Several years ago when I was attending critique a lively discussion was prompted by one of the members asking the group if we thought of ourselves as writers or authors. I was surprised by the fervor some exhibited in response to that question. The person who’d brought it up was the group’s constant devil’s advocate, a young man whose demeanor was firmly categorical, his criticism blunt and sometimes unkind. When a few said they were authors, the young man aggressively responded that authors were published writers. There was disagreement on that point, and the young man countered with, “Well, raise your hand if you’re a published writer.” (I suppose one could argue that asking such a thing of folks whose singular ambition is to be published is a kind of shaming; if your hand doesn’t go up, well shame on you.) None of us had been published at that time, and no hands were raised. I gave a passing thought about the uselessness of labels and concluded the young man was as usual just giving another performance, just letting us know his ego was stoked that night. Who knows? Maybe that young man was just as frustrated as the rest of us; none of us had yet to publish our Great American Novel, and, by God, when would somebody see the worth of our talent?
I didn’t stay with the face-to-face critique group for very long. Even though they were good people who shared my passions—to write and become published—I just had no talent for it. I was lousy at it. Who was I to tell another writer how they could improve their work? Hell, I had enough problems trying to figure out my own. The criticism? I took it well except when I didn’t. Besides that I found I was devoting more time preparing for critique than actually writing anything I was happy with.
After I’d left face-to-face critique, I joined an online group. We had three members, one of whom wrote from an assisted care facility way out on the eastern plains of Colorado. She was a delight. Her stories were as homey as I imagined she was. I don’t know where the other one lived, but from her writing I got the impression she was a Highlands Ranch soccer mom who had an interest in Biblical lore and murder mysteries which formed the basis of her storytelling. I believe it was the soccer mom who left first, and I left after that because, as I said, I was spending too much time on it. I did regret leaving my buddy out there on those pancake-flat plains to fend for herself. Though, if memory serves, the critique chair promised to hook her up with another online group. I hope that happened. Her stories were precious and they reminded me of Kent Haruf’s gems—clean construction and salt of the earth.
I’ve had some success over the years since leaving critique. My first published novel appeared in 2010. (I don’t count the novel I published in 2005. It was the product of a vanity press for which I paid a goodly sum. It was not ready for eyes other than mine to see. I’m not ashamed of it, but just a wee bit embarrassed that I had thought it was ready to see the light of day when now I know it clearly wasn’t. I suspect if I’d been attending critique at the time, and had let others see what I was up to, I probably would have heeded the criticism and polished it a lot more than I had.) The 2010 novel was published by a New York publisher. No, not in Manhattan but Albion, six hours from the Big Apple and just off the shores of Lake Ontario. Small presses do abound, and I hooked up with one of them. Since 2010 three more of my novels have been published, as well as several novellas and short stories that have appeared in anthologies and some as stand-alone. I’ve not delved much into self-publishing and, truth be told, prefer to let someone else handle that part of the process. And, like every other writer I know, I’m working on several WIPs, writing every day, holed up in my writing room where the rest of the world knows to knock before entering.
I don’t think I’ll ever return to critique. I know I’d still be lousy at it. But, as I write this, I know there are those whose dreams have a much better chance of being fulfilled by attending critique than by not bothering with it. Not only for the constructive criticism that is essential to the process, but from the camaraderie as well. Something like everybody being in the same boat, working their oars, and all searching for landfall in the distance. That’s fine, some may say, but you didn’t stay with it. You gave up the ship. Well, I’m reminded of C.J. Box’s—former RMFW Writer of the Year and a New York Times Bestseller—response about his experience with critique: He said, and I paraphrase, “It just wasn’t for me.”
The point of all this is that we’re all different. I, for example, am a solitary writer with a quirk about letting anyone read my stuff before I send it off to a publisher. Others write good stuff in Starbucks, share it with fifteen friends, their critique partners, their Aunt Sybil in Paonia, and their Uncle Ted in Tulsa and then send it off for evaluation and hopefully a contract. We all do what we do because, yes, we are who we are. We can call ourselves writers or authors or whatever the hell we want to. I suppose what we can’t do, though, and I know you all share this sentiment, is give it up.
We breathe therefore we write.
George Seaton lives and writes in Pine, Colorado. Learn more about him at http://www.georgeseatonauthor.com/