Walking the Tightrope

The internet abounds with advice for new writers, with suggestions on everything from avoiding adverbs to the elements of story. For nearly two years, I devoured this kind of advice wherever I found it. Even fillet mignon gets boring if you eat it every day, though, and I soon found that I’d begun encountering the same advice over and over again.

Through all this advice-seeking, I rarely encountered discussions about attitude. Maybe that’s because attitude isn’t something on a page that can be dissected, and it isn’t easily subdivided into categories like plot, character development, or style. Maybe it’s because people don’t want to be told how they should think when it comes to their writing. So instead, I’ll share a prevailing attitude I have about writing that’s been central to my growth as a writer in the hopes you’ll find it useful. So what is that attitude? I’m a visual thinker, so lets start with a picture:

Tightrope Walker

We’ve got someone walking a tightrope. If he falters a little to the left or right, he’s in for a nasty face-plant, or maybe worse if he is high enough – a long nose-drive to the asphalt. What could that possibly have to do with writing? To survive in writing, you’ve got to be balanced.

Early in my writing career, I shared one of my first stories -this precious manuscript resulting from hours of toil at the keyboard – with several people with the hopes of publishing it in The Sun (first publication in The Sun, really? What was I smoking?). The feedback I received was devastating, with readers describing the piece as preachy, pedantic, expository, and stupid. It was a tough inauguration into the world of literary critique. Humbled by the experience, I took the manuscript (VOICES FROM THE CORRAL) and all the written comments and stowed them in a drawer, certain I’d never again let that story see the light of day.

I could’ve told myself I didn’t have the talent I thought I did, that I was just another hack who thought writing meant nothing more than putting words to paper. Instead, I set to work  on another story, finished it, and sent it to some other writing partners for feedback. And I opened that drawer.  I reread the comments on VOICES. Where months ago I’d seen only scorn, now I saw valuable suggestions for improvement. Where there really was scorn, I saw the reasons behind the reader’s reaction. I revised the story.

Seven times.

I sent it to The Sun. It was rejected, but the notice came with a kind personal note from the slush reader. From November of 2010 to April of 2011, I sent it to five more magazines, and it was rejected each time. I began to doubt that I’d ever find a home for the story. I trunked it again and told myself I’d never submit it anywhere again. For the next ten months I religiously honed my writing skills, waking up early in the morning, crawling out of bed at 1 am, and reading every writing guide I could get my hands on. I wrote several more stories, one of which earned an Honorable Mention in the Writers of the Future contest, but I still couldn’t break in to publication.

I had a conversation with one of my critique buddies, and he convinced me that I should submit every story, and keep submitting it until it finds a home. He helped me realize my mistake – I’d been holding out to break into one of the handful of pro markets, and by doing so, I’d been denying myself any  chance at validation. Does an aspiring Olympic runner just walk onto the track and win the gold with no prior training? Nope!

So I took VOICES out and submitted it for the seventh time, this time careful to pair it with a market I thought appropriate for the piece. The result? Accepted. Within the same week, another story I’d written while VOICES was collecting dust sold to an anthology. A few weeks later, I was invited to contribute to the Scientific American Guest Blog.

So what does this all have to do with balance and tightropes? It was only after I’d balanced the humbling experience of harsh criticism with a dose of confidence and objectivity that I’d been able to use the feedback to whip VOICES into shape fit for publication. It was only when I tempered my ambition with the reality that I’d been submitting this story to inappropriate markets that the story found a publisher.

So it was that I’d found balance in my attitude toward writing. It isn’t just about balancing confidence with humility or keeping a realistic perspective on markets, either. I also learned to balance my own artistic vision with the comments of readers. A writer needs to learn when reader comments are useful, but must also learn to recognize when they aren’t, however well-meaning they may be. My general rule is that if one person in your critique group suggests a change, it is just an opinion (unless it makes sense to me), and if they all suggest a change, it’s virtually a fact, and if I ignore it, I’d better have a damn good reason for doing so.

It was only by keeping my balance that I wasI able to cross to the other side of that tightrope. As for that other story I started after first trunking VOICES? Well, it’s sitting in my desk drawer, but it will see the light of day again, someday.

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5 Comments

  1. Catherine Weber says:

    Amr-
    I very much enjoyed this post. It is a great reminder to ease my grip on my work when I am unable to consider moving it to the next level. I believe that if we hold things too precious, they have no room to grow and evolve into their ultimate grown-up selves. I think this is true for writing, but also, as Jane said, for visual art and even in our relationships with people.

    In fact, maybe there is no finished, just when we are finished with it. The trick is to be open to that change. Having said this, our writing group has been remarkable in helping me to see past my idea of finished, even if it is humbling. Thanks for a very thoughtful post.

    Catherine
    http://www.catherinemweber.com

  2. Jo Galvin says:

    Thanks Amr.

    One of my very favorite things is to read about other writers and their journey in being published or just writing.

    Have you ever checked out the Paris Review’s “Interviews” about this very topic? Very fun. Check them Out

    And yes…Balance! ugh. Sometimes I don’t finish pieces because I love the characters so much and don’t want to share them/ have them be stomped on. Ah! That’s nuts right? :)

    I’ve been finding that it helps me to participate in other things I find really scary -like performing. Then the sharing and completing of my writing doesn’t seem so bad.

    Thanks again!

    • A.A. Leil says:

      I’ve got one copy of The Paris Review somewhere, I’ll have to dig it up!
      Nothing nuts about loving your characters, but you’ve got to be willing to not only let them be stomped on, but stomp on them yourself! Letting others stomp on my characters helps me identify where I need to do better, and stomping on them (in the story) helps keep the story interesting.

  3. Jane Lebak says:

    Balance is so hard for writers, though. We write something because we’re in love with it. There’s really no other reason to do so (I’ve heard other arguments, such as “I want to raise others consciousness about this issue,” but even in that case, you must love the issue) and it’s even more true with a novel because of the amount of time invested.

    That state of “being in love” is probably the least reasonable state a human being can be in. :-) We’re just not very good for measured responses when we’re high on a story. It’s not just writers — there’s one artist who said in an interview that he has to paint on wood because canvas breaks too easily, and at some point in the process, he always ends up hurling his work to the ground and stomping on it because he hates what he’s made.

    Thank you for posting this. :-)

    • A.A. Leil says:

      Yes, it is very hard, especially at first. And yes, I think to write well, you must love what you write. This is one of those topics where I think time spent in the sciences has served me well. With my thesis work, I had come up with a research hypothesis I loved and performed the research which didn’t really prove or disprove my hypothesis. A few less than ethical scientists will cook the data to suit their agenda, but most will just stand back and objectively accept that this particular study didn’t pan out.

      I believe that time spent in the sciences can really benefit writers when it comes to holding the work they hold dear at arms length. That’s going to be a future blog post, too. :)

      Thanks for stopping by to comment!

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