Wednesday, July 19, 2006

REVISED (or Class Foil)

The idea of class is a blast of fresh air, until you’re actually there, in the thick of it and realize.

There’s required reading, required writing, and a sacrifice of a weekly summer night. There’s the rush from work to get there, and the darkness of night when you leave. There’s being thirsty, being tired, and the obligation of being there anyway. Of course, there is all that, but it’s countered by learning, and empowerment and inspiration.

And then there is that one person in class who with or without your permission, becomes your foil.

We had to write outlines. So I threw mine together in about an hour and a half, sort of fleshing out my half-baked novel idea. After it was written, no one could say it was the world’s greatest four pages. Even I looked at it and thought how poorly it captured what I was trying to convey, the sympathies, the struggle, the raison d’etre of my main character.

When I saw the other outlines in the class, I felt all right about it. Many of us had bones with only partial meat to work with. Some had stories that had been told many times, others had stories that I questioned why they would be told, or how it could be possible to breathe fresh life into them. Mine was one of those, and I’m hoping that just because the themes are exhausted, the style and content don’t have to be.

We coddled each other. Ideas that would not make prize-winning books were offered, and we joyfully encouraged each other, with gentle suggestions. When my turn came, I thought I would get the same treatment.

But the first comment, from a girl that I had, not three minutes earlier, smiled warmly at and passed her a genuine compliment, shot me square in the knees.

To paraphrase: “Well….(long pause)…I mean…..maybe it’s because I’m thirty-five, and you’re so young, but…(big sigh)…your protagonist is just so obnoxious and self involved and entitled, this is just not something that could ever be interesting to read.”

The sound of crickets and sucked-in breaths. The other protagonists were on a search for love, money, contentment. Mine was on a search for self, exploring what made her who she was, and that apparently had made her, above all others, a spoiled bitch.

Then, as I prayed that I would not cry, not over this, not over her, not over something that I hadn’t yet put my heart and soul into, but it had been such an awful day already for various reasons, and this was supposed to be my nurturing time, that I had paid for (paid for!!), the teacher said:

“Well, can you say anything positive about the outline? Because there is actually a lot here to like.”

And the girl, well, thirty-five year old woman rather, looked down in exasperation at my outline, her lip curled in disgust, and she exhaled sharply. “No”.

No matter that the protagonist is, of course, based on me.


I heard but did not register the rest of the class’s compliments. Only this detractor. After hearing everyone else’s thoughts on the outline, perhaps overly kind because of her knee-jerk insult, she amended her own.

She told me the blanket statement that eliciting any reaction, is a positive action, even if the reaction is positively negative. Then she dared me to prove her wrong with my opening chapters, due in a future class. As if that could inspire my deflated ego.

Wow, I was wrong, so, so wrong about wanting the negative reviews to come from someone else. I am not there yet.


C-47 said...

I have drafted this in my head 4 times already, so it just goes to show that even in comments on blogs the internal critic rises wrathfully.
Two things. Although, yes criticism is good and all that, you are, at the end of the day, telling your story, the one you want to tell. No one can ever be sure that the voice in their head is one that others want to hear. All you can do is write what it says and hope.
And secondly, some of the greatest novels of all time have centered around obnoxious, self involved, entitled protagonists. I would point out Greene's POwer and the Glory, or any book by Henry Miller, or, tho not my bag of bolts, Plath, Dickenson. I mean, look you are a writer, which is a person who thinks that their voice is worth being heard, so on some level all writers fall into the first two criticisms. And you are not digging 24hrs a day in a ditch somewhere eating dirt, so you then fall into the second category.
I would criticize your foils criticism as simply stating the obvious, which isnt very interesting as a writer. In conclusion, Libya is a land of contradictions... No I ramble, but I am an ardent supporter of any as to be written material that you will produce. Do not let others, especially those older, dissuade you on your march.
Back to digging a ditch for me.

Anonymous said...

That sucks that that she could only say something negative but you can't let it get you down. The juicy sweetness of your writing is in it's (sometimes brutal) honesty. If some b.i. can't handle it eff her. Don't ever change your style.

Buffy said...

We never are there. We suck it in anyway.

Some of what she says makes sense...the amended version of course. Strong reaction is good. Remember that. It may not be her cup of tea. But don't kid yourself into thinking the other compliments were just said out of 'nice'. They were positives. Take them. And taker her negative one too. Rise to the challenge..and smack her in the face with it next week.

Pink Lemonade Diva said...

oh my gosh, the woman who called my protagonist "psychotic and 1-dimensional" travels from Philadelphia to New York for your class! My advice is to pass her a piece of paper with your name spelled cleanly and clearly. So she can remember it when you are no longer Almost Literary.

Write on, my dear.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like SHE'S the spoiled bitch. Perhaps she saw a bit of herself in the character and got all nasty about it and tried to put you down?

Ali said...

Based on my interaction with people in similar workshops, I think that if she honestly thought it was bad, she would have been much more tactful with her negative feedback. I think the exact reason that she was so straightforwardly mean is that she actually thinks it is very good, and that shakes her at the insecure core. She doesn't want to admit, even to herself, that it is good, and she is jealous of your talent (and apparently, youth). I really think this is the case, not just saying this to lift your spirits.

