“What do you think about this?” my mother asks, handing over a sheet of manila paper, its lines of type covered with the markings of a black, felt-tip pen. “I rewrote it again this morning.”
I’ve just come home from junior high school and we’re sitting her study. She’s been working on this poem all day long. I read it and frown. Then I force myself to be brave enough to tell the truth–even though I can offer only the inexpert opinion of a young girl. “I don’t get lines four and five,” I finally answer. “What does this part mean?”
And so we begin. She pays attention to what I have to say, despite the fact that I am just twelve, and revises the poem accordingly. In time, I start to show her my own early attempts at both poetry and short story. While her criticism of my work is abundant, it is always gentle, and that quality is one I never forget. Nor do I forget the manner in which she opens up to my comments on what she’s accomplished.
Those afternoons of joint critique and the sharing of ideas have become the cornerstone of my creative life, one that has stood firmly throughout my fifty years as the author of nine books, numerous articles and book reviews–as well as the slew of unpublished poetry and short stories that reside in the back of my desk drawer, along with two novels that never saw the light of day. Through Mom’s example, I learned how important it was to listen to a fresh opinion and be analytical of my own work; a critique from someone I respected could often improve what I was working on, and help me conquer problems that had previously seemed insoluble. And, of course, that inevitably meant to revise, revise, revise.
To be a “critic” bears responsibility as well, as my mother modeled for me so long ago: to be compassionate as you offer your opinion, even when delivering drastic or discouraging news, and to make sure it is balanced with praise. After I opened my editorial consulting service and began to work with clients, I had to remind myself of this every time I opened my mouth.
Acting as a consultant has helped me to rediscover how much I love being both a mirror and a guide: reflecting to other writers those elements of their effort that succeed and those that do not, and also offering advice that sometimes is gentle and other times hard-hitting. I love to brainstorm, to toss ideas around, to watch my students grow and blossom. It is truly a creative collaboration.
Over the last eight months, I have been working with a woman who is writing her very first book. What a pleasure it has been to see her to push herself as an individual as well as a writer, and stretch toward a goal she couldn’t even have imagined when we began. I’ve asked her to rewrite page after page from scratch in order to find an authentic voice for her memoir, and she has been game at every turn, looking into herself with candor for inspiration. Inevitably, I feel proud as she makes improvements both tiny and huge. Some are due to my advice and others are purely a result of her own smarts and ingenuity.
And, happily, working on her book helps me with my own. As I offer her my best critique, I am challenged to see how my opinion of her work applies to aspects of own that I have not yet considered, let alone mastered. And so, I, too, try to stay open enough to return to my computer based on the advice of other writers–even when it sometimes means dumping an entire draft and starting over.
Doesn’t everything in life require this sort of sturdy spirit and outlook? In order for us to grow as individuals, mustn’t we welcome the constructive suggestions of others, and yet be kind when it is our turn to give advice–whether it be to or from family, friends, or mentees? Otherwise, how can we improve?
The answer to this question can be found in the wise words of Aristotle–words which I am sure my mother would have typed out and taped above her desk along with all her other magical scraps of inspiration. I, too, have taped them above mine: “There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.”