Lessons from Writing Group

Murder your darlings.*

– Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, The Art of Writing

Recently, a friend in my dissertation-writing group gave me what amounted to a very good insight on my writing style. It came about while we were discussing a recent critique question and she confessed that she had been upset (in a knee-jerk reaction kind of way) when one of her sentences had been critiqued negatively. In response I said something along the lines of, “I know. I hate when I really like a sentence and then someone critiques it.” Her response?

“No. You aren’t really attached to your sentences at all.”

Again, that is a paraphrase. But in the context of the conversation, what she meant was that I don’t get upset about critiques, in particular close critiques of how a sentence is written.

And I agreed with her when she corrected me, even though I had just voiced the opposite opinion (I think, in hindsight, to empathize and try to show that I understood that being attached to sentences was a normal thing to struggle with during the editing process. I definitely have had the experience of not wanting to get rid of a sentence that a reader didn’t like.)

I’ve been thinking about this exchange a lot, because I really think it is indicative of a facet of the way I work as a writer. In part, my seeming “imperviousness” to critiques is due to my attendance at the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop in 2008. At the workshop, I wrote five full-length original short stories and several shorter sketches and received critiques from all seventeen other writers at the workshop. The way the “Clarion Method” works, every critique starts out with each reader getting two minutes to voice their thoughts on the story, good or bad. If they want to repeat something another person said and either agree or disagree with it, they are supposed to say “ditto” or “anti-ditto.”

Hearing seventeen critiques, I had to get over my fear of listening to other people’s thoughts on my writing. If I had spent every one of those seventeen two-minute periods (plus more for the weekly guest instructor) bracing myself in the face of critique, not really listening, or otherwise trying to parse the critiques out on the spot, I would have missed out on a lot of really good info. Another piece of the puzzle is the fact that I also critiqued each of those seventeen writers during those weeks. Writers I respected as friends and colleagues. Writers who became some of my very best friends (all seventeen of them.) So when I gave a critique, I always wanted the writer to hear it and to know that I meant something by it about my experience of reading, even if my thoughts weren’t right for the direction their story was meant to take. Love the sentence I didn’t care for? Keep it! But at least think about why I didn’t get it. Or, help me to question why, as a writer/reader it didn’t work for me. Did I miss something structurally? Did I skim a word? Is it just not my thing?

This is not to say that my critique partner is a less Teflon-skinned writer than me. Or that she’s wrong to sometimes protect the sentences that I am threatening with the red pen. Part of why her comment keeps coming back to me is that I’ve also been working on a new site lately where I blog about my own experience as a reader of fiction. And writing what amounts to personal book reviews has forced me to think a lot about what I seek in a reading experience. With important exceptions, one thing I love is readability. A book that I want to read all night. A book that has a low “cost of entry” but also has depth for re-readings that might happen just as rapidly. I’m not actually always crazy about books on a sentence level. Sometimes the sentences get in the way of whatever bigger picture I am trying to create and see through the process of reading.

This is so true for me as a writer, too — with fiction and nonfiction — I will sacrifice sentences in favor of making the shape of the story work. Sometimes this means being easily able to let go of a sentence I liked if the reader says it could be improved or that it doesn’t convey what I hoped it did. Sometimes this means “sacrificing” sentences in the sense that I don’t do as much as I could to make them clear because they’re really acting as a marker for a developing idea, whether I realize it or not. In my dissertation, one way this happens is that I let a lot of threads dangle throughout a chapter, introducing idea after idea and writing a big “payoff” that explains everything at the end. When it works, it’s sort of great. But it is a lot to ask of the reader. And it ends up not being as easy to read if the threads don’t click or are too tangled to allow the reader to draw connections of their own.

All this has made me wonder if there is something that demarcates this type of reading and writing from a more detail, sentence based approach.  And whether I — and most writers — can work with both. If so, how well? Do people have predominant styles?

It strikes me as not inconsequential that I started this post by referring to a conversation that was important to me without being able to reproduce the exact sentences. It was more about the tone, the feel of the comment, the experience of the conversation in concert with our work in writing group and with our friendship in general.

I’m still trying to work out what all that means. So far, I’ve gotten as far as these sentences.

*Absolutely DO NOT murder anyone. The man was referring to sentences. In writing.


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