Saturday, August 28, 2010

Creative Tension and Sharing Our Work--Is It Time or Is It Premature?

A reader from Minnesota sent me a good question.  She'd taken my two-day book writing workshop at the Loft Literary Center in July, and I talked about the value of writers' groups, how they help support the book-writing journey.  She wanted to know more about that.

"I'd like to continue working on my book on my own," she emailed me, "and I still have a lot of 'islands' to write. You talked a little bit about writers groups and I was wondering how one goes about choosing/ finding a group? I haven't been involved in such a group since
composition class in college. Does it make sense to find people writing in the same (medical memoir) or different genres? I know the Loft has some groups posted on their web site, but I'm just not sure where I should/would fit in. The book is such an emotional topic for me too, that I think it would be important to find the right fit to share it. Any advice you have is greatly appreciated."

It's a very good search she's on.  It might take a while to find the right fit, but it's worth the time to look carefully.

Many of us have reached this point in our book-writing journey, where the "islands" (scenes) are accumulating, the manuscript is formed enough to benefit from kind feedback.  We long to hear how our words sound, whether they make sense to anyone outside our mind and heart.

But as the writer above noted, huge risk is attached to this step.  What if the feedback isn't kind? What if it doesn't inspire us to keep writing, but instead it leaks away any enthusiasm we have?

First Question:  Is Your Work Really Ready for Feedback?I've long been intrigued with something I call "creative tension." The best way I can describe it is this:

Everyone knows someone who can't keep a secret. Not because this person is bad, but because they just can't tolerate the inner tension of knowing something and being asked to keep it to themselves. They have to spill it, to someone, somewhere, and they feel intense relief at doing so.

Similar pressure builds as our book begins to cook. This inner tension is very much like a marvelous secret, something we know and feel excited about. ( Or not excited, depending on how the writing goes that day.) If the build-up gets too intense and our ability to handle this creative tension is pretty low, we spill the book.
We share our secret with anyone we can get close to for a few minutes. The tension dissipates.

That's, actually, not such a relief in book writing.  It's a big problem. Why?  Because it's quite hard to build back up the tension, to fuel the writing again. We can't figure it out; it just seems like that lovely momentum is now flat.  The precious secret is now not just our secret, it's the world's.

Worst case scenario: We choose poorly and the person we share our book with does not treat it well. It gets trashed; even without meaning to be, the feedback is deflating.

Most often, it's not actually the feedback that causes us to stop writing after prematurely sharing our work. It's the fact that all  creative tension is gone. There's no more steam to propel the creative engine forward.

I've done this more times than I can say, embarrassingly enough. I've shared my work with spouse and friend, stranger and coworker, and I've learned from many, many hard experiences when the writing's not really ready. From hardship, I've taught myself how long to hold the work inside, how much sharing is OK and still keeps the creative tension pumping.

Unfortunately, this isn't a skill taught in most writing classes. You learn it the hard way, as I did, or you may not keep writing.

After the skill of holding creative tension is developed, you can move forward quite fast on your project. An internal hum is always there, it lives inside you, and the people and places on your pages are part of you now. You know the work momentum isn't in danger of disappearing.

So the first question to ask is really this:  Is my work ready for air?

Writing Coaches, Writers' Groups, Writing Partners
If you think it is, then it's time to find the right support, the right method to help your writing reflect back to you, from someone else's objective eyes, what it really is saying.

Myself, I wait.  I've learned it's best not to share my raw writing, unrevised "islands" or chapters with anyone, not even my beloved spouse who is one of the most supportive human beings on the planet. I work it, I keep that steam building inside, I revise until I can't see the writing clearly anymore. When I know I'm ready to get someone to reflect back to me what the heck I'm saying, I go to my support sources.

I have worked with three different kinds of feedback mirrors. These are a writing coach, a writers' group, and a weekly writing partner. Each serves a different purpose at different stages of my manuscript. Each took many years  to develop.

Writing coaches are professional writers, a teacher you took a writing class with, an editor someone recommends. They have experience, they are published.  They are hired help, and they work with you one-to-one, in person or by email or postal mail, to help you grow.  Writing coaches can be hired for any kind of feedback you need. I've asked some to keep me moving forward on a project with weekly or bimonthly check-ins. I've worked with others to evaluate my manuscript and help me see what to work on next.  Rates vary.  Most range from $75 to $150 an hour, very worthwhile occasionally, or even regularly if you can afford it and need persistent support from someone well trained to give it.

Note:  Writing coaches should never deflate you, denigrate your work, or leave you feeling worse than before. They're paid to help, not hinder, your writing process.  Sometimes their feedback is pointed but it should never be unkind.  If it is, leave the relationship at once.

Writing partners are equal-exchange opportunities. You give her your chapter, she gives you her poems. You each read, you each comment. A fairly intimate creative relationship, where trust is built over time. I find my writing partners through writers groups and classes. I look for someone whose writing I admire, who gives me useful feedback, who opens doors with her insights. It's worth waiting for the right partnership, because if good, it can last for years.  Writing partners have been instrumental in many of my books.  Without them, I don't know if I would've finished and published as many.

Writing groups are the least risky option.  Some groups meet weekly, some monthly. some only by email. Some exchange work ahead of time, some read out loud during the meeting, some only work on writing exercises and share what comes in the moment. If you're considering a writers' group, ask yourself which type you think you need.

If your writing feels very tender, start very slow.  Look for a writing group that meets to do writing exercises from prompts. A great resource is the International Women's Writers Guild (www.iwwg.org), based in New York with branches everywhere. IWWG members gather for Kitchen Table conversations, low-key writers' groups where women write from exercise prompts and talk about their work. Membership is low cost; you get a list of Kitchen Table gatherings in your area. Try one out. They might give you just what you are needing.

Or visit a local writing school, a university English department, and scout postings for writers' groups. Many have bulletin boards that list these.  As my blog reader above mentioned, the Loft Literary Center's website (www.loft.org) offers groups galore.

Email the coordinator of a group that sounds interesting, and ask questions. Find out how people work together, whether they exchange writing or just write from exercises. Ask if you can sit in on a few meetings to see if it's a good fit for you. This should be welcome, as long as you are willing to not comment heartily on others' work until your own is up for comment as well.

Attend writing classes. Look for others with similar interests, whose way of giving feedback is both honest and helpful. Do their ideas open doors for you?  Do they seem willing to respect your lovely secret?

Learning to handle the creative tension with our own writing process, knowing when it's time to take the risk to bring that work out into the air for others to see, these are big steps in the process of becoming a writer. They lead to self-confidence in our own work. Self-confidence leads to willingness to risk more.

It's all a beautiful circle.

This Week's Writing Exercise
1. Spend some time with your writer's notebook or journal. Write honestly about your own ability to hold creative tension. When you spill your writing, why? Or is your tendency to hold it too tightly too long?

2. If you feel you're ready, take one small step toward researching some possibilities for writing coaches, writing partners, or writers' groups--whichever makes more sense to you right now.