On Tuesdays, the writing community at Two Writing Teachers hosts the Slice of Life. Everyone is welcome to join in by writing, commenting, or just reading slices from around the world!
Another slicer and I have been pushing each other to take risks with our writing--to put it out there into the realm of contests, queries, agents, and critique groups. I have come to believe that sharing a manuscript is sort of like sending a child off to kindergarten. We have worked SO hard on these stories, and we want them to be loved. We want our readers to begin to fall in love with the characters that we have created so carefully. Okay, it's not quite the same as those little people whose hands we hold and cheeks we kiss, but let me tell you, writers feel pretty vulnerable when we share our stories.
We encouraged each other, and both submitted our queries and initial pages into a contest this summer. The word on the twitter feed about the contest was that the competition was fierce. When neither of us were selected, we consoled each other. We both received emails about our entries with feedback about our queries and our submitted pages. I know that I poured over those emails, trying to internalize the meaning and think about the work ahead in terms of revision. Then, my writing partner shared an email that she had received, and it sounded familiar. Very familiar. In fact, a lot of the feedback--no ALMOST ALL of it--was the same. Word for word, the same.
My writing partner and I had a great conversation this afternoon, and we both agreed to take all of the feedback we received with several grains of salt. We both agree that feedback that is not individualized and specific to the pieces is not too valuable. However, I came away from the experience with some realizations about students and the vulnerability of ALL developing writers.
- Sharing our writing with people we don't know well (or at all) is scary. We don't know whether people will understand the innuendos, work through the inevitable mistakes, relate to our characters. Appreciating the bravery that putting a piece of writing out into the world is an important early step in working with writers of all ages and levels. (We slicers all understand the bravery required to hit the submit button.)
- Canned feedback not only doesn't develop writers, but also can discourage writers. When we try to take shortcuts in our responses--and shortcuts are SO available because of how easy it is to cut and paste text or use programs-- our feedback can at best lose authenticity, but at worst can discourage developing writers with criticism that doesn't make sense.
- Our words have tremendous power. Tremendous. Our writers see us as authorities, as experts, and they want to understand and get it right. Here's the deal: EVERY word we say or write to a developing writer has the potential to inspire or devastate. That's a huge amount of power and a huge responsibility.
My writing partner and I have each other and a powerful writing community to help us rebuild our courage and belief in ourselves, but the experience did leaving us scratching our heads. "Remind me why we're doing this," my partner emailed to me. I can answer her with the passion and conviction that we share about our lives as writers, and I can answer her with a fortress of supportive mentors and readers standing behind me. But I also will never, EVER respond to a student's writing again without truly meaning what I say and thinking about the impact of my words.