Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Art of Humility

I'm super psyched at the moment. This week is the Perth Writer's Festival, and it's an absolute doozy. On Friday, I'm attending a full day workshop on The A to Z of Getting Published in Australia, and on Saturday I'm going along to what should be a brilliant session with author Jon Bauer, titled Getting Out of Your Own Way.

Getting out of my own way is a pretty big challenge for me lately. In preparation for the workshop, I sat down a couple of days ago and brainstormed a big list of all the things that stop me from writing, and from finishing this novel that I've been writing, on and off, for fifteen years now.

Yep, you heard that right. Fifteen years. What have I got? A second draft too wobbly to stand as a final, and significant further rewrites in my future. That's not all I've got. I've got hundreds of thousands of beautiful words that have all taught me something, and they're worth every minute, even if they never see the light of day. But that's not quite the point.

In looking at what's standing in my way, I hit a point that has come up recently for me and many others. It's a sensitive point; it's a painful spot that hurts when poked. What I'm about to say might sting some of you as much as it stings me, but it's critical- absolutely critical- in getting to the end of the writing process.

When someone tells you that your writing or your story isn't working, it's important to listen- really listen- not just to what they're telling you, but to your deep, inner instincts about the things that aren't up to scratch.

Here's what I've discovered about myself: I crave feedback. Without it, self-doubt eats away at me until I'm paralysed, and praise feels like the antidote to that. I know I have so much learning and improving to do- we all do, and we always will. There's no such thing as reaching the peak. You will always, always be climbing, for your whole career as a writer. As Lillian Smith so memorably said, "When you stop learning, stop listening, stop looking and asking questions, always new questions, then it is time to die."

I believe this wholeheartedly. And yet on a subconscious level, the feedback I want, if I'm starkly, horribly honest with myself, is not always that constructive criticism. Often, it's unmitigated positivity. I want people to tell me they love the story, and they love the characters, and the sun is shining brightly from my rear. I want them to tell me I've written something brilliant, and that I should just send it right into the publisher, and while I'm at it cc the whole thing to the Man Booker Prize committee, because obviously. I want them to tell me it's all good, and I don't need to spend fifteen more years making it right.

And you know, it's not hard to find that kind of feedback. Writers groups out there are full of people like us, all learning and striving and struggling. We want to improve, but we also want validation. We want to know that there's a point to all this effort- that we don't suck. So we support each other, and we tell each other what works. We give gentle suggestions for what to fix, for how to do it better. This is good, good stuff- to start with. But slowly, over time, unless we turn the screws and raise the bar of our own self-expectation, we become blind not only to the flaws in other people's work, but to those in our own. We become all about the encouragement, and not about the harsh realities.

Now, I'd better clarify a couple of things here before I go on. First and foremost, I'm not talking about the advice people give; I'm talking about what you take from it. All of that advice is worthy, and the time anyone else takes to say something about our work is incredibly valuable. That notwithstanding, there are more opinions out there than there are stars in the sky, and not all of them will be right for you. The worst thing you can do is try to please everyone by applying all the advice you get, because then you miss the most important part of the whole puzzle.


Your instincts, your opinions, your ideas. Self-confidence being so hard to come by at times, we feel that we need others before we can gain an objective opinion. The reality is, sometimes that's true.

Did I just contradict myself completely? Why, yes I did.

How do these two things go together? You need to trust your instincts above all others, and yet sometimes you do need critical feedback before you can see things straight. Sometimes we get either so self-critical or, conversely, so blind to our faults that we don't have a realistic view of things.

This is where the immense value of close, focussed, hard-nosed critique partners becomes apparent, and so does the need for the writer to at all times retain his or her sense of humility. Because what you really need is a trusted core of people whose instincts you trust, just as much as you trust your own- perhaps more. And then you need the willingness to take it on the chin, to listen, think, and apply what you hear.

