Saturday, October 21, 2006

Give It To Me

At a recent convention another writer solicited my critique of his writing. As I started to give it, he interrupted me several times with explanations and excuses. I stopped him and told him to stop defending his work. I was giving an opinion and interpretation. My position was that once you hand your work over to someone to read, control is taken from your hands. You can't follow readers around and tell them what you meant. Your work either speaks for itself or it doesn't. The responsibility of the person offering the critique is to be constructive and to offer how they came to their opinions, focusing on elements of writing.

The above illustration is a mild example of how poorly many writers handle feedback. I've seen people storm out of a room and explode into rants. I've read some nasty response letters, some accusing me of furthering a personal agenda. One vituperative response charged that I was an overweight, insensitive slime bag. Okay, well, I'll give them that.

So, here's an open shout out to all writers. First, your writing only gets better if you write. Second, when you receive feedback, accept it...or not. Find a person whose critiques match your perspective and whose feedback makes sense to you. Do not attack your critic. You asked for feedback, it's your responsibility to accept it in a dignified manner. An opinion is an opinion.

That being said, I ask for feedback. If I post fiction on this blog, please feel free to have at it. If you think it is poorly executed, let me know. I know that most of what I have here is under a thousand words, and there is not much you can accomplish in that space, but if I write something you don't like, let me know. I promise I can handle it. And if you like what you see here and would like to read some of my short stories, then email a request to me and I'll be happy to send you a few for critiquing. Unfortunately, I can't do the same with my novels. I'm a bit more guarded about those.

And finally, speaking of feedback, when people critique my work, if there is a dialogue, I'll respond to questions about plot, character development, etc. The one thing I will never do is clarify or define theme. When people ask what a story is about, I usually shrug. If enough people ask that question, then I will usually return to the work and see if my intent is unclear or muddy.

I mention this because it seems a few people have looked at The Apple Tree, featured below, and have said to me: "What is this about? I don't get it." I am not referring to the people who have posted but to others. I have told them: "You know better. I can't tell you what something is about. I won't. " Upon futher imploring, I did however offer up a small clue and do so now to readers of the earlier post.

The Apple Tree is either 1) An ambiguous ghost story 2) A story about balance or...3) a simple tone poem. Or none of the above.


Jon said...

If you want to be unclear, write a poem. Poetry is license for unclarity. Prose is not.

In fact, reverse the process. Have a number of people read the story and then ask them what it's about. I'll bet you hear a lot of stammering and, "...well, it's kind of hard to say, exactly." Is that satisfactory to you as a writer? Or do you still shrug?

And don't blame brevity. Look at your earlier post based on the sailing words. It's much shorter, obtuse in its own way, but still perfectly clear and beautiful. And check out my post, "LaVere and Hazen." Readers may wonder what happens next, but I bet they know what has happened in the past and what is happening now. The piece is barely a snippet at about 250 words.
No, you shouldn't ever have to tell a reader what happens next; what happens after the story finishes. But the reader should always know, at least at some level, what the story was about.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Ask a dozen people what "Moby Dick" is about and they will say..."Uh...a whale." Ask what "Gravity's Rainbow" is about.

I think there are times when prose should be out there. I think there are times when it isn't. Ambiguity isn't evil. At least not always. Sometimes. But then, that's ambiguous, isn't it.

Jon, by the way, is a good example of someone who puts out intelligent critiques. Sometimes he and I nod our heads and smile..and sometimes we tear it up. It goes both ways with us. We take turns being on the receiving and the giving ends.

Lori Witzel said...

Jon...prose has no virtue without clarity?

Well, I guess no need for me to beg to disagree, since I'm stepping right into it as someone who prefers ambiguity.

Two of my favorites on that count:
Borges (who I am probably simply too slow to "get" -- his writing is so very lapidary, but am not always certain what it's about.)
Samuel Beckett's Molloy.