[Before I begin my discussion this week I wanted to mention that I will be teaching a summer online fiction writing workshop for the Truckee Meadows Community College – http://www.tmcc.edu – in case any of you are interested. You can apply, register, and pay fees on-line. Best of all, there are no residency requirements for summer classes. Look for ENG 221, second summer session. Class begins in July.]
There is an axiom that warns creatives not to talk too much about their upcoming/current projects. The fear is two-fold: 1) there is the fear of having an idea stolen, and; 2) many artists believe that discussing a project in too much detail will disperse the creative energy of the idea, leaving them vacant when it comes time to produce.
I certainly guard against both in my own creative life.
But there is an opposite side of the proverbial coin here, that discussing the overarching project with a few trusted associates – be they friends, family, or lovers – can actually feed the creative buzz and keep one motivated even when the internal muse up and leaves.
Much has been said about writing groups recently, and most creatives have a circle of some kind where they go to share their work with like-minded folk who understand the artist’s struggle. This is one of the great advantages of a creative community, that one has a place to share one’s work in hopes of getting proper (i.e. technical) feedback on the many facets of the project. But there is something equally important in sharing our ideas outside of the fold. With our artist’s groups we are often “preaching to the choir,” pitching our process to folks who already assume certain things because they, too, are experiencing what we are.
Consider the value, however, of the non-artist critic – intelligent and trustworthy people who don’t know the first thing about the internal struggles of the artist – or if they know the first, even the second thing, they still and nonetheless aren’t deeply involved in the daily struggle of, say for the sake of argument, the creative writer. These people may have written a little in their time, and certainly they should be readers, but they do not consider themselves artists . . . let me give you a personal example.
My significant other was an active writer and painter in her youth. She has written poems, short stories, journals, and more recently, blogs. These days she is a dedicated scientist and administrator. She does not have a lot of time to write and paint, does not have the daemonic drive to do those things the way I do. She is busy in science and her artistic past is a home where her talented and capable artistic self once resided. Because of this background she is a trustworthy audience for testing my ideas. In her I do not, however, have the full sense of choir I do with my writing group and fellow writers. She knows a bit about what it takes to write creatively, she knows what she likes, but otherwise she is busy in another realm. And there is one more caveat which ultimately qualifies her as a test subject for my work:
She doesn’t like everything I write.
This may seem harsh, but consider the lessons couched in this reality. First, the serious artist benefits nothing from being over-sensitive to criticism. Whether we believe it or not, not everything we create is outstanding, and even if it is, not everyone is going to like it. But there is something beyond personal taste going on in my case: her dislike of some of my work is not always personal preference. Sometimes I simply don’t do my job. And without the filter of a practicing artist interfering with her response to my work she is free to react as a consumer of the product. She reads like a reader. Her reaction is genuine as a reader’s and I, as the writer, have the opportunity to review what I have done to see where my work is lacking.
2013 has been a very good year for me in terms of creativity. I have been inundated with ideas for poems, short stories, novels, and now, a play. My partner, external to my circle of artist friends, has been with me over the entire journey and has seen things unfold as I go. And now the pay off. I am seeing and hearing sincere enthusiasm for my ideas and end product more and more consistently from her. This is not because I write to cater to her tastes, but because through the external critique of a demanding audience (and she will admit to being demanding) I am forced to grow. I can trust the response because it comes from “outside the know.” She has pushed me to reach a larger audience, and to create more satisfying results. I have been inspired to reach deep and get at the core of who I am as a writer.
Most writers have a community surrounding them by which their work is evaluated. Assuming this reality, it is incumbent for every writer to evaluate their community to assure that “external” readers are present. Our external readers represent an unknown audience. They are a precursor to our harshest critics and our most challenging barriers to readership. They are part muse and part critic in the most raw sense, for when they connect with our work we are afforded a sense of the accomplishment, and of the satisfaction, awaiting us in the greater realm of publication.