My mentoring session with WoMentoring started this week and though I knew what to expect it was always going to be an emotional journey.
The basic idea of mentoring is you work with a more established writer for a short period; getting advice on how to move your writing career forward, receiving feedback on your work and assistance in whatever areas you are struggling with. It is usually very individualised to your needs.
A big part of my requirements for my mentor was critical feedback on my writing. I have been in Finland for 7 years now and I've fallen away from the old writing groups, courses, literary circles I used to rely on to gauge responses to my writing. I still submit pieces to publishers so their yes or no responses are a rough guide, but not helpful in any real sense.
I've submitted my work to group criticism almost from the beginning of my career. While at Uni pursuing my English degree, I joined a writing group and attended any workshops that visiting writers were offering. In Scotland, I took advantage of similar experiences: the great Scottish poet Tom Leonard ripped my poems apart back in 1992 and I still look back on it with a weird sense of pride.
I know what to expect and how to handle it, but like I said, I'm out of practice so that first reading of my mentor's comments on my poems felt like a kick to the stomach. I did send an email afterwards explaining some missed references, but then I just left the poems alone. On paper at least, I was rolling them around in my head constantly. I was gutted, I always wish for gushing praises, but I know that's not what I really want or need. I need someone to look critically at my work and point out the weak lines, the problematic areas, the chaotic jumble of ideas in need of a focus.
I did a free writing in a cafe while waiting for my son that evening and I did rant a bit about how she couldn't see this or understand that, but after an hour my conclusion was she couldn't see my references or understand my images because they weren’t clear enough. My writing was at fault.
Criticism is personal, it is the critic's opinion and they are flawed and human, just like us. The critic brings their own style, interests and experiences into a poem and this colours how they respond to it and how they criticise it. And even a writer as good as Tom Leonard may have a bad opinion of a poem that does work for other people. Just because they suggest a change, it doesn't mean you have to follow those recommendations to the letter. Though Tom was right on the money with my work, I was a young, naive writer who had received nothing but praise from my University lecturers over the years and I needed to see where my work was failing. It was a brilliant wake up call, if very scary.
Over the years I have learned to take in criticism and use it to re-examine my poems. I don't automatically change everything they point out, don't rip away all the lines they don't like or rewrite as they see fit. If I did, I wouldn't have much of the poem that was mine and I wouldn't be following my own writing instinct.
So yesterday, I re-examined my mentor's comments and went back to the poems. There were lines I agreed were forced, so they went, to some extent. Sometimes I kept part of a line as it had something needed saying, just in a different way. There were lines that were just filler, so they went.
Two of the three poems she critiqued went back to bare bones and I'm still trying to figure out which way to go with them. I need to recapture the original spark that caused me to write them which can be difficult years after the fact. The other poem I kept most of what she didn't like because there was a major reference that wasn't clear, so I'm rebuilding, focusing on that metaphor.
Finding someone who provides good criticism of your work is hard. I tend to avoid family and good friends. They usually don't have the knowledge to respond to poetry in a helpful manner, don't want to hurt my feelings, think that praise is helpful. I go with writers whose work I admire and whose opinions I trust, writers I know who won't let their egos or professional jealousy colour their view. Writers I've worked with for years.
Praise is good when it’s deserved and specific, so you can see what is working. General praise of the ‘it’s nice, I like it’ variety doesn’t help you improve. Vague critical comments are equally unhelpful. You need to know what lines aren’t beautiful, which aren’t getting their point across, aren’t carrying their weight. Fix-its needed to be given sparingly, don’t tell a writer how to fix their poem. Point out what isn’t working for you and let them find a solution, in their voice and style, if they feel it's needed.
When I had my first collection accepted I paid a poet I knew well to review it. Her comments and criticisms pushed me in the right direction to make the collection the best I could. Positive critical feedback helps you grow as a poet, negative feedback can stunt your growth.
Writing groups are not always the best atmosphere for improvement. I have been to some where all they wanted was praise. Any comment that was critical was automatically shouted down with more praise. No one walked out wanting to improve their work. I’ve been to others where the comments were so negative and full of ‘fix-it my way’ type feedback that everyone left hating their work, they could only see the negatives. Finding a group that offers a good balance is difficult and I’ve been very lucky to work with facilitators who know how to create a good group atmosphere and with fellow writers who know how to provide helpful feedback.
Accepting criticism of your work and using it to re-evaluate your writing is a necessary and important step to moving into the more public realm of writing and being published. Learning to deal with the fear and exposure can help strengthen your voice, so it's worth building up that slightly toughened skin. But don't be afraid to stick up for your writing, sometimes you are the expert of your own work.