Writing Tip: Critiquing

woman lying on green grass while holding pencil

In the Saturday feedback group, we began talking about the ‘off with his head’ or ‘out-it-goes’ part of writing.  We acknowledged that as a group we’d always been very supportive and encouraging of each others work.  That was because we were all in it together.  Our critiquing was not telling lies; it was from a place of open-hearted acceptance.  Everything you put on the page is acceptable.

Sometimes someone says, ‘I want a rigorous no-holds-barred assessment of my work.’  But what do you say to them when the writing is dull and boring?  Don’t give up your day job?  It doesn’t sit comfortably with most of us to be directly critical of someone’s writing.  It’s like telling someone how ugly their baby is.  All of us find it hard to separate our writing from ourselves, and are prone to take criticism personally.

The feedback sandwich is a widely known technique for giving constructive feedback, by ‘sandwiching’ the criticism between two pieces of praise or compliments.

 

hamburger with cheese and two beef patties

Yesterday, as we passed around copies of our work (just a page or two) we started to address what William Faulkner famously said:

‘In writing, you must kill all your darlings.’

First of all, we looked for the juice in each piece.  Where did the writing come alive?  ‘Get rid of the rest,’ we said.  ‘Off with his head—out it goes.’   It’s very difficult to be this honest, and not everyone wants to hear it.  ‘I simply want gentle support and a few corrections,’ some of us might say.

Be willing to have the courage to look at your work with truthfulness.  It’s good to know where your writing has energy and vitality, rather than to spend a lot of time trying to make something come to life that is dead on the page.   Keep writing.  Something new will come up.    You don’t want to put your readers to sleep by writing a lot of boring stuff.

Do you have a writing group? Do you find it useful?

Poem: Between the Islands of the Pacific

sky, clouds, rising sun over Pacific Ocean

Not that most of us are in a rush to sign up for a cruise any time soon … but here is my poem, BETWEEN THE ISLANDS OF THE PACIFIC, first published in Quadrant magazine June, 2018. It’s sort of relevant to the current situation. Hope you enjoy it.

 

Between the Islands of the Pacific

 

Because by now we know everything is not so blue

out here.

 

The cities had tipped rubbish into the sea,

and we let them without even noticing.

 

Not even feeling our breathing clear

as gusts reaching ten knots cleaned up our days.

 

Not even. Today pure blue sky, blue sea,

out there the horizon drawing a line

below the clouds, the absoluteness of it. Nights

of diesel engines shuddering beneath us.

 

We lounge on chairs side by side on the deck.

At dusk, we stand at the railing of the ship as the sun

slips into the ocean. In the fresh sea air, their backs turned,

some raise a selfie-stick or light a cigarette while others

stand holding their breath.

 

Where can we go from here, and how?

 

Copyright © Libby Sommer 2018

 

Writing Tip

man with hand on temple looking at laptop

It is essential to separate the creator and the editor, or inner critic when you practice writing, so that the creator has plenty of room to breathe, experiment, and tell it like it really is.  If the inner critic is being too much of a problem and you can’t distinguish it from your authentic writing voice, sit down whenever you find it necessary to have some distance from it and put down on paper what the critic is saying, put a spotlight on the words—“You have nothing original to say, what made you think you could write anything anyone would want to read, your writing is crap, you’re a loser, I’m humiliated, you write a load of rubbish, your work is pathetic, and your grammar stinks …”  On and on it goes!

Say to yourself, It’s OK to feel this.  It’s OK to be open to this.

You can learn to cultivate compassion for yourself  during this internal process by practicing Mindfulness Meditation.  Sit up straight, close your eyes, bring your awareness to your inner experience.  Now,  redirect your attention to the physical sensations of the breath in the abdomen … expanding as the breath comes in … and falling back as the breath goes out.  Use each breath to anchor yourself in the present.   Continue, concentrating on the breath for several minutes.  Now, expand your field of awareness to include the words of the inner critic.  Turn your attention to where in your body you feel the unpleasant thoughts, so you can attend, moment by moment, to the physical reactions to your thoughts.

 “Stay with the bodily sensations, accepting them, letting them be, exploring them without judgment as best you can.”—Mindfulness, Mark Williams and Danny Penman.

Every time you realise that you’re judging yourself, that realisation in itself is an indicator that you’re becoming more aware.

The thing is, the more clearly you know yourself, the more you can accept the critic in you and use it.  If the voice says, “You have nothing interesting to say,” hear the words as white noise, like the churning of a washing machine.  It will change to another cycle and eventually end, just like your thoughts that come and go like clouds in the sky.  But, in the meantime, you return to your notebook and practice your writing.  You put the fear and the resistance down on the page.

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Do you struggle with an inner critic?  Any words of wisdom you’d like to share?

A Poem

woman in white shirt and blue denim short shorts sitting

Hello everyone. Hello to all you fellow quarantiners hanging-in-there.

I’d like to share with you my poem ELSEWHERE, first published in Quadrant magazine in December 2017. Hope you like it. The poem is relevant to today’s situation, in many ways.

 

Elsewhere

Hair remembers how dark a room becomes

when hair is not let loose, straw fallen from the head

of a broom, drifting onto a path,

crunched underfoot by someone who never realised

it was straw. Hair drank, jogged,

ate by itself, knew how to tick ‘Like’

on Social Media. But hair felt

out of touch with itself

unable to distinguish the difference between

fear of the unknown, and fear of something

bad. Hair remembered the ultramarine blue of sea and sky

and the hundred varieties of tuna, calamari and squid.

 

Hair has dreams, that’s what hair does.

Covers over a shiny scalp, frames the face.

Adventure means exploration and discovery.

And hair remembers—blankets of humidity, harsh light,

residing there in the brain’s temporal lobes.

Even now, when hair is back home,

it remembers the wanting things to remain the same

but gives thanks for faraway places

where you can untangle and restyle yourself.

 

© Libby Sommer 2017

Stay safe and be well.

I Am Not the Stories I Tell

pexels-photo.jpg

Sometimes when people read my stories they assume those stories are me.  They are not me, even if I write in the first person.  They were my thoughts and feelings at the time I wrote them.  But every minute we are all changing.  There is a great freedom in this.  At any time we can let go of our old selves and start again.  This is the writing process.  Instead of blocking us, it gives us permission to move on.  Just like in a progressive ballroom dance:  you give your undivided attention to your partner—keep eye contact for the time you are dancing together—but then you move on to the next person in the circle.

The ability to express yourself on the page—to write how you feel about an old lover, a favourite pair of dance shoes, or the memory of a dance on a chilly winter’s night in the Southern Highlands—that moment you can support how you feel inside with what you say on the page.  You experience a great freedom because you are not suppressing those feelings.  You have accepted them, aligned yourself with them.

I have a poem titled ‘This is what it feels like’—it’s a short poem.  I always think of it with gratitude  because I was able to write in a powerful way how it was to be desperate and frightened.  The act of self expression made me feel less of a victim.  But when people read it they often say nothing.  I remind myself, I am not the poem, I am not the stories I write.  People react from where they are in their own lives.  That’s the way things are.  The strength is in the act of writing, of putting pen to paper.   Write your stories and poems, show them to the world, then move on.  The stories are not you.  They are moments in time that pass through you.