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Ask Chuck: Unhelpful Feedback
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How does a writer handle questions of concern for their own mental health (type of) feedback from other readers/writers in response to their publishing of “Trauma Writing?”
Do not mistake me for Dr. Phil, but…
If this touches a nerve.
Thank you for bringing up a very important aspect of writing workshops1. I’m going to tackle this from several angles.
First, there’s a type of feedback you’d like to preempt, right? Is there a type of feedback you’re not getting? If so, be clear up front. Personally, if I feel too close to a piece I’ll ask the group to only comment on its clarity: Do they understand moment-by-moment what’s happening? That heads off most tangents into therapy-related territory. If you’re presenting in person you can listen for people’s engagement, and that’s the best feedback you’ll get. Beyond their silent tension, laughter, gasps, or tears, most people don’t have to the skills to specify what does and doesn’t work in a piece. And the resulting chorus of “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” isn’t helpful.
But if you focus on clarity, at least you’ll know if you’re confusing people. And you’ll head off more personal observations. And if your workshop does have those story-dissecting skills, drill down by requesting, “I only want to know what does and doesn’t work, and suggestions for fixing the latter.” Or simply, “Did I lose anybody?”
Metaphorically, you might be growing out your hair2, say, and you don’t want a full haircut yet. In lieu of major snipping you ask the stylist just to cut off the split ends and to look for tangles. Maybe with a partial first draft you only want to be heard, be clear on that.
Second, if you’re writing memoir3 people naturally feel hesitant to address the work head on. Instead, their empathy lies with the writer. And that shuts down invention and experimentation.
Consider that Anne Rice didn't realize that in her vampire fiction she was actually writing about her daughter's suffering and death from leukemia. Only after she'd gotten a draft done did she realize that all those months of blood and blood tests and blood counts and death were fueling4 her fiction.
In our workshop at the Day Theater, we don't allow memoir because no one feels comfortable criticizing it. Dangerous Writing is about finding that perfect metaphor that allows you to trick yourself into telling a larger truth that you'd never tell willingly. And by turning it all into a craft exercise we get the distance we all need to address the piece as an effective story. The point-of-view character isn’t you-you so the writer can go into more brutal detail and eventually arrive at a greater breakthrough without breaking down.
Chelsea Cain, my co-teacher, is particularly rabid about rejecting memoir. Often because the writer is too close to the material to objectively craft it. And because memoir — as mentioned above — can leave no room for the audience to participate. Perhaps what’s most important is that we want workshop to feel fun and filled with experiments and new possibility. If we write too literally about ourselves we kill that joy.
Besides, nothing says trauma can’t start out as funny. Tom Spanbauer preached, “Make them laugh, and at the moment of the biggest laugh break their hearts.” Very few readers go willingly into the tragic. By being funny up front you can charm them. Get the reader’s guard down. Then — lower the boom. For the best example I’ve ever seen of this, look for the Whoopi Goldberg black surfer girl routine. All I can find of it comes at the 0:35-second mark on this clip. This is just a fragment, but it demonstrates the light tone she uses to get the audience to a very (very) traumatic place.
Just in case you don’t find the whole routine, I’ll summarize it in a footnote5.
Perhaps what’s most important is that a sense of fun and invention brings the writer back to the page. And that’s how books get finished. Because the writing — at least on the surface — is fun. The reader picks up on that fun, having no idea it will end with a coat-hanger abortion. Make them laugh. Break their hearts.
For a constant ooze of such pearls of wisdom…
If the work is published-published, sorry I can’t help. My policy is to ignore feedback on published work because it either gets you high or depresses you. By “you” I mean “me.” It’s more fun to focus on the next project in the works.
Tom Spanbauer’s metaphor for writing a first draft was “You’re still shitting out the lump of coal.” For him that’s the most-difficult part of writing. And feedback can be pointless at that early stage.
That said, everything is memoir. Fiction or nonfiction, there is nothing you can write that isn’t you. Therefore, you are never NOT working through your personal sh-t.
Not to mention the long-standing theory that, as a child, Stephen King stumbled across a dead child. Witnesses suggest he walked home dazed one day and never seemed to recover. Later, they found the body he’d most likely found first. Perhaps this is the life-long battery that drives him to write about dead children — ‘The Shining’ twins, ‘Pet Sematary,’ ‘It,’ and so many more. Not to mention ‘The Body.’
Goldberg introduces herself as the only black surfer chick at a California beach. In a manic, wonderfully Valley Girl prattle she describes beach life and the one surfer dude in particular she adores. She and the surfer hook up, and she falls in love. Her delivery comes fast and twitchy, with a totally tubular up-speak tweak at the end of each sentence. Nothing changes in her light tone, even as she describes getting pregnant. Even as she describes unbending a wire hanger. And even as she describes giving herself an abortion on the dirty concrete floor of a public bathroom at the beach.
Recently I described using high language to describe a low topic. In Goldberg’s story she uses low-culture Valley Girl slang and affectations to describe a profoundly traumatic event. And even as events go south and the audience stops laughing, she keeps up the comic delivery. The growing disconnect between the light-hearted language and the events depicted heightens the sense of tragedy. By the end, the story’s effect is unsettling and magnificent.