I got lucky yesterday, no not in that way, I really got lucky. Jon lives out of state much of the year, and it’s a rare occasion when we have the opportunity to spend a couple of hours talking. Yesterday we met, had a cup of coffee, and chatted. The usual stuff at first, how’s the family, COVID sucks, glad the election is over. Then we got down to what I wanted and needed, our talk about writing. Jon is a poet, not a guy who dabbles in poetry, he is a POET. He is also an open book in sharing his knowledge, his thoughts, and his support. I had a list of questions and he did his best to answer each of them.
That discussion brings me to three points I want to share in this posting. The first is being a generous writer and friend. During the morning, I’d met on Zoom with the folks in my writing critique group. We routinely meet to share our writing efforts, offer suggestions, help, and support each other. The critical word is support. Critiquing others can take on a negative or frightening connotation, there is nothing negative about our group. There are also no pansies in our little gathering; we tell each other what we honestly feel, what we believe to be good in the writing and what we feel needs improvement. We trust each other and therefore take no offense when we get a poke in the ribs. If a critique group is to be successful, that is how it has to be.
Later, when Jon and I were meeting, he told me about what he calls the “Sandwich’ method of helping in critiquing someone’s writing efforts. It went something like this – The top of the sandwich is bread, “That’s good, I like how you opened the story, it’s intriguing.” Then it goes on, the bottom slice of bread – “I like the ending, it is a good surprise, it made me smile.” A person might then add, “The meat of the story is well laid out, it gave me a better understanding of the main character.” Then comes the next part. “I think it might add to the sandwich (story) if you added more detail about how the character was raised.” The point is, a person needs to feel good about what is good in the writing, and needs to listen to ideas that might make the work, or the sandwich, more tasty. Never attacking the writing or the writer, but again constructive help.
The above might sound common sense, but often it doesn’t work that way for either side. Jon told me when he first started writing, a professor agreed to read some of his work. Jon reluctantly gave five poems to him. A week later he met with the professor. “This is rubbish!” That was the professor’s feedback. My friend said he didn’t pick up a pen to write for five years. Thankfully he did start writing again, he was the winner of the 2013 Utah State Poetry Society Manuscript Contest. My friend is a talented and knowledgeable poet and when he speaks, I listen.
My second point to this post is the value of having a strong ego and being willing to not compare yourself to the “Greats.” It could be a mantra, “I am what I yam, and that’s all that I yam.” Wait, I think that’s Popeye’s mantra. Let’s try this, “I can do my best and it’s enough.” Write your own mantra, it might be fun.
During the last critique group, my friends pointed out something about me and about my writing. The “about me,” issue was they see I spend a lot of time in comparison of my efforts and those of other writers (Steinbeck, Urrea, Woodson etc.). Obviously I always fall short of those men and women. It serves no purpose in making me a better writer and only adds to insecurity in my writing. The second thing which was pointed out to me is the need for me to trust myself and to use my voice, my own words.
I was thinking about that last advice. It is common to hear someone say, find your own voice. In my case, it better not be my singing voice. My dogs come and shut the bathroom door and run into another room when they hear me singing in the shower. Finding our own voices as writers is a different matter. Writing as David never seems as worthy, smart, or skillful as trying to write like John Steinbeck. The real issue is I’m not Steinbeck and trying to imitate him is a pitiful practice. After the conversation with my critiquing friends, I’ve decided I will either write in my voice and try to improve or I will forever be only someone attempting to copy someone else. No one wants a copy of Picasso; they want the real Picasso or nothing. Therefore note to self – Find your own voice or start being honest and say I use my computer to try to copy someone I’m not.
Now to my last point. I recently finished reading How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster. I highly recommend the book for anyone who is a reader or a writer. Near the end of the book, he said something I desperately need to heed. He said, “There is an old tradition in poetry of writing a short stanza at the end of a poem ( an Envoi). A brief summation or conclusion. One said – “Well little book, you’re not that much but you’re the best I could make you. Now you’ll have to make your way in the world the best you can. Fare thee well.”
Anyone who has ever attempted to write something they hope to have published has struggled with when is enough, enough? No matter how many times you edit, rewrite, edit again, rewrite again, there will always be something else to find, to fix, to improve. I believe there never comes a point where we say, “It is perfect now.” We must find a point when we can say, you’re the best I could make you, now you have to find your own way.” Your retort may sound something like this, “But what if I get it rejected by a prospective publisher because it has an error, or needs a little more work?” I say, if you know it’s the best you could do, then believe that, let it be and start a new project. It will never be perfect.
I wish you nothing but the best success in finding good friends to critique your work, in finding your own voice and in knowing when enough is enough.
Go well, David.
My friend Jon Sebba wrote Yossi, Yasser, & Other Soldiers. It is beautiful and powerful poetry about being a soldier during war. Jon writes from experience and from the heart. It is available only as an e-Book on Amazon. Do yourself a favor and get acquainted with Jon.
“If you look for perfection, you’ll never be content.” Leo Tolstoy.
“Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say.” Barbara Kingsolver.