(Not) A Day at the Beach

I sat in the chair, the gray, metallic surface hard and cold and unforgiving against my back.  I rested my elbow on the small wooden desk attached to the chair’s right arm, my legs moving in restless spasms, up and down, side to side, as I waited.

metalchair

 

The time had come.  All of my preparation, the writing completed over the summer,  had been accomplished with this moment in mind.

Would they like my story?

waitingwouldtheylikemystory

 

I felt reasonably confident sitting there.  I had completed four short stories ahead of the semester, and, the previous week, at the end of the first class, I had handed out the one I thought was the most polished.  It was titled “A Day at the Beach,” and I’d gone over it with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, sharpening themes, honing the focus, cleaning up the prose.

finetoothcomb

 

Even so, there were some very real nerves.  This was my first-ever graduate-level writing workshop, after all.  My classmates, about fifteen in all, were talented wordsmiths, and no doubt some of them were veterans of previous workshops–not rookies like me.

Two other intrepid souls had shared their stories with the class as well, and theirs as well as mine would be critiqued thoroughly over the course of the next couple of hours.

Whose story would be put to the test first?

The professor, a bald, bespectacled man in his late fifties with a thick British accent, announced, “To get things started, we have Michael Fedison’s ‘A Day at the Beach.'”

dayatbeachearly

 

So much for that question!

My legs grew more restless as the professor called for someone, anyone, to get the critique under way.

A blond, bearded guy named John was all too eager.

“I began this story, and I didn’t really find what motivated this character to do the things he did,” he said, thumbing through the pages of his printed copy.  “I kept waiting for that to change, for something to happen to show me something.  But it never did.”

charactermotivationuse

 

Ugh.  I felt as if I’d been punched in the solar plexus.

To back up, all throughout the previous week’s class, the professor, in a sort of introduction-to-creative-writing lecture, had discussed the all-important function of character in storytelling.  As I listened, I grew a bit concerned–not because I disagreed, but because “A Day at the Beach,” the copies of which were printed out and sorted in a stack at my feet, ready to be distributed to the class, was the exception to the rule.  It was a theme-based story, attempting to tackle social mores, group psychology; and, packed within its dozen pages, I had tried to delve into big issues that affected us as a culture and world.

socialmores

 

It was not in any way a character-driven story.  Looking back now, I can clearly see the problems this presented.  Lacking any real character development, the story needed to be a slam dunk in every other aspect to succeed–and even then, its impact would be muted.  At the time, though, on that warm September evening deep into the 1990s, I hardly thought that mattered.  Surely, the other students in the class would see the themes jumping off the page, and an intriguing discussion of said themes would emerge.

slamdunk

 

That’s not the way it happened.  John’s opening salvo had broken the literary ice, and several of the others began to chime in.

One young woman, whose name I’ve long since forgotten, pointed out that the prose style was arrogant, and she felt talked down to as she read the story.  Another student said she couldn’t follow the plot and agreed about the writing–it seemed forced, she said, awkward, the words self-conscious and without flow.  Still another complained that “A Day at the Beach” had no forward momentum, no thrust that wanted to make him turn the page.  It just sat there, flat and lifeless as a suffocated fish.

cantfollowstoryfish

 

By this time, when I wished a hole would open up in the floor beneath my chair and swallow me, the professor asked me to explain my story, to discuss what I had wanted (and obviously failed!) to accomplish with it.

And that’s what I did.  I talked about the different scenes, the character’s reaction to the events, even his name, all of which were symbolic.  When I was finished, I felt a little better.  Some of the students nodded and seemed a bit more receptive to the story than they had upon reading it.  But it was a Pyrrhic victory.  If I had crafted the story in the most effective manner, I wouldn’t have needed to explain it to the class.  It would have explained itself, without any postscripts from me.

emptypyrrich

 

When I drove home that night, I felt beaten, defeated.  I didn’t turn on the radio.  I just drove in silence.

I wondered if perhaps I’d made a big mistake taking this class.

More than that, I wondered if I was really cut out to be a writer.

deepcaverncutouttowrite

 

**************

In The Eye-Dancers, Ryan Swinton fears rejection more than just about anything else in the world.  A class clown of sorts, when he tells a joke, he needs for others to laugh and enjoy the punch line.

classclown

 

As writers, we’ve all been there–and I’m not sure if it’s something we ever fully overcome.  Is there anyone among us who is completely and unequivocally immune to reader response?  We toil and we labor and we plot and we live and breathe through our characters . . . and then we share our work.

