Criticism is sometimes hard to take but it can be invaluable. Depends though on how we react to it. I asked some acquaintances to read the beta-version of my book, “Uncommon Hours” this summer. Maybe it was who I asked to read it in the first place that was the problem. I didn’t know what their reaction would be and I purposely picked people with backgrounds different from my own. I received reactions from two of them last week and was surprised in a way that I had not expected.
One reader, resented the heroine having a second chance at happiness and taking hold of it. She also thought the descriptions of the surroundings and food were “tedious.”
The second reader spent pages using light green ball point ink on yellow legal pad paper (barely legible) to complain about the amount of time it actually takes to drive from Gloucester to Charlottesville, Virginia (ten hours instead of fifteen hours); and remonstrating about whether the ages of two children added up properly with other characters in the book. There was no mention of Maria Sibylla Merian at all, whose personal accomplishments 3 centuries ago serves as inspiration for the female protagonists in the book.
Each of the heroines in the book represents a female dilemma in our culture; self-doubt and blame, insecurity, being unhappy even when one has what she’s always wanted; feeling “unlucky” in life, etc. “Uncommon Hours” is about enabling women to reach out for happiness from within rather than succumbing to hopelessness or waiting for someone else to do it for them.
Fortunately, there were other reader reactions that were much more positive: “I felt like I was in the room with Jessie.” and “you have to keep going because I know other women who would love it too!” So there’s been a gamut of reactions to something that I made up and put down on paper . . . which is what writing is to me.
There’s so much noise around what w-r-i-t-i-n-g means these days (b.s. about ‘craft,’ rituals to get one to write, workshops, agents, buzz,) that it’s hard to just settle down and recognize that it’s solely up to me as the writer to convey to the reader what I’d like them to understand. Plus, it’s really easy to give up on making that happen when you’re tired of going through the manuscript any longer and feeling impatient if/when the reader doesn’t “get it.”
It’s my job as much as I am capable, to make sure that they get it. Period.
Yesterday, one of my most loyal readers came over and went through her comments with me: there were fewer grammatical/typo corrections than I had feared. And she only had one place where the paragraphs might have been reorganized. Most importantly, she liked the book. In fact, she liked it a lot. I thought about what we might have in common for that to happen: we both have leanings towards New Age stuff: the Tarot, horoscopes and destiny (which neither of the criticizers above mentioned, much to my surprise.) She also really understood the metamorphosis that the heroine, Jessie, went through in the plot to enable herself to be happy, released from her self-imposed bugaboos at long last.
All this feedback has caused me to reflect about the old adage, “if a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, does it still make a sound?” meaning that if you create something but don’t put it out there for other human beings to take it and react to it from their own experience and perspective, (even if they don’t “get” what you were trying to do or don’t even care if they don’t get it,) does it ultimately matter? And my answer is “yes.” The tree conundrum presumes that it’s man’s hearing that counts, not the tree in the forest in the context of Mother Nature. Whether a human is within earshot is irrelevant, it seems to me. BUT, I also feel that it’s important to put our work out there even if some or a lot of people might not react to it in the way that we intended.
Having gotten through my initial defensiveness in reading the negative feedback and wanting to put the book away in a drawer, I’ve instead begun thinking that it’s my job to make the book shine so that the reader has to get it and not the other way around (arrogantly waiting for readers to get it because I wrote it and if they don’t, then “tough.”)
So, now I’m going to go back and see what alterations I might make to the book so that more readers will understand what I’m up to than the way that it stands now. Taking responsibility for these improvements has directly been a result of reading this article in the New York Times today about how another writer responds to reviews.
Here’s a link to an interview of how that writer reacts to reviews. Edifying in the part about whether she’s done the very best she could do to impact the reader in the way the writer intended.