So lately, I’ve been trying out lots of different writers groups and I recently encountered “XY.” I’m calling him XY because I’m not interested in giving him free publicity, and I don’t want any more attention from him. XY took it upon himself to write and send me an e-mail/letter through Meet up and I thought I’d share it.
To that end, I’ve taken XY’s real name and other identifiers, (a certain day of the week), off of his letter. I also changed the font size of his letter to 12 point, Times New Roman, so it would be easier to read. Other than that, I haven’t changed any of his message. I decided not to respond to him directly because … well, after you read his letter, I think it becomes evident. However, I decided that I might respond to his letter with my own letter − but post it on my blog.
Then I chickened out because I don’t like conflict and this feels very conflicty-ish, and then I realized that just because I don’t like conflict doesn’t mean I can’t handle conflict or that I have to back away from conflict. Besides, publishing his letter and my response allows me to give the whole thing fresh air and transparency − which feels like the healthy thing to do − and that’s when I realized … I didn’t have a good excuse not to publish it. That’s what a good deal of my blog is about, really − having to deal with absurdity which often includes adversity.
If XY wants to read my response, it’s here − though I’m not interested in continuing any silliness with him or anyone else. The point is that sometimes you encounter people like XY as you journey through life.
I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried, y’all!
XY’s Letter/E-Mail to me
Meetup Messages <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Oct 8 at 8:13 PM
~~~ Respond by replying directly to this email ~~~
I wanted to send you a follow-up message because my handwriting was so messy. I enjoy your metaphors (especially the nut), and your narrative voice is solid! It is evident that you’ve put a lot of time into your work that I’ve seen at these workshops so far.
My main critique was the ending. You spent a long time investing in the benefits question and idea, and you have an internal monologue that acts as your narration. Writing fiction is a lot like lighting the fuse of a fire cracker. The further the fuse burns, the more one has built up to the explosive conclusion. In the story you shared with the group on (a certain day of the week), you lit the fuse by asking the young man the question. It’s meant to make him contemplate the meaning of it and, as you said, to lead to his benefit, which by proxy opens up the question to the reader and lets them interpret it for themselves.
In your story, the reader watches the fuse burn, which builds to a climax. In this story, your monologue is the meat and potatoes, and my interpretation was that your monologue serves to flesh out your reasoning internally, while explaining your reasoning to the reader, why the question is important without providing the answer yourself.
While you were reading, I was really interested in what your intended payoff was. What is the payoff? What is the encompassing idea behind the question posed to the young man, and how was the narrative going to spin a fantastic “coming of age” seed planted for the teenager into a life lesson? When you finished reading, I felt like I was left hanging as the reader. I don’t demand to know the right answer. Hell, the idea felt like it was meant to convey “society vs. the individual” and what the individual’s role in society was. But as a reader, I’m having to work too much and come up with my own ending. In fiction, there is no “to be continued” in a short story unless it explicitly leaves a segue into the next thought or the development of the previous thought.
Overall, the story you tell and your intent to convey a message through that story is great and developed, but the story needed some kind of payoff at the end, which was the point I was trying to make during the critique on (a certain day of the week.) However, it felt like I was critiquing a brick wall. I love to critique and be a part of these groups, but it becomes very difficult to critique an individual’s work when they aren’t willing to receive constructive criticism. After every suggestion I made on (a certain day of the week), you corrected me, until eventually I wasn’t interested in sharing feedback with you anymore. I go to writing groups to learn and to grow as a writer, and receiving constructive criticism graciously—no matter how inaccurate it can be—for work that I’ve submitted is a necessity for me to grow. Then, after the critiques were over, you announced to the group that every other group you’ve gone to “got it,” and we didn’t. That comment was demeaning and ungracious and set a poor tone. I provided feedback on your work because I want it to get even better than it already is, but receiving contestations after every piece of feedback is demotivating.
Critiques are for constructive criticism. If you want others to read your work and offer their thoughts to help you to improve, then absolutely I would read anything you brought (I even critique larger works for folks that ask) and share with you my opinions. However, when someone is unwilling to listen to critiques and unwilling to take their opinions and constructive criticism graciously—i.e., without dismissing their constructive criticism—they receive less and less feedback, until the only words from the group are “good job!” and “I liked it!” While that may provide a confidence boost, it is otherwise ineffective.
