There’s a workshop course in Toronto, run by George Brown College, but actually tucked away in a cozy corner of Mabel’s Fables children’s bookstore. It’s colourful there, and bright, and filled with books. The bookshelves are pink and the walls are warm yellow. All the writers who have visited Mabel’s over the years have written or drawn on the walls in permanent marker; for me, sitting in class each week, it’s a kind of graffiti of inspiration. I’ve learned a lot in the class, over the nine or so years I’ve been attending. Not least among those things is how to take feedback.
There’s a rule in the class, you see. One person reads their work aloud, and everyone listens. Then it’s the reader’s turn to listen while everyone else in class discusses the work. Listen quietly, mind you: after you’ve read, you’re not allowed to talk until after the discussion is over, when you can reply and thank the class or ask questions.
It’s a relief, really, not being allowed to talk. It takes away the pressure to defend or explain your work, and leaves you free to try and absorb the comments, or write them down to look at later. (Some weeks, I can barely scribble down the feedback fast enough.)
My writing group works slightly differently. The person whose work is being discussed is free to talk, although they tend not to. I find it enough just to try to take in the feedback and write it down so I can use it later, although I will ask questions to clarify, or explain something if I’m asked. But the thing is, if I’m being asked to explain something in the book, that tells me my manuscript isn’t clear enough.
I’m grateful for my writing group. Last Tuesday was my turn to be critiqued, and they did a great job. They told me what was good, and what wasn’t. And they asked questions. I’m grateful for the time they spent reading my unpolished manuscript, and for the questions they asked, and for the things they gave me to think about. Some of the questions they asked, I had no answer for. Some I did, and a couple of those, I’ve since reflected on and decided that changing the answer will strengthen the book.
Nothing is set in stone, you see. I’m editing. That’s why I wanted their help.
I had another experience this week. A writer approached me about editing a work-in-progress. In this case, after an email exchange, the writer and I both decided that the partnership would not be a good fit.
In that email exchange, I asked questions. The kinds of questions that I ask when editing my own work: why is it like this? Does it need to be this way? What does this character want, and why? Is the reason good enough? For me, questions like these take time and reflection. In this case, I was asking them for a couple of reasons. One was to give the writer a taste of my editing style. Another was to give me a taste of how this writer would take feedback.
I don’t always come around to feedback right away, but I do work with it, and consider it, and think about what the questions and comments tell me about my story and how to make it stronger. What I try not to do, and what this writer did, is defend.
It happens sometimes, in the Mabel’s Fables class. A writer reads her work aloud, and then just can’t keep from interrupting the discussion to explain or disagree. Or a writer listens to the feedback, and then when it’s time to reply, tells the class we all got it wrong, and explains everything about the story, from the germ of an idea it started from through to what all those images we were questioning really mean.
When that happens, my estimation of the writer’s professionalism tends to drop a notch. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been there! I know what it’s like. But bit by bit, I’m learning.
Questions from listeners and readers should open doors, not close them. That’s what feedback is for. The questions asked tell you what’s unclear in the manuscript; after all, you can’t stand over the shoulder of every reader, explaining what you really meant. The questions asked can also show you possibilities, ways that your story can be developed. Ways that it can be more.
You might not agree with all suggestions made. That’s okay. But please, do take the time to consider them. And pay particular attention to the things your readers or listeners ask you about.
I’ve given myself the next two weeks to work through my writing group’s comments. I want to go through them carefully, and build a revision plan. There are little things to address, and big things, and giant, story-changing, scary things that will take a lot of work to fix. And I’m going to look at all of them, because the people in my writing group thought they were worth pointing out to me. They spent their time on these issues, so I’m going to spend my time on them, too.
I hope that, by the end of the two weeks, I’ll have a better idea of how to unfold the story. And then I’ll tackle a new draft. And another one after that.
Feedback is an opportunity, and a gift. I hope that, by listening to the feedback and questions from my critique partners, I manage to bring each draft a little closer to where the story needs to be. And with each experience, I want to get a little closer to where I need to be as a writer, too.