Vision: A Resource for Writers

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A Confidence of Vision:
Criticism and the Writer's Response

By Bryan Russell
Copyright © 2008 by Bryan Russell, All Rights Reserved

A young writer sits at her desk, typing at the keys, her fingers connected as if by invisible strings to a dream, a vision that lurks in her head.  Keys rattle and tap, and she hopes only that they might keep up with her interior eyes and the images that pass before them.  Lost to the world, she writes down her story.  When she is finished, she takes a break, breathing a little hard, exhilarated with what she has before her.  A story, and it's so wonderful...

Life intrudes.  Bills have to be paid, work done, friends seen, parents reassured.  Days later she comes back to her wonderful story, and when she reads it she finds it is not quite so wonderful as she had thought.  It needs revision.  She tinkers.  She's not so lost to the world, now, as she writes.  She frets, and Starbucks cups gather around her desk, the detritus of anxiety.  She flips a word, and then flips it back again.  She is undecided.  What should she do?  It's good, the story, but is it good enough?  Things nag her, but she is not sure what they are.  The story is not right, but she can't see what's wrong.

She decides to send it to a critique group, and wonders what they will say.  She sends the virgin story off, and she waits.

(More Starbucks cups appear, forming an odd mocha-scented maze through which she wanders…)

And then the critiques come, all twelve of them.  And each says an entirely different thing, and wounds her in an entirely new way.

She stares at the critiques for some time, and her story blurs before her and becomes unreal, as if it had come from some other person's mind, and had passed through some other person's fingers.

What now?

*          *          *

Criticism is an important step, though a difficult one, in the writing process.  It is often necessary, yet despite that necessity it is also dangerous, and often misleading.  Nothing is more likely to wound a writer, or derail a story.  And yet we, as writers, keep coming back to it.  Necessity dictates this to us: our need for an objective view of what has become immensely personal, immensely close to us.  That very closeness, which allowed us to see and create our story in the first place, has now become our enemy.  It prevents us from clearly seeing our work, and from clearly seeing the viewpoints of others in regards to it.

It is this last I want to talk about.  That is, what is the writer's response to criticism?  There is a strange duality, usually, in a writer's acceptance of criticism, and their closeness to their work plays a role in both.  The story is part of you, has come from you, is you.  It's your child.  And then somebody slaps it.  Let's be real; for most writers, critique of any sort will always invoke a reaction.  Appreciation for time spent on the critiquer's behalf?  That would be nice.  Due consideration for the important insights offered?  We can hope.  But that is not usually the first reaction, which goes more like this: "That is the stupidest thing anyone has ever said.  This person is an idiot.  I don't like them, and they have the morals and personal habits of a leech.  And the leech is better looking."

Hopefully, though, we can all get over this, and feel some of that "due consideration for time spent" slowly seeping in to balance the angst.  Slowly we will settle ourselves, and appreciate that, yes, these people really are trying to help us (most of the time – but that's another topic entirely).  But what then?  We still face a difficult task.  We have twelve honest critiques, and each says something different, and each sees the story in an entirely different way.  We hope for those eureka moments, where a suggestion flashes in the mind as so right, so perfect, that we can't do anything but accept it, and use it.  But this is more rare than we might wish, and paralysis can so easily set in.  We are too close to the story, and these views are too foreign, too alien to what we ourselves see in the words.

This is a danger, and a gift.  A danger because we cannot always assimilate them, and a gift because these are the very objective views we are looking for.  The danger is pervasive: we risk paralysis, or we risk being controlled by the critiques.  Whether sent in goodwill or not, this is always a real danger.  Many writers feel compelled to answer every charge brought by every critique.  And yet each will have different, and sometimes contradictory, views.  And such contradictions can again lead to a sort of writerly paralysis, or to the abandonment of the story.  "Everything is wrong.  Nothing worked.  Better to scrap it."

Yet such different views are at the heart of the reading experience.  There are no perfect books, no stories which perfectly please all readers.  Look at the overwhelming popularity and success of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings: for all its beloved success, there are many intelligent readers of fantasy who truly dislike the story.  We would soon run out of fingers, toes, and even hairs on our head if we were to try to count each one.  So why should our own rough draft meet universal acclaim?

It won't.  But that is what criticism is for, to provide an opportunity to see our work in a new way, and to improve it.  This is the beauty of those myriad views: each will allow you a new glimpse of your story, one untainted by your own closeness.

Yet we still have our dilemma.  What do we do with these alien glimpses, these strange sightings and interpretations of our word-formed child?  We cannot satisfy every charge against it, or take every suggestion.  Nor should we.  We cannot cede control to a dissenting voice merely because it dissents.  We must remember that it is our story, and no matter how insightful a critique might be, this person will never know the story as well as we do, because the story is ours.  It lives first and foremost inside us.  A critique can only comment on this outward skin, this reflection in words we have cast out onto page and screen.

And this is the key.  It is this inner vision, this purest form of the story that unscrolls before our eyes (momentarily blind to the world around us), which must guide us.  It is important to receive critiques, and hopefully they will be good critiques.  But we must remember that it is not the critiques, be they good or bad, which are truly important, but what we do with them.  The most important part of the critique is the writer's analysis of it.  We must break down each critique, and try to understand it, and understand it in light of what we are trying to do.  We don't have to look at it just in regards to the story the reader sees, the story on the page, but also in regards to the story only we can see.  In so doing we can see the disparity between them.  Our goal is to realize, as best we can, that story inside us, and to recreate it for the reader, to make the two versions match as closely as possible.  We want to shape our words until they offer a story to match the dream-like vision that haunts us, so that the reader can see what we see, and feel what we feel. 

Even this perfectly recreated version will not please everyone, but we can finally rest, at least, assured that this is a matter of taste rather than a failure of craft.  It is a difficult thing, and yet we can do it.  It is that inner vision that must guide us, our own unique view of the story we want to tell.  We cannot let ourselves be derailed.  Do not let someone switch tracks, and drive our story to a destination we do not wish to reach.  It is our story, and our vision, and we must have confidence in it.  We must hold to it. 

We can let critiques shape our story, but we can't let them shake it loose from those bright tracks we see, leading ever forward into the dim night.  The destination is ours, and only we know the way.