I want to keep reading your work, Mona! If you find taking constructive criticism difficult, that’s okay. It’s not easy to read your work aloud and to listen while others dissect it. All I ask is that you take feedback graciously in the future.
All the Best,
October 8, 2015 8:10 PM
Meetup, POB NY NY USA 10163
Thank you for your letter. As I began reading, I thought it was sweet that you’d spent so much of your time and energy writing me a letter just to translate the hard-to-read notes you originally gave me at the writers meeting. As I continued reading your letter, though, I realized that your writing me really had nothing to do with deciphering notes. You were just using “messy handwriting” as a pretense to have your say about other things. Never fear, I was able to read your original notes just fine without your help and in spite of your handwriting!
Unfortunately, your letter puts me in an awkward position. You see, while you suggested at the meeting that I e-mail you if I couldn’t read your notes, I didn’t contact you because:
- like I said, I was able to read your notes and there was no need to bother you; and also,
- the notes you gave me weren’t viable feedback; although, since you appear to be so sensitive about your verbal critique, I kind of hate to bring that up.
But now that you’ve written to me unsolicited and have given me even more feedback that is, again, not useable for my story, I’m at a bit of a loss as to what to say without coming across as … what was it you said about me? Ah, yes … without coming across as a brick wall. Ouch!
Now if you’d called me a brick house − that might have been okay. I mean, what woman doesn’t want to be thought of as a brick house? A wall, though? Walls are wide. What are you trying to imply, XY, that you think I’m … fat? That’s not very nice. Or gracious.
XY, your letter suggests that your feelings are hurt because I wasn’t able to use the “constructive criticism” you verbally gave at the meeting. Through your letter, you sound pretty disappointed. That’s okay − you’re more resilient than you think you are! As an adult, I’m sure you can handle it. However, the fact that I couldn’t use your “constructive criticism” might have something to do with your ongoing confusion.
As I said in the group and I’ll reiterate here, my story – or to be technical, my personal essay – I read at the meeting was not fiction. I’m concerned that you seem to be having such a hard time retaining that simple fact. I do hope you’re okay. Whatever the reason for your difficulties − You keep trying, XY! Maybe you’ll do better next time. You get an “A” for effort. By the way, I hope my letter provides you with the encouragement and graciousness you appear to need so you won’t continue to feel so … demotivated.
One last thing: Please, please don’t send me any more personal notes, critiques, letters, etc. Honestly, you take care of yourself and don’t worry about me! Not to be mean-spirited, but I’m a busy woman and I don’t have the time to indulge in ongoing correspondence with you. I’m sure, however, that if you feel the continued need to focus your attentions on another − if you ask around, you might find someone interested in becoming your pen pal. Good luck to you in your writing endeavors!
Mona James aka “The Brick Wall”
A friend made an excellent suggestion that I make clear for those who don’t know the “ins” and “outs” of critique: the one receiving feedback or the “critique” should never feel compelled to accept or use any feedback when their story or piece is “constructively criticized.” When my story was critiqued, people at this writers group pointed out things and made suggestions, some of which I used and some of which I didn’t because it wasn’t relevant to my piece. XY was disappointed because his feedback didn’t work but felt I should have accepted it anyway, which just makes me scratch my head in bewilderment. It is the responsibility of the writer to determine what ultimately works and what doesn’t. And while one might reasonably understand why someone might be disappointed after their piece was inappropriately “dissected,” as XY eloquently put it − this is the first time I’ve encountered someone, who after dishing out criticism, then had a temper tantrum because their feedback was rejected! Go figure.
I’ll end with this passage that author, Jennie Nash, writes in an article on “The Four Hidden Dangers of Writers Groups” on Jane Friedman’s blog:
A group of writers who are not trained to assess problems with a story or argument often get it wrong, or get it partially right, or demand specific remedies—not necessarily on purpose, but by a sort of unconscious group-think approach of what they like or don’t like. It’s not good … People may offer ideas for how they would fix things, or how they see your story or what they would do, but this is a sure path for crushing fragile new projects and wavering confidence.
Just something to consider.