What do you say when a writer friend asks you to read their work and you don’t like it?
Recently I went to the Content Marketing World conference for work. There were a ton of great presentations, and one of the ones that gave me the most ideas was Gini Dietrich’s session on how to write blog posts that get read and shared. She mentioned that a good place to look when you need a blog topic is your outbox. What questions do people have that you answered via email that you can also answer in a post?
I thought about this a bit for work, but I don’t correspond with our customers or prospective customers that much. But her suggestion struck me as relevant to my personal writing. I thought immediately about a writer friend who wanted me to read one of his stories and give him some feedback.
It took me a long time to get back to my friend, because in all honesty, while I recognized his talent, I wasn’t crazy about the style of his story. He had to hound me for a reply, cuz for a couple weeks I really didn’t know what to say.
Then he said he could take it–whatever I thought–and I believed him because he himself will just tell shit like it is, which is why I’ve been so fond of him for two hundred years.
So finally I just said it. I responded to his email and said:
“OK….it’s taken me so long to get back to you cuz I keep trying to read it all but I get stuck cuz I don’t like the style.
“That don’t mean it sucks though. I’ve never been able to read James Joyce. I can’t stand Tolkien. I’ve tried those fuckin’ Lord of the Rings books 50 times and can’t get past page 5.”
Wait–I don’t like Tolkien???????? Anyone who’s read this up till here will likely click away right now. But here’s the thing: It’s just never been the right time for me to read Tolkien. (Actually I recently started The Hobbit again and am thoroughly charmed–I might reach page 6 tonight. I’ve always thought that at some point I’ll be ready.)
So anyway, then I told my friend that his story reminded me of a Terry Gilliam film, and I do like those. But as prose the story was just too chaotic for me. It wasn’t too wordy, as he feared, but it was random. I mean I got it cuz I know the guy, but at the same time the randomness shirked my concentration.
That said, I told my friend: DO NOT LET MY OPINION STOP YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!
It can be dangerous to listen to other writers.
Or it can be helpful.
Or it can be both.
Example: I was once in a workshop with some dinguses who didn’t understand the first chapter of a novel I had slaved over. They didn’t like the narrator’s associative descriptions or her interior explorations and they couldn’t understand why I didn’t get straight to the action.
I called them the Twelve Tasteless Twats. Many of them hadn’t read much, and so had no conception of the kind of Great Literature I was writing.
So I wrote their opinions off.
Then in that same program I ended up working with an advisor who WAS well read and who DID know what he was talking about, and he also thought I needed to get straight to the action.
Initially I thought, ‘Yeah, totally, if I was writing a fucking Hollywood screenplay, you moron, but this is a literary work. Haven’t you ever read fucking Moby Dick or Remembrance of Things Past?”
Of course, the truth is that those books are hard to get through. Personally I love getting lost in the poetry of their prose. But, truth be told, it’s now been 10 years since I started reveling in the beauty of Melville and Proust, and I still haven’t finished their books.
At the time of this workshop experience I had been drooling over M&P for about three years, and, recognizing that as much as I loved those tomes, I was not ravenously blazing through the pages, I decided to experiment with getting straight to the action in my own novel.
And throughout the semester this exercise resulted in a series of action-packed, compelling opening chapters that everyone liked–even me.
But I also still liked the slow, stream-of-consciousness shit I had going in the first place.
So I blended the two styles. The novel now starts out with action: The narrator and her twin sister are drinking heavily at a bar with the twin sister’s husband and the narrator’s friend and BAM! the twin sister’s husband has some words with the twin sister and they both disappear and BAM! next scene he’s dead in the back room with a needle in his arm and…..was it an overdose or was it murder? That needle was stabbed into his arm like a knife. And Phil had already taken a lot of pills that night and had been carefully managing his drug addiction for years and wouldn’t ordinarily have popped pills and shot up on the same night.
And then, later, the lyrical, meditative stuff comes in as the narrator is disentangling herself from the police’s investigation of her sister and as she’s reflecting on her childhood and thinking about her relationship with her possibly evil twin…..and she goes to Vermont to handle the estate of a great aunt who has just died, and to process her grief over her aunt and her brother-in-law and her sister.
So the feedback of the Twelve Tasteless Twats and the Hollywood-minded professor brought on the action-packed beginning, but I needed to keep the reflective stuff too because it fit with the narrator’s emotional state as she worked out some family stuff.
So, I told my friend last year, listen a little to my opinion of your work, but also don’t take too seriously the opinion of some dumb fuck who doesn’t totally get what you’re going after in your writing.
“You have a talent for using language interestingly and telling a story,” I said. “Make some tweaks if you want–maybe experiment with making it less chaotic to suit my taste, but also keep writing your shit the way you want to cuz that’s your style, and I just might not have any freaking taste.”
One of my favorite film directors ever on the earth is Francois Truffaut, who said, somewhere, something like “Taste is the result of a thousand dislikes.”
Sounds like Truffaut’s taste was impeccable, right?
Like me, like many people, his taste was discerning.
“This is ugly…that is poor quality…..this is too self-conscious….that is too phony…….THIS is beautiful and it strikes me because it’s rare.”
Of course, there’s also the adorable interview with another of my favorite directors, Claude Chabrol, Truffaut’s friend and fellow New Wave director, and in that interview Chabrol says that it was “touching” when Truffaut, who came from nothing, became moneyed and went through a phase of zipping around Paris in a convertible. The implication is that Truffaut’s tacky nouvelle riche convertible was not so tasteful.
So maybe taste is not necessarily the result of a thousand dislikes. Maybe taste is just a result of taste. You like what you like. You drive what you drive. And you write what you write. Let it be true to who you are, and don’t care too much about what other people–especially other writers–think–even people or writers whose taste and opinions you admire. There are people who think that driving an expensive car to show that you can finally afford it is not tacky. There are people who think that meandering, undulating, reflective prose is beautiful. There are people who think that jumpy, random prose that goes back and forth in time with no pattern is interesting. And somewhere in the world is your audience and your market.
So I told my friend to have people who aren’t tasteless twats give his story a read. “If someone who digs it reads it, they might have feedback on how to make it even better,” I said.
He took this all well. He respected my feedback, wasn’t in the least offended, and said, “I think I know what you mean about it jumping all over the place. My point being that when I use parentheses it’s either to back up a setting, character development, or memory daydream. I really feel I need to use them because I personally dislike it when things aren’t described. Like I need to build things up so things or people are real, not out of place or uncharacteristic.”
He knew what the fuck he was doing. He knew how he wanted to tell his story. I haven’t talked to him in awhile so I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that he’s still telling his stories the way he wants to tell them because he knows that while feedback can be helpful, and while his writing is good but I don’t care for his style, the best way for his writing to be meaningful is if he writes what he wants to write the way he wants to write it.
Actually that feels like a bit of a cop out. There is shitty writing that no one would want to read.
There’s a lot of it.
But if you have talent like my friend, what one or 12 tasteless twats think about your style shouldn’t stop you from retaining your style and writing in a way that’s meaningful for you.
Image generously stolen from vickart.