Monday, July 24, 2006

Don't Believe The Hype

"I don't really connect with this story."
"You're telling the reader what happened, instead of showing."
"It doesn't feel personal. It has a slick journalistic quality to it."

I nod my head as the feedback flows. It's not quite what I expected. Where is the worship, accolades, and adoration? I wait for someone to say, "Amazing! Truly inspiring work!" or something along those lines. Instead all I hear is criticism eventually tempered with, "But, it's well written."

When I decided to attend the Writer's Studio sponsored by the Urban Institute of Contemporary Arts, it was a strategic move. I'd been writing for nearly a year, and my work was running headlong into a wall called "BRILLIANCE!" Each piece was revealing new depth, creativity, and wit. I was better than good. I was that good! I was the undiscovered wunderkind, capable of crafting a masterpiece on the first draft. At least that's what nearly every comment on my blog told me. The only logical step was to share my genius with the world through a reputable print medium. Problem was, I had no idea where to start. I figured a group of my peers would confirm my greatness and point me in the write direction (damn, I'm clever).

The afternoon of my first workshop, I printed a couple of pieces to share. An excerpt from the novel I'm perpetually pushing aside and some personal essays. My friends had already told me that the pieces were superb, so I didn't bother with too much editing. I figured we'd break off into pairs, read each other's work then offer constructive feedback. Of course the feedback for me was to consist of excessive gushing and some punctuation tips.

I was a bit disappointed to arrive in the tiny meeting room and discover that one by one we would read our excerpts aloud for the entire class and receive their critiques. I sat through tales of murder and intrigue in the Roman Empire, Dutch Reformed Christian adolescence, and elderly adventure seeking. Some stories were interesting, others dull. I offered my opinion as I saw fit. "You should describe the facial features your character has in common with his father. Makes it more visual." I feigned patience and sometimes interest as I waited for my turn. It didn't arrive that evening. Class ended with a promise to put me near the top of the reading order at next week's studio. I felt bad. They would all have to wait an excrutiating seven days to be graced with my genius.

A week later I printed sixteen copies of O-R-E-O and brought them to studio, ready to be revered as the second coming. Several blog commentors had already told me that the essay should be published, if it hadn't been already. I just needed the final go ahead from my new audience, and maybe a suggestion or two on decreasing the word count before I shipped it off for an editor's critical eyes.

Their less than enthusiastic response shocked the hell out of me. What did they mean they "didn't really connect"? That's not what my blog readers said. They were totally affected. And what was wrong with sounding journalistic? Aren't magazine essays supposed to be that way? Above all, did their criticism mean my writing wasn't print ready on the first try?

I thought back on the one or two essays I'd e-mailed to a couple of magazines on a whim. Never did get a response. Could it be that the writer's studio participants had picked up on something my readers hadn't yet noticed? Sure, I could write and make words sound pretty. But maybe, just maybe I could benefit from a good editor. Perish the thought. If my writing needed editing, that had to mean it wasn't very good to begin with. I didn't want to fathom that idea. For the past 10 months my aspirations hinged on being the best thing to hit Barnes & Noble since, well since ever. How could I be great, if I couldn't get it right on the first try?

Really, what did these pseudo writers know anyways? I hadn't even heard of a single one of them. If they were such writing gurus why didn't they have a byline attached to their work. Oh, but they did. From books available for purchase at the local bookstore to short stories inside the pages of a recent anthology. Okay, so maybe they did know a thing or two about what it takes to get published. But how could all my blog readers be so wrong about me. How could they see polished and professional when the studio saw rough potential? Is beauty truly in the eye of the beholder.

Or maybe the original audience wasn't as discerning as I initially thought. It's not difficult to find "Superb writing" and "You're such a great writer" on even the most mediocre blogs. The blogosphere might not be the best judge of "great writing." For every reputable writer and savvy reader there are a hundred more hacks who think People magazine sets a literary standard.

