out some writing. How about you?