Among the many blessings I can count, membership in my critique group ranks high.
We call ourselves the “Holey Roaders,” a tribute to our first regular meeting-place, located up what surely is the deepest-rutted road in the Washington DC area. Members include some of the most talented writers and critics I know. We’re not all published (yet), but the number keeps growing.
About half are “old settlers,” in from the early days (that includes me). Groups like this tend to shrivel and die over time, but we’ve been together some 10 years and we’ve actually grown. We’re currently 14 strong.
Self-interest is the reason: We give (critique) so we will get (critique).
But critique is tricky stuff. You ask for total honesty but you don’t turn down fawning praise. You bare your virtual chest, point to your virtual heart and say, ‘Stab here,’ hoping they won’t — or, if they do, that they remember to bring along a first-aid kit of ‘on-the-other-hands’ and ‘but-this-part-I-loveds.’
It takes time — years — to come to a place of trust with one another. Yet now that we’ve gotten to that place, ironically, we’ve become such pals we’re tempted to pull our punches. That doesn’t do the critiqued one any good. We may want unconditional love; but what we need is tough love.
Which is by way of introducing today’s topic: ‘Critique’; or, ‘Ha Ha on You Guys’.
A long time ago, as an assignment for a workshop at the Writers Center, I wrote a story called “Skin Deep.’ It’s about an ugly guy who wants a baby so he kidnaps a doctor who clones one for him. Themes of beauty and injustice. Blackest of humor but hilarious. As I wrote it, I laughed out loud.
Everyone hated it.
Others in the workshop hated it. The instructor, John Morris, didn’t exactly hate it, but he neither did he bubble with enthusiasm.
Carol hated it. Said that, as my spouse, she thought she knew me; but reading this story, apparently she was mistaken.
So in due course, I submitted it to my fellow Holeys, who … hated it. I mean, some of them may have liked aspects, but the consensus was: Eeewwww.
I deeply respect these people. Their critical faculties are superb, Put a dozen of ‘em in a room to hash over something you wrote and, at the end of three hours, they’ve probed every soft spot. That happened recently when they critiqued the near-final draft of TO WALK HUMBLY, the second novel in my “Chicago Trilogy.” They unearthed the soft spots, all right; weeks of work lie ahead, whipping the manuscript into the shape I’d like it to be. On balance, though, they and other advance readers were positive. Whew.
But the Holeys didn’t like “Skin Deep.” And despite my reverence for their critical faculties, I did. What to do?
Nothing. I did nothing. The story sat on my hard drive. For years.
Then one day, browsing through old files, my eye fell on the title and a smile formed. I opened it, re-read it for the first time in ages, and … laughed my a** off.
I started submitting it around. The seventh or eighth place I tried was Scribble, the magazine of the Maryland Writers Assn., which published it.
I think there’s a moral here. It might be, Believe what you hear except the part that’s wrong. Or better, Heed well-meaning, open-hearted, honest critique, except when you think your stuff is the funniest, yet most touching, English prose ever written.
Well, heck. As they say on Fox News, “You decide.” Here’s the first page of “Skin Deep:”:
Meet me: George. I’m 5 foot 2 but eyes aren’t blue. More like a watery green, and I squint a little. Add in the bald patch on the left side — a spot the size of a silver dollar where no hair ever grew — and then there’s the liver-colored mole on my lower lip. I’m not much to look at. I could tell you I have a beautiful soul, but why would you believe me?
I work for the IRS. Every day I go to a windowless office and call taxpayers, posing questions that are none of my business. Of course they’re all cheating crooks and deserve the worst. But that doesn’t raise my popularity either.
You can guess what I come home to. A hot plate and a can of aerosol cheese.
I want a baby.
I mean, my biological clock is ticking, too. I’m 23. I hear all this agonizing from the girls at work. What’s so special?
I listen to them, but nobody listens to me. You know why. They flit past my desk like they’ll risk pneumonia if they linger. Ugliness isn’t catching, but try and tell them.
Want to read the rest? Order Vol. 8 No. 1 of Scribble ($6 + $1.50 P&H + $.36 sales tax if you’re a Maryland resident), or subscribe for one year (3 issues) for $16.
P.S. Remember the anthology that published my poem, “Beauty and the Beast Visit Elizabeth Arden?” It’s coming out in April, National Poetry Month. Copies are $12.95 each but you can advance-order at a 20% discount — $10.36 + $3 P&H + $.62 sales tax for Maryland residents. Order here:
Pre-order now. Books start shipping April 1, 2011