You Live and Learn

August 6, 2009 at 2:16 am (Uncategorized)

I’d better start this post with a confession. And a coffee. In fact, hold that thought, I am just going to grab one quickly and start again. Okay. Coffee is on hand. Back to my confession. It goes something like this. Dear Catherine, I am sorry I didn’t post yesterday. I didn’t post yesterday because I am a small, petty, sulky sort of person. I didn’t post because it was my obscure, passive-aggressive way of, um, punishing you, I guess. Yes, this is how I treat one of my most loyal readers, a dear friend who reads this blog every day, and who has told me on numerous occasions that she gets quite irate when I skip a day. And see how I have used this information against her? As ammunition? That’s the sort of pathetic person you’re dealing with here. But wait, there’s more. I bet you all want to know why I was inclined to such a bizarre and largely self-harming gesture. The answer shows me in an even poorer light, if you can believe it. I could deny it, but I won’t.

Not posting yesterday was my insane response to some negative feedback on the first 20 pages of my redraft. There. See how sad I am? How small? I should say that Catherine wasn’t the only one with downward tending thumbs, no, three of the Darklings had issues, it’s just that refusing to post was my sole means of throwing a little tanty. I’ll show you, I thought, you just watch me not post, and you can check all you like, see if I care, but there still won’t be anything! Not for a whole day! So there! Ha! What an idiot! Am I really such a baby? Yes. Yes, I am. So apologies, C, for the lack of a post yesterday, and sorry for being such a tantrum-throwing little shit. I am duly ashamed of my conduct.

But I realised something about my own processes yesterday. My Melbourne-based friend Miss M (well, she’s married now, so I guess it’s Ms. M or Mrs. M) has called me in the past ‘the queen of feedback acceptance,’ and I think that’s largely pretty true. After the abject humiliation of doctoral candidature, I usually take most criticism squarely on the chin. People aren’t generally motivated by malice when they have critical things to say; in most cases, they’ve identified legitimate problems, and it’s in my best interests to listen to what they have to say. This is true of what happened yesterday, but my defences were low, and I was ill-prepared for battle. And that’s because I didn’t follow my usual preparations for war.

This was my mistake, and mine alone. I changed my tactics, and it backfired badly. Here’s what I usually do: complete a full redraft before anyone sees it. Not only does that allow me to do the work that needs to be done as far as I can see and manage it unaided, it also allows me to back my own instincts, which is very important, and it allows me space and time – distance – from the last round of what’s usually a pretty battering round of critique. It takes time to recover from these things, let me tell you, even though it is fantastic having such detailed and constructive feedback to consider when going in for the next round. But you still end up pretty bloody and bruised, even if you know it’s good for you. So that’s been my process, although I didn’t really understand it as a conscious thing until last night.

Here’s what I did this time: I sent the Darklings the first 20 pages of my latest redraft while the rest of the MS is, quite literally, still in pieces. And that means that not only is the MS extremely vulnerable right now, so am I. Big. Mistake. They responded as they usually do – promptly, honestly, constructively – but what I experienced was a barrage of negativity. Now, there’s a reason I changed my modus operandi. When I sent them those 20 redrafted pages, I was intending to enter the Varuna Publishing Fellowships, and part of the application process is submitting the first 20 pages of your work. Suddenly this became my entire focus, and I allowed myself to stop thinking about the MS as a whole (because right now, it’s far from whole, it’s, well, it’s really in pieces, there’s no other way to describe it). The beginning has been my biggest burden. Right from the start, the beginning has changed with every single draft. This is due, I suspect, to my complete lack of talent for constructing the narrative arc. I keep trying, and I keep thinking I’ve done it, and then whoever reads it next blithely says, ‘You need a narrative arc.’ Huh? So, um, that’s not it? That thing right there? See, that thing, the thing with the story and the characters and stuff? You can’t see that? There, there, look again!

You get my drift.

