For many years prior to being published, I honed the skill of asking for help. It’s never easy, but one writer told me a long time ago that you have to ask. As every writer of books knows, after a certain amount of time, we can’t really see our story objectively anymore. We so love our characters and the world we’ve created for them, that we can’t tell how much we are filling in blanks with our intentions for them or hitting the reader over the head with something we can no longer see. We forget that they lit their cigarette with a lighter and have them toss a spent pack of matches into the trash. We forget the color hair they have the way we can’t remember what tie we’re wearing. We let a crime get unpunished, racing to resolve. In other words, there are holes.
To that end, for years, I’d ask trusted friends or fellow writers to read my books prior to submission. I got better and better at how I asked. At first, I’d just sort of, tail-between-the-legs ask ”Hey, would you be at all interested in…you know…reading this thing I wrote? No worries if you don’t want to. I mean, I’m not even sure if it’s any good.” And they’d kindly agree– who wouldn’t with that kind of nihilistic request? Then I’d leave them alone. Take a different aisle if I saw them in the grocery store. And if we bumped into one another, I swore I could see “I loathe your book but don’t know how to tell you” written across their forehead. Or feel their guilt in not having cracked it yet, even after three months; not so sure afterall that they want to know me on the page. And if I did get a book back, a lot of the time there would be no notes whatsoever. They’d just say, “I liked it.” Great.
So I learned to make a contractual agreement with people from the start to help us both. We’d discuss what kind of critique they were willing to give. A book report? Line editing? Notes in the margins? I wanted them in their comfort zone. And then we’d agree on a timeline. If they couldn’t finish it in say, two months, then they’d return it. No hard feelings.
That worked better, but still I wasn’t getting what I needed: a real dish session. I wanted them to put a smiley face where they laughed. Circle tears where they cried. Write gag when they rolled their eyes. And even if they agreed to just that, they rarely would give me that kind of totally pure critique.
So I decided to do an experiment. I started asking friends across the country who were in book groups if they’d be willing to read my manuscripts and record their discussion. I’d supply the manuscripts and the tapes (dates me, I know) and all they had to do was let it rip. I didn’t know the people in the group, save for the friend (who usually kept quiet, and I don’t blame them) so what did they care if my feelings got hurt?
And boy, did it ever hurt so good. I got more out of those tapes than any other critique ever, save for that of my eventual editor.
But I had to get over the initial pain inherent in listening to someone talk about you. And not at all nicely in places.
It was a lot like being in high school and hearing the mean girls talk about you from the other side of the locker room. But it was helpful, even when it was a little on the mean side. And I learned that if people are arguing about your work, you must have written something good enough to stir the pot. Struck a chord. Hit a nerve. And I learned to see when it was really about my book…and when it was really about them.
I got to practice this in spades these last few years after my New York Times article went a bit viral all over the world. And then again when the book came out. It was at times brutal– total strangers judging you and insulting you…and the worst: making wrongful assumptions about your life and then reacting to them as if they were true. (In other words, I do NOT have a fancy horse, nor do I have a fancy horse trailer, nor do I live on a lavish ranch!) But of course, I was curious to see what people had to say. And as a writer, I wanted to learn the lessons I needed from the people out there who truly had something constructive to share. So I developed a technique. I’d read the comments and the minute I started to smell something cruel or irresponsible (cuz let’s face it– people have all kinds of big cajungas behind a computer screen), I’d stop reading.
Works like a charm, but only if you’re able to have the discipline to stop reading. I’ve learned that discipline. In the end I am not a glutton for punishment, I guess. Likewise, when the comments are sooo positive, it’s another kind of discipline to not have an ego explosion. I remind myself…I am looking for ways to improve my writing. That is the goal.
So when this radio interview came into my world this morning from a writer I admire and who recently covered my memoir in the Chicago Tribune, I put on my writer’s filter. “We talked about your book for fifteen minutes on WGN radio the other day,” her email said. My ego shouted out: WGN radio?! My alarm clock was tuned into that station as a kid– woke me up each morning for years and years. WGN radio!
And then my inner critic crashed the party: what if they argue about my book? What if ten of those minutes are callers who hated it.
In all the interviews I’ve done this year, I can always control what comes out of my mouth. I can always try to steer the questions the way I think best depicts my book and its message. I can always make sure the facts are right. Listening to people talk about my book and my story was something entirely new.
I took a deep breath. I pushed play.
Jenniffer Weigel of the Chicago Tribune
And I just want to say…thank you, Jenniffer Weigel and WGN. You made a Chicago girl’s day. You got it just right. Couldn’t have said it better myself.
Have a listen! jen weigel 3-12
Can’t wait to read your new book with possibly one of my favorite titles ever: “I’m Spiritual, Dammit!”