And when we do, no matter how much praise we garner or positive feedback we enjoy, it is also inevitable that we will receive criticism.  It might come via a scathing remark from a friend or even family member, an angry email, or a negative review.  The question is–when the critical words come, and they will–what do we do with them?  Do we get angry?  Do we ignore them, blissfully unconcerned?  Do we take them to heart and begin to doubt our worth as a writer?  Do we disregard the ninety-eight positive reviews and fixate on the two negative?

criticism

 

Perhaps, as with so many things, there is a happy medium, a middle path.  Some criticism, after all, is valid, and should be weighed and considered.  When students in that creative writing workshop said “A Day at the Beach” suffered due to a lack of a strong lead character, they were right.  I would have been foolish to ignore that.

Other criticism, however, might not be valid.  Overly general, vitriolic, or irrelevant critiques, while they may scald, can justifiably be ignored.  How to discern the difference between sound, reasonable criticism that prods and encourages you to be better, reach higher, and hone your craft and critiques that offer little more than insecurity-inducing doubts that offer nothing of value can, admittedly, be a tricky and difficult task.  The only way I know how to attempt it is to try to detach myself emotionally as much as possible and apply the criticism to the story as if the story had been written by someone else.  With an objective eye (or as an objective of an eye as I can hope to attain under the circumstances!), I can then better digest the critique in a thorough and neutral manner and either learn from it or disregard it.

stayneutral

 

That’s easier said than done, of course–just one more aspect of the writing trade that is more art than science.

But whatever we do, it’s important to remind ourselves why we write to begin with–why we log the long hours, the writer’s block, the struggles, the joys, the failures, and the exhilaration of the creative process.

We have passions and loves and fears and longings that need to be expressed.  We have words inside of us that must be poured out, calling, prodding, kicking, screaming to be let loose onto the page.

wordspouringout

 

And we have a desire–no, more than that, a need–to share those words with others.

*************

I handed out two more short stories in that creative writing workshop.  Neither was as well received as I’d hoped, but both represented progress over my first attempt.  The feedback, though highly mixed, grew more positive with each effort, and by semester’s end, I was determined to keep at it, to keep trying, keep writing.

mountaintop

 

Sometimes the writing process is exhilarating, a mountaintop experience like no other; sometimes it is exhausting, draining, stripping you to the core.  But it’s what I love.  It’s what I am, and what I do.

Even if it isn’t always “A Day at the Beach.”

beachend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

41 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Carrie Rubin
    Sep 10, 2015 @ 19:49:02

    I’ve found the longer I’m at it, the thicker my skin becomes. Where it used to require a week or two to get over early reader critiques, it now takes mere hours. We also learn that not every critique is spot-on. It might just be a difference of opinion. But when two or more readers say the same thing, then we need to pay attention and probably make some changes. Over time, we come to look forward to these critiques, because they’re what keeps us moving forward with our work.

    Wonderful post. A topic to which most writers can relate.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Sep 14, 2015 @ 01:04:36

      Thanks so much, Carrie! And you’re absolutely right–critiques, hard as they sometimes are to digest, are so essential to a writer. I know for me, when I’m so close to my own work, I sometimes overlook certain problems with the plot or characters that another reader can see without much difficulty. This kind of constructive feedback is invaluable.

      Reply

  2. Mary J. McCoy-Dressel
    Sep 10, 2015 @ 20:26:52

    Great post, Mike. I’ve been writing a long time, but my skin still isn’t thick enough. Better than in the beginning, though.

    Reply

  3. jjspina
    Sep 10, 2015 @ 21:07:34

    Another wonderful post, Mike. I know what you mean about negative responses to our work. It is inevitable that we will get some. It does hurt at first but if it is something that we know needs improvement it is good feedback. It is the negative remarks that are unwarranted that really make an author wonder if what he/she is doing is worth it.

    I do a lot of reviews and read even more reviews on others’ books. I can’t believe some of the horrible reviews that are mean and vindictive. As a reviewer I always think of the author’s feelings when I do a review. If the book is not well done with too many editing errors I will contact the author and let them know that I cannot review their book. Even if I give four stars for a review I contact the author if I can and give them headsup on the review and any edits that I may have found as a copy editor.