So there I was, thinking I’d managed to crack the code this time, that here was a narrative arc, and I guess part of me was also thinking that the first 20 pages really are among the most crucial, because if I can’t get and hold a reader in that time, the manuscript’s chances are screwed, and so I felt the natural thing was to show the Darklings and get a line on whether or not they thought it was working. Catherine was very careful, bless her, to be cautiously optimistic, couching her feedback in terms designed to soften the blow. Other Darklings were more blunt in their assessment. And I withdrew into a dark little storm cloud. I couldn’t figure out at first why this feedback hit me so hard, but last night, talking to Llew about it, I realised it was because I have only just started this redraft, so it was really quite damaging to be shot down before I’d taken more than 20 steps. As I say, this is a situation I created, the Darklings only did what I asked them to do, and what we have always done for each other, but my own processes weren’t in place, I wasn’t prepared, and the defeat felt decisive. So decisive, in fact, that I considered abandoning the enterprise altogether and moving on to something else. Of course, even a day’s distance helps my vision clear, and I am not feeling nearly so despondent, nor nearly so dramatic. In fact, I know something I didn’t know before, about the security measures I need around me while I am trying to sort this out, and that can only be a good thing. But sorry I didn’t post yesterday, Catherine – it’s not you, it’s me.

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7 Comments

  1. Simonne said,

    Phew, what a trip you had with this! Well done for your awe-inspiring honesty here, not to mention that infallible bounce-backness!
    What a great thing, to learn about your own writing and drafting processes, so next time you can wait that bit longer. Though, no doubt the feedback you got was helpful. I really want to submit to the Varuna Publishing Fellowships as well, but think I should wait til next year. Sigh. This writing gig takes so LONG, doesn’t it?

  2. doctordi said,

    HAD with this?! Oh no, Simonne, I’m afraid I’m very much still having it! On and on and on it goes. SLOG, it’s just a damnable slog. Yeah, I think it’s my writer’s bum that allows me to bounce back – you should see that barge arse fly after hitting a trampoline!

    I agree, it’s a totally useful thing to know. Slowly, slowly in future. And the feedback was definitely helpful; all feedback always is, I find. I am not going to enter it in the Varuna thing… tempted to just chuck my next one in there just because nothing’s really at stake and it’s nowhere near finished even in a first draft form, but I’d still be supporting a new Varuna program… and it will make me feel like my whole life ISN’T on hold with #1. Psychologically, it’s quite appealing. And I wouldn’t mind if it didn’t get anywhere because I haven’t remotely finished it. If I put Spill in there and didn’t get anywhere, I think I’d need hospitalisation.

  3. Lilian Nattel said,

    I’ve made the same mistake and I’m impressed that you’re already so in tune with your process and when and how getting feedback works best for you.

  4. Catherine said,

    ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ – I get that a lot.

  5. doctordi said,

    Lilian, I think it must be a pretty common error of judgement. There’s a real trick to balancing the desire for feedback against the need to back yourself, and I definitely discovered what happens when my own balancing act fails. It was a sharp, painful realisation – not so much being in tune as being flung to the floor and stabbed repeatedly in the heart.

    Catherine! There you are! I was a bit worried when you didn’t comment – and now here you are, and being very droll to boot. xx

  6. litlove said,

    Oh sweetie, I know so very well that sometimes these things just fall badly. It’s just the wrong day, the wrong time, the wrong moment, and oh my does it feel bad when that’s the case. A person DOES have to be feeling all armoured up and prepared for criticism when showing work that’s in a delicate stage – but what am I saying? – writing in any stage at all. And you may have a tantrum if you need to, that’s fine. You can do what you like with your own emotions and as you show quite clearly here, you’re not really intending them to fall on anyone else’s shoulders. You’d have done something far, far worse than not post if that were the case. An absence of post can’t really stand as a convincing gesture of viciousness. But the issue is whether you feel you can get something truly positive out of this event, and can see the way clear through your narrative. If you can do that, the whole event will be transformed. I have every faith in you, but there is no reason why you shouldn’t break plates and eat chocolate for a few day’s yet. These things take their sweet time! Big hugs.

  7. doctordi said,

    Thanks, LL, I agree, and I think I have taken several very positive things from the experience. I have also been eating quite a lot of chocolate.

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