Perhaps my writing needs a few rounds of revisions. I probably won't see my writing on glossy pages based solely on talent. I just might have to work at this. Yes, I am definitely good. But honestly, I'm not that good. Yet. Oh, it's so much easier to fill my head with the praise and believe the hype.

22 comments:

jailbait said...

I think you are a great writer! I think you have come a long way, and I LOVE reading your blogs (and your book when you were sending me chapters). Maybe its because I love you...or maybe its because as I read I can hear your voice telling the story...I can almost see your facial expressions.

Whatever the reasons...your blog readers love you and your writing.

I believe the hype.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

Wait until the Big Guys start rejecting you! And you won't be rejected for long. At least I am reading something by someone who actually writes it, instead of knowing a person who always says that one day they'll sit down and write something...

Jennifer said...

You know, even when I was co-owner and editor-in-chief of a magazine that published every two months for seven years, and even though I wrote 90% of the content therein, and even though I won four national awards for some of those pieces? I NEVER called myself a writer. I could never believe it.

There are worse things than being grounded. Especially when you've got the goods. And trust me. You do.

Cece said...

I think your amazing. And thats isn't just hype.

Sober In the City said...

Okay. This is something with which I truly identify.

Blog writing versus REAL writing. Writing personal essays that show a window into a character you have been crating since the birth of your blog, versus creating a piece that needs to stand alone. In the latter, revision is the true artistry.

If there is anything I have learned about writing it is the value of editing and the importance of revision, revision, revision. When I first sit down to write something, I like the pen to flow without fear of condemnation. I try not to censor my grammar or my thoughts, I just let it go. Then I put it aside. I pick it up the next day or the day after and I read it with fresh eyes, entirely transform it and set it aside again. This process can continue for a month, until my piece is ready to be shared.

You ARE a good writer. Revision will make you an AWESOME writer.

You are still my blog hero!

RO'Neal said...

You know, I dont care how great of a writer he/she is, I have no interest in the Roman Empire. Period. It's probably just regurgitated BS from 10th grade World History and even if its not, it is. Your writing on the other hand is so real and from the heart, even when its just entertaining. Dont lose your "writing swagger" hun, you have always been a great writer and you're only getting better.

kat said...

It took a lot of guts into a situation like that. It shows that you believe in your writing...and yourself.

Practice makes perfect.
Shake them haters off, girl!

Charles said...

I can totally relate to you on this one. People tell me all the time that I'm a talented artist and that I'm wasting my talent and blah blah blah. But, the only difference between you and I though is that I've seen several people who eclipse what I do without even trying. And if I wanted to get better, I would have to attend a school of some sort...but that seems wrong to me. You can't 'school' talent. That's just me. Anyways, you can always be better...it just takes modesty to get there. And Einstien didn't come up with relativity on the first try...he had to use what others did before him, and even then it took a long ass time after that...so, you're in good company.

Taki said...

Ill continue to be the biggest critic and asshole I can be, all just so you can remember everyone doesnt believe the hype.

Keep up the good work!

love ya

Tense Teacher said...

You're doing a brave and smart thing by seeking out other, like-minded people to help you improve, and I'm glad you still realize that you do have talent. Shine on!

Dezel said...

Wonderful blog here, we love your style and site. Keep up the Brain Dump : )

Happy Sipping!

Dezel

CrankyProf said...

I always tell my students that writing is actually hard work -- if it's flowing effortlessly, and you feel as if you don't NEED to proof, evaluate and edit, then you are doing something wrong.

And the way to get better at writing is to WRITE. All the time, every day, write a little.

It's easy to believe the hype. Getting down to brass tacks and working at it is hard.

RebeLioness said...

I, like jailbait, think you are a great writer; and though that's affected by my personal relationship with you, because I know exactly what you're saying and how you mean to say it, it doesn't make me/us any less competent of critiquing you than those who don't know you.