    As you say, I too, love every minute of the writing process even the dreaded editing times. We are blessed, Mike, to have something in our lives that we love to do and are able to continue to do it! Sorry for being so long in the tooth! Lol!
    Blessings and hugs to you!

    Write on!!!!

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Sep 14, 2015 @ 00:59:20

      Hi Janice, and thanks so much for your wonderful comments! Your approach to reviews is perfect, and it’s an approach every reviewer should employ! Your ongoing support is much appreciated!

      Reply

  4. evelyneholingue
    Sep 11, 2015 @ 00:20:34

    Hard, isn’t it? And however essential to our progress. I’ve been through similar moments and despite the embarrassment and even hurt, I’m glad it happened because it helps us to grow a thicker skin and more importantly to accept that if more than one person doesn’t fall for our writing piece, something is wrong and needs to be fixed. Great piece, Mike. Best to you.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Sep 14, 2015 @ 00:56:56

      Thanks so much, Evelyne! And that’s a great point–if multiple people see a problem with something we’ve written, then that definitely points to a potential issue . . .

      Reply

  5. Lyn
    Sep 11, 2015 @ 02:46:27

    Another great post, Mike, and highly relatable.

    Reply

  6. bisimodupe1975
    Sep 11, 2015 @ 10:05:31

    Thanks for sharing your story. Writing for me is fun, tasking, intense, a relief and so many things mix together. But i just keep at it in spite of my fears. Criticism is good though difficult to swallow sometimes.

    Reply

  7. Jilanne Hoffmann
    Sep 11, 2015 @ 18:53:01

    It takes courage to put yourself out there, but it takes even more courage to recognize when criticism rings true. This isn’t an easy profession. So congrats for being brave!

    Reply

  8. stormy1812
    Sep 11, 2015 @ 20:29:43

    Man…this is well timed for me! For months I’ve been battling self-doubt in my writing career (your words ring as true to a reporter as any other writer, particularly the criticism that’s frequently received – everyone knows how to do my job but me it seems like). My skin is much thicker now than it had been but there are still those days, some words that just keep coming around like a bad penny. I have been uninspired enough that I’ve all but abandoned my blog and am struggling with motivation for work and even backed off on my volunteer letter writing because I wasn’t feeling it. I will try and remember your words here and remind myself that the best way to get through it all is to just keep going! Awesome piece! 🙂

    Reply

  9. kaytisweetlandrasmussen83
    Sep 11, 2015 @ 23:14:12

    Such helpful advice Mike. I will try to harness my hurt feelings when they come and pay attention to the advice instead of the adviser. We are all courageous when we sit down at our computers and try to put our thoughts down in some civilized manner. Thanks Mike.

    Reply

  10. reocochran
    Sep 12, 2015 @ 17:00:27

    I have not had too much criticism because in the 90’s U would send out rough draft a on SASE and they came back, as is. Once, “Guideposts for Kids” sent me a nice comment which I promptly misplaced. I have had 3 fellow bloggers be critical or un- follow me, after 3 years thus isn’t too bad. I an sure I would not be too cool in a writers workshop with negative comments but would welcome constructive comments. Your gut reaction was real and honest, thanks for sharing.

    Reply

  11. aliceandembo
    Sep 13, 2015 @ 15:25:24

    I’m not sure if there are any successful writers who have not felt like this, I guess they all have at one time or another in their writing career so I guess that makes you one of them too…and that I think is a good sign. Keep writing! 🙂

    Reply

  12. joannerambling
    Sep 14, 2015 @ 00:04:26

    Sine I am not a writer I can’t say I truly get this but even though I do get it to some extent that said it was a great bloody post that made me think

    Reply

  13. K.A. Libby: A Novel Enterprise (aka Karla Libby Reidinger)
    Sep 14, 2015 @ 11:12:33

    You asked: Would they like my story? I say: Yes!

    Reply

  14. teagan geneviene
    Sep 14, 2015 @ 13:32:20

    Mike, I relate… on so many levels. At my “real job” my writing is sometimes in the form of documents that are sent around to groups of managers “for comment” — with my boss encouraging them to do so. There’s usually someone petty and threatened when they see a well done document, who has to struggle until they come up with something to criticize. Then there are new employees, eager to prove themselves. So they rip apart the document, with mostly completely invalid, irrelevant criticisms…
    And THEN there’s the novel writing and story telling… LOL. Yes, I relate.
    Your writing is wonderful. Keep it up. Hugs.

