Criticisms don’t bother me when they make sense. Whether the critiques come from myself or others, I know that they exist to make me strive to be better. The first real writing criticism I ever received was about my fairy tales. My MFA mentor told me that while my fairy tales were well-written and interesting, what I needed to focus on was really modernizing them. It wasn’t enough to rewrite them with the same qualities of the original stories. There had to be something that truly set them apart. I struggled to figure it out and eventually came up with something that made my version of sense.
Later, my mother gave me a (slight critique.) “Maybe you could write your stories so they can be read more easily,” she said. This was when I decided to shun all aesthetic convention and write my stories (1) in long, block paragraphs; (2) in lowercase with passages written in all-caps sprinkled throughout; (3) based on such oddly fantastical realms that the main indicator the reader was in Alana-land was that strange monsters abounded; (4) used an odd reverse indentation technique.
I considered her statement for some time. Eventually, I agreed that while I wanted to maintain the block paragraphs (they’re kind of my thing), the text being in all lowercase wasn’t necessarily making the stories any better. The all-cap sections were hard on the eyes and eventually, I came to be a bit “blah”about the strange indentation. Plus, in the event that my digital copies suddenly lost formatting, putting the indentations back would be a horrible pain.
When I gave my first reading in August 2012, I was proud of the work I chose to read. I still am proud. I believe that writing is some of my strongest writing. But as my husband said (he who was seated in the third row from the podium, intently taking photos and videos of my reading, while proudly grabbing newsletter copies with my name/bio inside), the pieces sort of merged into one another. Nothing really set one piece apart from the next. I might have mentioned a specific body part for a sequence, then changed to something else, but if someone weren’t listening to carefully, that difference might not be noticeable. It was something to think about. Also, after the reading, I was approached by a gentleman who said, “Wow. I can’t even describe how I feel after listening to that.” I’ll take that as a plus 100. But still, my husband had a point.
Over the last year, I’ve been steadily working on my stories. For one thing, I’ve been reducing my files so that I’m not completely overwhelmed by the work I’ve created over the year. Also, because I’ve been trying to go in a different direction from my previous writing, I want to limit my connection with the past (metaphorically, of course). I’ve also gone back to a more traditional aesthetic (for the most part). There are some things I still don’t particularly like, such as quotation marks. I’ve had some bad experiences with “smart” quotes and my manuscripts ended up looking like messes.
I’ve also been removing all the random monsters. For the longest time, my mind kept telling me that in order to really make a surreal environment, there had to be equally surreal creatures. Then I started watching David Lynch and realized that I was wrong. So, so wrong.
When I was at my in-laws’ house yesterday, my step-father-in-law and I had a talk about writing. And in the course of our discussion, he asked me an important question: what is it that your generation is trying to say? With that one question, I knew that I had to start fresh on SCT. Because while I love what I’ve created so far, when compared to the weight of such a simple inquiry, the story was falling flat. I’ll finish what I wrote just because I feel that I have to. Plus, it gives me time to really consider what it is I need to say. But finishing that version of SCT will be for solely for me, just so that I can finish that first idea and get it out of my system.
I always ask myself questions when I’m writing because some of the best writing quotes say that writing is all about finding answers. You can’t find answers if you aren’t asking questions. But sometimes, I neglect myself to ask the hard questions. Sometimes I need someone else to ask me the tough questions because sometimes I can’t always trust myself to.
The game plan over the next week or two is to finish the SCT draft I’m working on and then really focus on the story I need to tell. It’s hard starting over, especially after working on a draft for so long, but it’s a necessary in order to get me moving in the direction of the real story.
So after all of this, what’s my point? People are going to give you advice about things. Sometimes the advice will be good, most times it will be bad. Instead of looking at the offered advice as a sort of attack, I would say that it’s best to listen closely, to understand what the person is telling you, and then decide if you can use it. It might be a slow process of incorporating change but that’s part of artistic maturation. You also have to know when to step away from advice. I’ve had so many people over the years tell me to write “happier” things but it’s not going to happen. You aren’t creating anything of worth if the entirety of the piece is happy. There has to be something dark behind it, some lingering malevolence (or not as dramatic), that makes the resulting happiness sweeter. Because life (and art) can’t always be sunshine and rainbows.