Writer to Writer

One Wednesday, on my way to Playwriting Class (my favorite class), a classmate stopped me to say congratulations.

“Sorry?” I was in my usual hazy state of mind that kept me from listening too closely in any of my classes. My brain had to reboot itself in order to have a human conversation, so I froze in place in order to get focused.

“Your play!” she said. “You were chosen as a finalist in the big dramatic writing contest. You get to come to the conference in Bellingham with us!”

I blinked at her, still not fully rebooted. She rolled her eyes, grabbed my shoulder and led me to a bulletin board with a flyer announcing the names of students invited to attend a massive conference in Washington. There I was, the only student on campus invited to come as a playwright.

That completed my mental restart, but it sent me into a spiral of panic as well. I had only entered the contest because my favorite professor had pushed me to go for it. A few weeks later, I was in a massive hotel, watching a disinterested director misinterpret my dialogue to actors who did their best to follow my stage amateur stage directions while I cringed. I dealt with the stress by gorging on food and wandering the halls of the conference hotel and the streets of Bellingham amidst ecstatic, young actors. They were beside themselves to be surrounded by fellow theater kids, but I couldn’t join the fun.

Seeing my play go through the process of staging, rehearsal and then presentation was harrowing. The thought of my work being performed shook me so deeply I couldn’t sleep in my hotel bed. To make matters worse, I was up against a young theater darling, some blonde playwright/actor who was the clear frontrunner. Before a winner could be announced, I had to present my play and then hear what the judges had to say.

The play went fine. The applause was amicable, and the actors seemed happy with their performances. All the while, my heart desperately tried to make a break from my chest. I silently begged it to stay put as I stepped up the judges, two male and two female professors.

Each of them looked a bit rough around the edges as they took me in. One of the women had curly hair piled onto her head and two tendrils fell down to her glasses as she gave me a casual shrug.

“I liked your play fine. It was cute.”

My jaw hit the floor. Cute? Cute! My writing wasn’t cute - it was insightful and fresh. I was the voice of my generation. Besides, I worked really hard on that little play. Who was this lady anyway? No one I had ever heard of!

None of these rejoinders made it out of my mouth. Instead I nodded, smiled and thanked them for their time. When Blonde Theater Darling won a grant and chance to stage a play at the Kennedy Theater during the final moments of the conference, I made sure to clap with everyone else, despite my shattered, exhausted heart.

I learned many lessons from that first foray into serious, competitive writing: research a new competition before joining; don’t travel for a contest unless it’s a must; take the act of giving feedback seriously. I swore to myself as I packed up my suitcase and threw it into the trunk of my friend’s compact car that anyone coming to me for criticism would get it. My criticisms would be a far cry from a shrug or reductive comments. “Cute” my jiggly butt cheeks.

After college, I moved to Shanghai, China and joined my first writer’s society. I attended my first meeting with a short story and got a very different reaction than my play. This time, as I read through my work at my first meeting, there were a lot of averted gazes. I told myself that was how they listened to someone’s work, not how they avoided eye contact with an author who’s prose was far below what they expected.

A second author, a lovely young lady that I’ll call Gabby, read after me. Her story was a tale about a company that produced dreams for the population with no one being the wiser. I loved it - it was sharp, imaginative and captivating from the first sentence. I couldn’t believe Gabby did anything besides write day and night--she was so talented. To my shock, the rest of the group managed to reign in their praise. They talked about her word choices and pacing, but mostly said things like, “You’re on the right track. Keep going.”

The next day, I got a phone call from group member Susan, who gently, and with complete empathy, asked me if she could work through my piece with me. I staggered back a bit - why had no one said anything at the meeting? Susan assured me it was because I was new and the guys in charge didn’t do well with new writers. She wanted to step up and help me out with some notes. Could we get together?

We met up for coffee and went through the work sentence by sentence. Unlike my play feedback, this round was helpful, detailed and inspired me to write something better. Actual notes, as opposed to a simple comment, turned out to be the push I needed.

That writers society was a big part of my life for years afterward and I made sure that the other writers saw I could handle actual, constructive criticism. I thanked them for any helpful notes and wrote down any that I felt could aid my journey to improved prose. That opened an important door - one that let me give other writers my help and let them in on what I saw in their work.

That turned out to be a kind of rehearsal for my current role as a professional writer and leader of my own group. It’s a role I take seriously and want to use to help others see writing as a process and one deserving of respect. My group of bilingual writers meet up with each week and together we work on our fiction or blogs. Most of all, we give feedback. I named us Word Love Guadalajara. We meet at the same cafe each week, an artsy mansion-turned-restaurant that you find everywhere in Mexico. The staff likes us and the coffee is outstanding, so it works well.

We squeeze into a small table in a little corner where there are no speakers piping in atmospheric music, the walls cut us off from the rest of the restaurant and we can open as much as we need to about our own writing and that of our colleagues.

