Today’s guest post is by writer, coach and editor Lisa Cooper Ellison (@lisaellisonspen).
When soliciting feedback on their creative work, many writers focus on hiring the best editor or finding a trusted critique partner or group. With just the right feedback, or so you believe, you can progress to a publishable manuscript.
However, years of writing and coaching writers have taught me it’s equally important to be mentally prepared for feedback. And few writers receive counsel on what it means to be ready. Here are three traps I’ve encountered that you may recognize too.
1. The Green Light Trap
At twenty-one, I participated in open mics where friends cheered my inevitable literary fame. Buoyed by their praise, I joined a writing group that met at the public library. As a college dropout who’d yet to take a creative writing course, let alone a writing workshop, I expected everyone to fawn over my brilliant stories. I mean, how could my friends be wrong?
At the first meeting, writers twice my age silently read my short story while I internally screamed, “Just tell me how much you love it!”
Eventually, the group leader said, “Clearly you have some raw talent, but you’re assuming so much, and you know what they say about assumptions…”
Not knowing what he meant, I sheepishly replied, “And what do they say about assumptions?”
His grin widened. “They make an ass out of you and me.”
That made me pull up my humble pants and get to work. It was clearly a rookie mistake, but it’s easier to fall into this trap than you might think.
Here’s why this happens:
- You’re a new writer. Maybe most of the feedback you’ve received has come from nonwriters who love and celebrate you, but who ultimately don’t know what good writing is or how to say your current draft is a little “meh.”
- You actually need to do more work. You hoped your critique group or even a publisher would dismiss your inner critic’s concerns because, frankly, you’re sick of revising. If that’s where you are, put the manuscript away until you’re motivated to rework it.
- You’re asking the right people the wrong question. Like the health department, finding a problem is a workshop’s primary goal. If your gut says a piece is complete, abandon your perfectionism and send it out. If it’s almost done, ask the following question: “Can you tell me if there are any final changes I should consider?”
Before you submit your manuscript, honestly assess your skills, your project’s stage, and your level of motivation. Then ask the right questions.
2. The Bear Trap
I once heard Meghan Daum talk about the difference between confession and confiding in memoir. When we confess our life story, we hope someone will bear witness to our experience and perhaps absolve or comfort us. Author David Chrisinger calls confessional drafts half-cooked stories because the writers don’t yet know what they mean. When we confide, we let readers in on an experience we fully understand.
As readers, we might not be able to tell the difference between a fully cooked draft that needs a few more rounds of revision and a half-cooked confessional that’s asking something we’re not prepared to give.
This trap lives inside the writer, not on the page, so many writers don’t know they’ve fallen into it. At a conscious level, they want feedback on craft-related issues. They’re serious about their art and unafraid of vulnerability. But under the surface, what they really want is someone to acknowledge their pain.
The first clue you’re in a bear trap arrives on workshop or publication day. It can include physical symptoms of panic, feeling angry or misunderstood during what you know is a healthy critique, or regretting the decision to share or publish your work. I call the last one buyer’s remorse.
The bear trap is not just a creative nonfiction problem. Writers who base their work on personal experiences and write about topics emotionally close to the bone are also susceptible.
Here are some reasons why you might be unintentionally confessing:
- You lack emotional distance from your topic. Emotional distance comes from the meaning you’ve made around the event and not the passage of time.
- You had no idea how exposed you’d feel once you submitted your work. Consider sending sensitive writing to one critique partner and see how that feels before sharing it with a group or a publisher.
- You’re a workshop newbie. Requesting feedback on a manuscript is a vulnerable act. While it’s tempting to submit high-stakes emotional material when you’re surrounded by compelling stories, as a beginner, it’s better to start with less intense work so you can focus on your craft.
Wanting someone to bear witness to your story is a normal human need. Unfortunately, it’s asking too much of a writing group. Before requesting feedback, rate how intense you imagine a critique might feel on a scale from 1 to 10. If you score an 8 or higher, proceed with caution.
3. The Lottery Ticket Trap
You’ve been writing and submitting for a while. The silence and isolation are getting to you. Wondering if you’ll ever achieve your author dreams, you send out one more thing to your critique group or yet another publisher, hoping for a little praise.
You want confirmation that you’re not wasting your time, even if a piece isn’t quite finished or the publishing world has yet to acknowledge you.
Here’s the problem: You’ve sent your writing to the home of here’s what’s wrong and no. Maybe you know this and hope that successfully navigating this gauntlet will confirm your talent and potential for literary wins. Sadly, this rarely happens.
How did you end up here?
- The results of your queries have been crickets or rejections.
- You’ve lost your writing mojo and hope external validation will return it to you.
- You’re going through a personally difficult time, like a loss, the anniversary of a loss, or maybe a pandemic, and believe a writing win will serve as a pick-me-up.
I’m navigating this last one myself. On January 29, 2021, I finished the agent-ready draft of my memoir How Not to Die: From Death to Life on a Heavy Metal Tour. The manuscript had gone through writing workshops, manuscript evaluations, beta readers, and seven full read alouds.
I felt so ready to send it out. And yet…
I needed to wait a little longer.
February 8, 2021, marked the 24-year anniversary of my brother’s suicide, a major plot point in my memoir. While I’ve worked through my grief, anniversaries can be unpredictable. In a vulnerable place, I’m likely to fall into the psychological traps that can affect even a seasoned writer’s ability to accept feedback. The submission process can feel like a form of purgatory. Lots of waiting, lots of silence, and no idea how it’s going to turn out. So on the anniversary of my brother’s death, I let myself cry, thankful I didn’t have rejections to worry about. Three weeks later, I queried my first batch of agents.
There’s nothing wrong with needing a little love from your writing peeps. But you need to ask for it, and more importantly, you need to ask the right people. To do this, follow Jessica Conoley’s advice and develop your support triangle.
Lisa Cooper Ellison is an editor, speaker, and coach with an Ed.S in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and a background in mindfulness. She has spent the last two decades helping clients and students turn difficult experiences into art and currently teaches courses in memoir, creative nonfiction, and mindful writing practices. Winner of the 2022 HippoCamp edition of the Lancaster Story Slam, Lisa’s essays and stories have been published in HuffPost, Hippocampus Literary Magazine, Kenyon Review Online, and the Keepthings, among others. Visit her website for a free copy of Write More, Fret Less: Five Brain Hacks that Will Supercharge Your Productivity, Creativity, and Confidence.