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Sep 16, 2015 @ 19:23:38

      Thanks so much, Teagan! And you know, this all makes me think of a quote by John Updike: “Writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing in the open sea.” . . .

      Reply

  15. Ipuna Black
    Sep 14, 2015 @ 21:24:50

    Thanks for sharing such a personal experience Mike! I’ve taken a hiatus from my blog to finish a second book. In the moment of writing, I could feel/live in my story, but I received some negative feedback and for a moment I felt many of the same feelings you did. I had to pick myself up and keep moving forward. If we keep progressing in an area we are passionate about, we are bound to just get better, right?
    Anyhow, thank you very much for sharing!

    Reply

  16. Stephanae V. McCoy
    Sep 15, 2015 @ 12:45:37

    This is such a helpful reminder to remain objective in the face of reviews. While I’ve never experienced a writing workshop of any sort (thank goodness, I don’t think my fragile ego could handle it) this post still resonated with me. “We have passions and loves and fears and longings that need to be expressed,” is so true and to put yourself out there for the world to see, convinced your work is a masterpiece only for it to fall flat is hurtful. But as you say remembering our ‘why’ is critical to being able to move forward in spite of criticism. Though it would be nice, we will never please everyone and listening to those who provide feedback in a positive light with concise points is helpful.Is criticism without solid comments for improvement ever really warranted?

    Reply

  17. Carol Balawyder
    Sep 23, 2015 @ 23:07:07

    This critique was brutal. You are very brave! 🙂 Your post is a great reminder that we are not alone in our writing journey. 🙂

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Sep 24, 2015 @ 13:27:31

      Thanks, Carol! And yes, that day in class was not the most comfortable experience I have had.:) I sometimes wonder if workshops help or hurt most writers! All in all, though, I enjoyed the workshops I took . . .

      Reply

  18. europasicewolf
    Sep 25, 2015 @ 20:32:42

    Great post and I really felt the pain reading that! I got quite mad at all those critical comments! lol 😉 Constructive criticism is fine and even if uncomfortable to read/hear on occasion definitely helps to haul yourself onto a better track and hopefully improve your writing. But equally a thick skin is absolutely a necessity and a willingness to see things a different way. I am still trying to grow a thick skin so still get very upset if what I write gets a bad reception or at least less than what I had hoped for after long stretches of lovingly researching and putting it together. Growing a thick skin is an art in itself! I’d rather people were honest though, false praise doesn’t really help in progressing and improving even if it is more palatable at the time….but I think I’m slowly getting a grip 🙂 I’ve almost thrown the towel in a few times but once I got over stamping my feet in disappointment at a not so great response or worse none at all lol I have realised that it’s better to just dust yourself off, bite the bullet and take a constructive look at what might have gone wrong and how it can be sorted out for next time 🙂

    Reply

  19. Sherri
    Oct 15, 2015 @ 17:58:08

    Hi Mike, long time no see! As you know, I took a blogging break and back now for a couple of weeks but so slow at easing in…still, so glad to be back here and wow, oh that is tough. But you know, the author who just won the Man Booker Prize had his book rejected 70 times. Yikes! The first time I turned in a short story as part of my writing course, the tutor told me that ‘maybe I had discovered what a lot of aspiring writers soon discover that I wasn’t cut out for writing’. This was my first fiction assignment! It took me a year to recover from that, while I carried on blogging and so encouraged by everyone there as I kept true to the writing I believed in. You are a wonderful writer, and you sharing this in so much honesty encourages us all. Taking the constructive critiscm is one thing, but some of it, I believe is, is uncalled for. You’ve come a long way baby!!

    Reply

    • The Eye-Dancers
      Oct 15, 2015 @ 18:57:05

      Hi Sherri! Great having you back.:) That writing tutor of yours sounds awful. That kind of “criticism” is uncalled for, and I wonder how many talented writers have forever gotten away from writing due to comments just like that. I’m glad you were able to get past that and keep writing! Your readers are very fortunate that you did!

      Reply

      • Sherri
        Oct 16, 2015 @ 08:49:57

        Thanks Mike, great to be back! Yes, I did actually talk to someone about his comments and called him on them too because they were out of line, and it was agreed that he had no business saying what he did. He said he was used to being ‘tough’ to get the best out of his students! Well, his tactics weren’t the best to say the least! But that is very kind of you…and here’s to writing and more writing and not giving up! Great to see you again Mike, have a wondeful weekend 🙂

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