As taki said, everyone doesn't believe the hype. Writing is a personal craft and so is reading it! Relating to the content is just as important as editing the grammar, and not everyone is going to like your "slick, journalistic" style because they're not supposed to. We, your audience by choice, love you because we can identify with you and not some Roman Empire literature (some of us anyway). It's definitely importantly to revise and reinvent yourself, as sober in the city and crankyprof said; but don't underestimate your genius just because some published individuals don't get it.

Your #1 Fan!

Rev. Smokin Steve said...

I look at this like the baseball minor league system.

Us blog writers are writers, but we are writing at the single A level. We may be really good on this level. But it will take more work to get promoted to double or triple A.

Then, after years of moving up the ladder, you get to go to the major leagues.

I think you have enough talent to move up the ladder. You just have to take your knocks first. That class was your first knock. You learn from the knocks.

For me, blog writing is a hobby that I may use to get better at my writing skills in the future, and possibly write something professionally down the line. But if it doesn't work out that way, I enjoy it as a hobby.

Lynn said...

You know how I feel about this, Liz. Honestly, the blog world is what you make it. If you start out wanting a daily discipline then that is what it is for you. If you want to create a journal, fine. If you prefer to use it as a way to exercise your brain during boring office moments, whatever. All in all, blogging has changed my life. I am so glad that I have decided to do it and every day I learn more about myself, what I am able to reveal to other people and what I can be truly honest about.

However, for the most part, the blog world is one big circle jerk of people who have varying intentions when it comes to their own personal writing. A lot of people doling out wan comments about your writing that are so generic they could easily be applied to the blouse you have on today. What I mean by this is, Liz, it doesn't matter what anyone thinks--it matters what you do and what you think about what you do.

I think Augusten Burroughs is brilliant, but his latest essay collection was shredded by the critics. Keep doing what you want to do and believe in yourself and treat the comments; both good and bad, as what they are, another person's perception of something they will never totally get.

missbhavens said...

See, now I don't know you personally, and I totally believe the hype! I've always sort of thought of blog writing as different from "real" writing, and perhaps that is unfair...but the way I see it, if your blog writing is this good, then your real writing (the kind that you pour over, and pick at, and revise and edit and reword to perfection) must be outstanding!

Keep on!

Serena said...

I'm just glad to see you're not giving up. What's that stupid saying that always annoys me? Something about anything worth having is worth working for?

citygirl said...

"If my writing needed editing, that had to mean it wasn't very good to begin with."

Come on, now, girl. You know everything needs a few edits before it's ready for public consumption. You know how good you are, that's the most important thing. And everyone gets rejected tons before they hit paydirt.

When I was studying poetry throughout college and after, getting criticism was the hardest part. And if I'd had a poem that was widely loved, forget it! Anything negative was severly piss me off. I know where you're coming from.

Maybe you should self-publish. There are ways to do it without spending all your cash.

tiff said...

you know you have one friend that is so funny, and people tell them, "you should be a comedian!" but they don't really mean it, because they are only funny to their friends?

That is not you. You are a great writer. Oreo was the first blog entry I read of yours, and I was hooked. You weren't telling me, you were showing me, and you blew me away with your relatableness.

A writer's workshop terrifies me. Kudos to you for taking the step, and eventually takin' it to the people!

jali said...

I don't agree with the negative comments at all. Your writing is amazing - keep at it!

Elizabeth said...

Your work is great. Critiques can help you find the holes in your writing, but only you can fill those holes back up again with your own vision and style.

Trish said...

just took a writing class and the writers were fantastic and they all told the same tale:

They all told me horror stories of the other writing classes the have taken. They said, that the "critiques" were vicious in most of the classes they took.

They were pleased that we could critique each other without all the ego that some writers feel is necessary.

Don't let it get you down, and don't let it stop you. Unless, one of those writers in your class is say, of the caliber of a James Joyce or a James Baldwin, then I say take their opinions with a grain of salt.

Oh, and I'm sure none of them are of a Joyce or Baldwin caliber