An ideal critique partner:
  • Writes, too
  • Writes well. Writes so well that you know they know what they're talking about when they offer opinions and advice.
  • Reads, plenty, and has sensibilities you can understand when it comes to what they like and dislike.
  • Knows you well, and likewise in return. This doesn't necessarily mean in person.
  • Has seen your writing grow from a tiny seed into a towering tree
  • Understands what makes you tick
  • Understand what makes your characters tick
  • Understands what you're trying to achieve
And, most importantly: is willing to tell it like it is, no holds barred.

Everything above comes into this last point- this person has to know you well enough to know your buttons. They have to be aware when they're pushing them, and they have to care enough about you that they'll do it anyway, then be there to give you a hug when you feel crappy afterwards. It has to be a relationship of mutual trust, and you can only trust each other when you know without a doubt that this person will tell you when you're being a jackass, or when your ego gets away from you, or when you need to work harder or make a tough decision on your writing. This person is the same one who'll tell you what really, really works, and when they do, you'll know you can take it to the bank.

I couldn't be luckier to have four of these wonderful people, and all of them hang out here.

The really, truly, most critical step in all this, though, is the last one- you need to have the humility to listen to what you're told, the willingness to hear it, absorb it, understand it, and make it work. You do, again, also need the balls to know when the advice you're getting isn't for you. It isn't always, no matter who it comes from. But not every bit of advice you don't like falls in this category. Trust me. Often, the more it hurts to hear it, the more it's likely to be accurate.

The art of humility is pretty simple in the end. It comes down to one thing:

Remember, you will never finish learning until you take your last breath.

So don't be afraid to reach out to trusted writing or critique partners for advice on your work. Even if you know the response won't be positive, do it anyway. Don't fear not getting it right. Embrace it. It's a chance to keep learning more. Every single time you get it wrong is a step toward getting it right. Prepare yourself to be unembarrassed, to work on anything and everything. The bits you think are great, the bits you think are not.

And when people tell you something isn't working, don't make excuses. Don't just explain plot points or inner workings or other reasons why their interpretation isn't right, and keep forging on, because if they haven't got that from your writing, then it's your writing that's not doing the job. Make it work.

How? That bit's up to you. Critique partners can brainstorm with you, give you ideas- heck, the ladies here have often been one step ahead of me with offering new directions for my work. But there's only one person who can sit down and write that sucker the way it's supposed to be, and that's you.

I'll be back next week with a rundown of the workshops I'm attending, and hopefully I'll have all kinds of brilliance to share with you on how to get out of your own way. I'm looking forward to getting out of my own!

ADDENDUM: I thought I should mention that I found all four of my co-bloggers and crit partners at the CompuServe Books and Writers Forum. We all interacted as members for a couple of years, developed close friendships, and eventually decided to start this blog together since we already think like a little like one person :P

Another option- Nathan Bransford has developed a Connect With a Critique Partner page at his blog if you're still single in this respect- go check it out, and you might find your soul mate/s :)

Also, the lovely and talented Tara Watson, who has also been a crit partner of mine in recent months, has expanded on this topic over at Feel of Something New. Go read!


  1. I needed this pep talk, Claire. I'm a gluton for praise, but give me the straight talk, too. Make me listen and let me chew on it awhile. It's all good. I can't wait to see what you're going to do to those good characters next. ; )

  2. There is nothing more freeing to my creativity than knowing I am grounded by the safety-net of you four incredible women. You'll catch me when I fall - even if it's you who push me off the ledge. :P

  3. Really thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Claire. Crit partners are worth their weight in gold, as is the ability to assimilate all they have to say and make it work for you.

    Susan - aww, group hug!!! {{{{hug}}}}

  4. Yay for great critique partners! :) New follower and fellow crusader here just (finally) making the rounds. Happy Thursday!

  5. @Zan Marie- good bones are the most important thing you can have, and you have 'em (and more, of course!). You'll get there.

    @Susan- yeah, what Kristen said. Group hug- er, at the bottom of that cliff (g).

