Friday, May 16, 2014

The Year I Quit Writing

You might not believe this, but once, I didn't write for a whole year.

I shall tell you the story.

I grew up in a family environment that was very supportive of my writing. Both my parents thought everything I wrote was just awesome, my grandparents were so proud ... my sisters tolerated it with a minimum of eye rolling ... basically, I was never really corrected. I took some correspondence courses in journalism and creative writing from BYU Independent Study, and while my grades sometimes fell to a B-, for the most part, I was consistently praised.

I got a contract with my first publisher and when my edits came back, very few things had been marked, and they were minor. Again, no one told me anything significant was wrong. It was all hunky-dory.

When the book came out, people loved it. I got rave reviews, I was asked to speak in various places, and I thought I had it totally made.

Then I wrote my second book and sent it off to a friend and fellow author. And she trashed it. I mean, totally trashed it.

And I didn't know how to take it.

You see, when you've never been corrected, you don't know how to grow and improve. And when you are corrected, because it will happen someday, it comes as a total shock because it has never occurred to you that you might not be doing it right.

I'm not saying this to be all, "I'm perfect." I'm saying, I was raised to think I was perfect, and to learn that I wasn't was really hard for me.

I'm not at all proud of what I did after I got that critique. I'm sharing it, though, because I'm making a point here.

I took the manila envelope and I threw it into the back of my closet as hard as I could. It went back and behind a small dresser I had in there, and I decided that I wasn't going to write anymore.

Was it a tantrum? Yes. But it was an amazing learning experience.

A year went by. I thanked my friend for her critique, even though it still stung. I kept myself busy with other things, but in the back of my mind, I never stopped wanting to write.

And one day, I dug in the back of my closet and pulled out that envelope. I took a deep breath, pulled out the pages, and read over the notes with the perspective of a year's distance.

And guess what . . . my friend was absolutely right. About everything.

I had written that manuscript totally sure that I could do no wrong, and I hadn't taken the time to create a good plot or compelling characters or to polish my writing. I'd just dashed off this book, believing myself to be the golden child, and my friend called me out on it. That story was dreadful. I mean, it really was. And because she was my friend, she wasn't going to let me humiliate myself by putting something out there that wasn't up to the standard she knew I could reach.

I threw that story away and I started writing other stories. I studied, I asked questions, I read books in my genre, and I learned and I grew and I published better books.

And I learned so much about myself and about life in the process.

I learned that it's not good for a person to go through their whole life without ever being corrected. I know my parents were just trying to create a supportive environment for me, but I honestly had no idea that I wasn't doing things right, and when it was shown me, I had no coping mechanism. We must be corrected if we're to grow up to be successful adults. I dislike the parenting techniques that say we should never correct our children because it might damage their self-esteem. If we aren't lovingly, gently guiding them to want to do better, we're raising people who will someday throw entire books into the backs of their closets because someone told them they weren't perfect.

I learned how crucial it is to get feedback from others. We can't see our own mistakes. We're either too hard on ourselves or we're too lax, thinking there's nothing wrong when there really is. We must ask others to help us see our weaknesses. At the same time, they'll also help us see our strengths. (I could talk about unhelpful feedback, but I'll save that one for another day.)

I learned that giving up on something you love to do is just silly. I was going to let my pride keep me from writing, which had been a life-long dream. If there's something you want to do, do it, but understand that there's a price to be paid. There's hard work, there's dedication, and yes, there are uncomfortable critiques. But if you want it badly enough, you push through it. That's what makes champions.

Looking back on the experience, I feel utterly foolish. Who just throws an entire book behind a dresser like that? (I mean, besides me.) I wish I hadn't acted so immaturely, but I have to say, it was one of those defining moments we all have in life. Going through that time of doubt and discouragement and then all the realizations that came after it really shaped who I became later. By the end of this year, I will have published over thirty books, both self-published and traditional, in a wide array of lengths and topics. I run a very successful editing company, and I started my own publishing company last fall. Would any of this happened without my year-long pity party? I seriously doubt it. I had to come face-to-face with myself and determine who I was and what I really wanted.

And in case you're wondering who that friend was who helped me in my metamorphosis, you probably know her best for her wildly popular Sadie Hoffmiller series. Thanks, Josi Kilpack. You are amazing.

10 comments:

Marsha Ward said...

Josi Kilpack once told me the hero of my book was a wimp. that critique stung,but she was absolutely right! Hurray for Josi!

Tsuchigari said...

That's where I love me a terrific and honest critique group where we feel safe to share what did and didn't work for us in a story. Sometimes a second opinion is in order, but most of the time these chunks of feedback are priceless!

Josi said...

wow, Tristi. I had no idea. You might be interested to know that a year or so after that, I had you edit a book for me and you trashed it. It stung. I ignored most of what you told me and submitted the book anyway. A month later I got a revision sheet from my publisher that sounded very familiar. I went back to your critique and realized that all the things they told me, you had already told me. That was a turning point for me--I realized then that I would ALWAYS be better for constructive feedback.
I'm humbled to have been a part of your journey, but I am sorry that my feedback stings so badly :-( I am always a little sick to my stomach when I sent back critiques, scared that I have gone to far. I'm relieved that in the end my critique was helpful. I'm very grateful to have you as a friend and a colleague. You have been a blessing to me and I am so glad to see your continued success. Love ya.

Tristi Pinkston said...

So why is it that the most helpful feedback stings so much? It seems unfair almost. :) Thanks again - you rock. And I'm sorry I stung you - but glad it was helpful.

Mary Ann said...

My efforts are still at an infantile stage, so I greatly appreciate Tristi's comments. She doesn't just correct me, she explains why and suggests better alternatives.

I read as many how-to books as I can and take workshops, but the more I learn, the more I doubt myself. There are so many things to keep track of that I wonder what I was thinking to ever start this endeavor in the first place.

I'm a grandma with ADD. If I want to learn something, I learn it, master it, and move on. Writing has proven to be so challenging that I have not been able to give it up, even when I went without for 8 months.

Thank you for your comments. It gives me that glimmer of hope.

Nancy Campbell Allen said...

I love this post! Thanks for sharing this part of your story--it is a sobering but necessary process to revise and take feedback to make our work better. Not easy. But good. :-)

Sarah Dunster said...

The best friend is one who wants to see you suceed...and therefore does not tell harmful untruths. Just so you know, your critique of Lightning Tree, when I submitted it to Granite, was what took my writing to the next level. I got published after your critique & my rewrite based on your critique. So Amen.

Elizabeth Lund said...

Thank you for such an honest post. Sometimes it is easy to go along in life listening to all the kudos, while avoiding the criticism. I struggle when I am criticized. It hurts. But, I also know that I have to learn somehow. I guess I better practice listening a little better. Have a great weekend!

Renae Mackley said...

An experience that we learn from is never silly. Thanks for sharing.
You once told me you had a hard time connecting with my MC. I appreciated that feedback and made her into a character that a publisher loves.

Jennifer Jensen said...

What a great story to illustrate the need for knowledgeable outside eyes and a thick skin! I still need mine to get a little thicker, but I know how much difference good critiques can make. Now I'm to the "come on, rip it apart" stage, rather than "how could she not like it?" Glad you didn't stop writing forever!

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