Anyway, now you have a name for your antagonist.

Ali said...

Based on my interaction with people in similar workshops, I think that if she honestly thought it was bad, she would have been much more tactful with her negative feedback. I think the exact reason that she was so straightforwardly mean is that she actually thinks it is very good, and that shakes her at the insecure core. She doesn't want to admit, even to herself, that it is good, and she is jealous of your talent (and apparently, youth). I really think this is the case, not just saying this to lift your spirits.

Anyway, now you have a name for your antagonist.

tia said...

I'm a lurker who's been enjoying this blog, and just wanted to show some support. I'm not sure I'd ever be able to take criticism like that, so go you for having the courage to put yourself out there. For the record, I've been able to relate to a lot of stuff you write, so maybe that just makes me "obnoxious, self involved and entitled" too.

Sunday's Child said...

Another lurker who could not let this post pass. In my experience, hurtful criticism is often more about the critic than the criticized. This woman brought something into the class that has nothing to do with you . . . which makes her words that much more unfair.

I enjoy your writing and wish you luck with the novel.

David said...

Don't fall into the trap she laid for you (deliberately or not) of "proving" anything to her one way or the other...That was really the most disturbing part of this.

But hey, on the other hand I know how she feels. You're so damn good, I find myself looking for weaknesses in your writing too, to make myself feel better... .;)

Mimi in NY said...

Oh no one wants negative comments. But one day, you'll totally appreciate them - only if they come from a good place though. Those who just want to hurt (and yes, we've all done that ourselves, right?) aren't worth the time. Also, one person's opinion isn't always right - but on the other hand, feel grateful she said this with integrity and not meanness. Does that make sense? Take more yoga. That's my advice.

Anonymous said...

I had a critic like that in a writing class I took several years ago. It is worth noting that she always had nice things to say about the guys' stories, but would launch into personal attacks about the stories written by the women in the class. Sometimes when I'm writing fiction I still find myself tuning into hearing this girl's voice, barking at me from a basement classroom in 2001: "You didn't research your subject well enough! You're not a sympathetic writer! Your word choice is weak!" I have to make a conscious effort to shove her voice out and remember some of the good things my prof and the other students had to say about my work.

For the record, this fiction writer thinks your writing is lovely, and I'd be happy to read a novel by you.


debo said...

I´m guessing that your naysayer looked across the room at the young, pretty thing who not only had nice things to say about others´ work, but also produced what was no doubt talented genius of her own. Thus, your antagonist, who is likely no stranger to heartbreak, disappointment and desperation, lashed out at the embodiment of her frustration in the form of "constructive criticism". Methinks, you should have T meet you after class with a dozen roses, "Just for being you." to really rub proverbial salt in the proverbial wound.

Virginia Belle said...


i agree with what ali said.

kick her ass in the parking lot after class. seriously, she could have sugar coated that. if you can't say something nice, don't say anything. i'm sure her writing is just begging for a pulitzer!

as if.

Laura said...

I've had this happen to me before in a fiction class, only it was the instructor that informed me that "adults don't like to read this sort of thing." That story was my first clip. But, not before I did a series of major revisions. What my professor's comment told me was that something wasn't clicking. Figure out what you failed to express in that outline, and target that in your first draft.

The outline is the least important part. It is nothing more than a tool to help you work. I know multi-published authors who don't ever use outlines and do miniscule amounts of pre-writing. In my opinion, critiquing an outline is completely un-useful.

As for stories and novels with "obnoxious and self involved and entitled" protagonists:
Catcher in the Rye
everything Bret Easton Ellis ever wrote
Families are Psychotic

Push her comment to the back of your head and plow forward with your pages.

Laura said...

And I disagree with the sugarcoating. Tact is good, but sometimes brutality is necessary. I hate to be the dissenting voice here, but editors and reviewers are going to be a helluva lot meaner than that woman. You need to learn how to deal with it now.

Anonymous said...

I agree with what Laura is saying about sugar coating. As a writer currently shopping around her first novel, I'd much prefer someone tell me if they think my stuff is crap--but more specifically, I'd prefer they say why they think so.

Cheetarah1980 said...

I wouldn't immediately conclude that this woman's response was a result of jealousy. Blogging can give writer's an unrealistic view of their work. Think about it. How many times have you read a so-so blog entry just to click on comments that are raving, "Amazing writing!" I think when you get used to hearing how great you are all the time, it's difficult to hear when someone says, "eh, you're not so great after all."

Remember, your writing isn't going to appeal to everyone. No matter what you do, there are some people who just won't like it. Don't bother trying to please them. Second, some folks don't voice their criticism in the most constructive ways. You admitted that you threw together the outline in about 90 and it wasn't your best work. You have talent, so your "thrown together" work is probably better than your average person's hard work. But when you're in a room full of writers, everyone is talented. It takes more than talent to be the literary luminary you want to be. So if your work was criticized, rummage through the unnecessary bullcrap to get to the heart of the critique and use what you can.

I think you have so much potential. You have a way with words that's uncanny. But writing is about more than the pretty words on a page. Just because the words sound nice it doesn't make them interesting or compelling. Challenge yourself to go beyond the words to the heart of the story. I can't wait to read your book when it hits the shelves. It's better to take the negatives now, rather than from an agent or a publisher.