Before we get going, I state the rules - No one can read their own stuff aloud. Each author has to physically hand over his or her story and let someone else’s voice read it. Then, any criticism has to be clear, specific and based on our experience as readers, not a comment about the writer. Nothing general or negative. We don’t meet to filter out bad writers, we get together so we can keep grow and improve as a group. I do this to bring people in, not to be exclusive. As there is currently an extremely high demand for content of all kinds thanks to the ease of digital publishing, I want to make the writing out there as beautiful as possible.

As a group, we’ve had some real challenges on our hands. One of the biggest was a romance novel by a new author I’ll call August.

August didn’t come to our group in person. Instead, he reached out online and we exchanged emails about how the group worked, why we did what we did, the usual questions I field as a leader of a creative community. Right away, I saw the fear in August’s emails. He wrote questions about basic information about meeting times and cost, but underneath the calm typography I could hear the terrified question - How will you judge me? And how will I survive your judgement?

Despite his doubts, August had a novel inside him begging to come out. He wanted to tell the story of his first love during a summer away from home and he wanted to do it in English, his second language. He sent me a rough draft of his novel, and his inexperience with creative writing was clear. He forgot to give the characters names, his sentences went on forever, and what was supposed to be a serious love story came across as a stalker’s confessions.

August explained to me that he wouldn’t be able to make it to our meeting, but he would really love to hear how we felt about his story. I presented it to the group and explained the author’s dilemma. I wanted to help August, but to do that I had to be blunt - this book was going nowhere. So, as a group, we made a short video of our meeting as we focused on the text as opposed to the author’s ability.

My group squeezed into the corner of a table while a volunteer filmed us on her phone. We did a quick exercise; I read the first sentence of the story and then asked the group what questions they had that the author could answer within the first page. We went around and I jotted down what everyone wanted to know.

Who are these people?

Does she like him or is she trying to get away from him?

Why are they in a hotel room together?

Once we clarified what we wanted to know, I finished reading the page to illustrate how none of our questions were answered. That, I explained to the camera, can be dangerous - it leads to readers shaking their heads at the prose and setting the book down. Then, we looked at some specifics like punctuation and descriptions that were unclear.

Every member of Word Love had the opportunity to roll their eyes at August’s rough efforts to describe young love. It would have been easy to encourage August to stick to his university’s engineering program and give up any hope of being an author. I’m sorry to admit that I was tempted to do exactly that, but then I remembered the judges in Bellingham and my first exposure to serious writers in Shanghai. The former infuriated me while the latter helped - couldn’t we guide August down a road that led to a better option than quitting?

My fellow authors followed my lead and took the critique seriously. Together, we let him know what we thought might work a bit better here and there, let him in on our doubts without being mean. The fact that it was filmed helped a lot. Any mean or dismissive asides would have been recorded for all of eternity, and no one wanted a snide comment as their legacy. 

The video was posted on my YouTube channel and we waited to hear from August. It took him a couple of months, but he eventually got the nerve to watch it. He live-texted me his anxiety as he watched the lengthy breakdown of his work, and I repeatedly assured him this was all pure opinion--he could take it or leave it.

He decided to take it - after our careful and concise feedback, he hired me as a writing tutor. Now his book is coming together, the story is much more clear, and he hopes to publish someday.

My own writing is on a journey as well. I’m learning more about how to blog, I’m pitching to publications and hoping to delve into some self-publishing. I now read articles about building up email lists and finding a niche. I see writing as both an art and a craft, an attitude that keeps me working and looking for different opinions on my prose.

After seeing several calls for personal essays from different websites that I regularly read, I answered the call with a piece of my own. I shared it with my friend C. and asked him to read it and make some comments. The story was about tracking a friend’s gender transition with the help of Facebook, and I needed a quick round of comments to get a better idea of how it was reading.

C’s reaction was jarring. After reading a story about a trans-woman’s experience as written by a cisgender female, he commented, “I feel like you want me to apologize for being a straight man.”

This floored me - the story wasn’t about apologies or straight men. However, the note was helpful in it’s own, weird way. First of all, it was specific. C’s words let me know my story would be seen as political because the transgender community is under a lot of scrutiny from all sides at the moment. They’re also a favorite topic of our sitting president, making the topic even more loaded. It was also a good way to know that I was hitting an odd note with some of my word choices (C. made sure to point out the guilt-inducing sentences), and that I would have to adjust those if I wanted it to resonate in a different way.

But his comment did one thing I never saw coming; it rolled off my back. The days of being devastated by the reactions of others were behind me, I could feel it. I knew that I could take something positive from any odd, confusing or even accusatory. I found myself seeing C’s opinion for what it was: his opinion. There was no reason to let his words shape my experience or my decisions about my own piece. After all, I’m the author of my own story, no one else.

Lindsay Redifer is an American freelance writer who has contributed pieces to Craftsense and OilPrice and has been published in Arizona State University's Everything Change: An Anthology of Climate Fiction. She is also a lover of literature and all-around professional. She is currently available for new clients and happy to discuss any prospects. Reach her on LinkedIn or on Facebook.

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