    @Kristen- gold indeed. We're a valuable little crowd here with all that precious metal going on, eh? Tee hee. Not sure how I got so rich, but I'll take it.

    @Donea- welcome! I think I've managed to follow almost 3/4 of the Crusaders now, so I'm slowly slowly making the rounds, too :)

  6. Claire - this post was really heartfelt and honest. I loved it. As someone who will be shopping for crit partners faster than I think, I appreciate all of the helpful advice.

  7. I really enjoyed this post - I probably needed it, too. The criteria you listed for the ideal critique partner? Truth in every word and letter (heck, every stroke of ink - er, internet ink). Also makes me realize that I do need a stable critique partner who's known me and my writing for a while. It'll take time, I guess - but you know, hopefully I will find one that is as you describe. =)

  8. Thank you for the link to Nathan Bransford's page!

    Also, I am not attending any of the Perth Writer's Festival stuff. :( But I look forward to hearing your thoughts on how it goes! Maybe I can live vicariously through you :D

  9. A very insightful post, Claire.

    Developing a tough hide - resilience - is just as important for a writer as developing your voice, IMO. And to echo Susan and Kristen: I'm mighty glad, and very lucky, to have you four ladies as my voice of reason. :-)

  10. This is a terrific post, Claire! Obviously, considering I expanded on it at my place today :)

  11. Fellow crusader here...and YAY for great CPs. (love my CPs)
    I LIKE getting brutally honest feedback.

    Happy weekend,

  12. It's so hard to keep that balance going inside, of wanting nothing but praise yet craving honest feedback that helps your story grow. I keep struggling with the application part of it all. Whining that raising the stakes is hard. Yea, but do I want a brilliant story at the end of it all, or not? Got to keep working at it.

  13. You give a lot of good advice here. Thanks for the links too!

  14. @Kari- you're welcome! I hope it helps you pick a great critique partner :) It's something that's been on my mind a lot lately- I got too complacent, and I had a long way to fall to come back to solid earth. It kinda hurt.

    @Jys- I hope you find the perfect person soon :)

    @Trisha- it's a pity you can't make it to any of the sessions, but never fear. I'm taking notes furiously at every session :)

    @Rach- very true indeed.

    @Tara- and I loved your expansion, too. Which reminds me, I was going to go back and add a link- will do in a moment.

    @Lola- hello and welcome! I *say* I want that kind of feedback, and in the rational sense I certainly do, but sometimes the sting makes me a sad panda. Which is a problem in itself- diagnosis: toughen up, princess, and knuckle down!

    @Deniz- definitely. Keep working.

    @Amy- no worries!

  15. I was wondering how you ladies all got together given your far flung geographic locations. Great to hear about the critique group rapport you have developed together. It definitely sounds like an ideal meeting of minds!

  16. @Claire@Kristen@Susan@Rachel -- GROUP HUG, INDEED!! :) You gals rock!

    Claire -- Ah, man. I know exactly what you're talking about. There is nothing better than being told everything you write is sweet nectar dripping from the fruits of the gods. It's easy to get swept up in the compliments, so much so that when someone comes along and says, "Nope, this isn't working" your first reaction is...well, for me, shock and disbelief. lol. How can this person say such things when Xnumber of people are telling me I can do no wrong??

    Oh man, BEEN THERE. I had someone tell me point blank that my book wasn't ready to be queried (this after I had already started in the process). It stung, I smarted for a long time, and then I shook it off and tried to trust my own intuition. Did I stop querying? No. Did I make some changes based on this opinion? Yes.

    It's a thin line we walk, isn't it? We definitely want to do the best job possible and please our readers... at the same time, we're telling OUR stories the way we think they need to be told. Letting the opinions of others bleed over into what OUR vision is can be just as detrimental as ignoring all constructive criticism. I think it's probably one of the toughest battles writers have to face. That dance we do with our self-confidence. When do we listen, when do we stand firm in our resolve?

    Great crit partners that you can trust are GOLD. *more hugs!*