Listening, receiving, revelation—Sivan is a month of many names. What they all share in common is the idea that somewhere out there, something has a lesson for us, if only we can figure out how to accept it.
This, historically, has not been my strong suit. Especially when it came to my writing, I was afraid of feedback of any kind. I kept my fiction-writing hobby tightly under wraps. In my mind, there were things I was good at and things I wasn’t—and I liked writing too much to risk being told, “Maybe this isn’t for you,” or worse, “Why did you bother trying?”
Of course, the world isn’t actually split into things we’re good at and things we’re not. It is, believe it or not, possible to get better. This should be obvious. It wasn’t to me, at least until my last year of college.
I was writing my undergrad thesis. My advisor didn’t like my third chapter. (Yes, I made the ridiculous choice to write a 70+ page thesis in three chapters that only two people besides me would ever read.) I didn’t love my third chapter, either—I was struggling to articulate my conclusions and wasn’t entirely satisfied with how my argument was turning out—but rather than shrug and call it good enough, as I was tempted to do, my advisor insisted that I rewrite it. And rewrite it again. And again, and again, a half-dozen more times until finally, on draft ten, she said, “That’ll do.”
I was thrilled. Not that it was finished, but by the entire process. For quite possibly the first time in my life, someone else was pointing out all the little flaws and bumps in my writing that I normally hoped people’s eyes would skip over. And instead of feeling embarrassed, I felt elated. Because she wasn’t just turning up her nose and saying, “Not good enough,” or shaving off a few points. She was telling me how to make it better. It took me a while—ten drafts—to figure out how to actually put her advice into practice, but each time I felt myself drawing closer to the argument I’d been trying to make the whole time.
The late, great Ursula K Le Guin once wrote, “It’s childish to assume people will understand unexpressed meanings. It’s dangerous to confuse self-expression with communication.”1 I think about this quote a lot. She was talking about grammar (and is maybe a bit harsh—”childish”!), but the distinction she draws between self-expression and communication is one I find myself returning to again and again. My thesis advisor wasn’t trying to impose her own ideas onto me; she was trying to help me better articulate my ideas in a way she (or any reader) could understand. All I had to do was listen to her objections.
Communication, after all, is a two-way street.
Well, it’s the listening that’s the hard part, isn’t it? Still, I’d had a bit of experience with it already that year. A few months prior, I’d finally let myself be dragged to the climbing gym—this after three years of wriggling out of promises to climb with my friends. It was another one of those activities I was worried I wasn’t good at. Weren’t all the expert climbers going to laugh and tell me I’d be better off staying home?
It turns out, no. Climbers, I learned, are some of the most helpful people on the planet, (sometimes too) enthusiastically offering “beta”—advice on how to best climb a route. I’d fall again and again until someone would say, “Try flagging your right foot out before you reach, and you won’t swing off the wall.” I tried it. It worked.
So you could say that when my advisor started returning entire pages struck through with red, I was feeling more primed to accept—or at least entertain—feedback than at any other point in my life. And it was this first experience of critique that made me consider the possibility that I might actually want someone to read my fiction.
A good thing, too. I was blessed in grad school with two mentors, five critique partners, and countless workshop cohorts who all helped me hone my thesis novel into the book it is now. Just like my first mentor, they caught all the rough spots I’d tried to gloss over and held them up to the light. Sometimes I bristled—couldn’t they tell what I was trying to say??—but they were always offering me a gift: a way to better communicate, if only I could bring myself to listen.
I just received a round of edits back from my agent. I’ve spent the last half-year rewriting the second half of my book for the umpteenth time. (I truly couldn’t tell you how many drafts it’s been. I’ve lost count.) Finally, I got the long-awaited, “That’ll do.”
I was beside myself. At last, I felt the plot had come together in a way I found satisfying. At last, I’d smoothed out all those rough patches that had left beta-readers scratching their heads, trying to think of something better. My agent had somehow seen what I was trying (and failing) to say in all my countless revisions and had helped me tease out a way to say it better.
Then I opened the document. Page One: line after line after line crossed out. My favorite sentences, deleted. The entire first four paragraphs highlighted with the comment, “I’m wondering how much of this we need?”
That one didn’t feel as good.
I didn’t want to listen. I cried. It’d been three years—couldn’t it just be good enough already?
After a weekend trying my best not to think about it, I was willing to talk.
We spent almost an hour on the phone, working through her list of suggestions point by point. The plot was solid, she explained, and there wasn’t a scene she’d cut. The pacing issue was on the paragraph level, even the sentence level. I’d need to go in with a razor blade and shave it. And those precious words she’d struck? I could keep them, if I needed them. I had to understand what she was trying to say, but ultimately, they were only suggestions.
Well, I wasn’t planning to take them. Not if I could help it.
Of course it turned out—as it usually does—she was right.
I wrote these first pages almost three years ago. They’re precious to me—but they’re also three years old. My writing has improved by leaps and bounds (I’ve done an entire MFA since then!) but I still found it hard to let go of those words I thought were so lovely when I first put them down. They were a Beginning—the Beginning of My Book—but when I went to rewrite the first paragraphs, I found that they didn’t really belong after all. I liked the new words better. And so the lines I’d cried over, I struck myself. By choice.
It’s still a work in progress. I’m tinkering—and I still have 11 chapters (at least) left to go. But there are some brilliant people out there trying to help me. I’m trying my best to listen.
1 In Steering the Craft, Le Guin’s 1998 book on the craft of writing. I own the 2015 revised edition, so I can’t say for certain whether this quote is also in the original. In my copy, it’s in Chapter 2 “Punctuation and Grammar.”