Sunday, November 14, 2010

Beach Musings: Who do you trust with your work?

How do you know who to trust with your earliest drafts, with the stories or poems that are still unformed but offer the faintest hint of an image, a thread to pull, a path to follow?

It’s an especially important question to ask because for most of us the act of sharing our work in its earliest stage–in any stage, really–is like offering our heart and hoping that we’ll get it back unharmed, intact, praised for its beauty and the mystery of life contained within it.

When we share our works-in-progress with others, we offer the deepest, most vulnerable part of ourselves, and we expect the person to whom we give our work to understand what we’re offering implicitly, as if he or she can read our mind (and heart) and understand perfectly whatever we intended to say, even if the words aren’t yet clearly visible on paper.

We want a reader to tell us honestly how it feels to read our work, and hope the reader will confirm for us that we’ve succeeded in getting on paper exactly what was in our hearts. We long to hear that the reader felt a certain scene in exactly the same way that we felt it and saw it in precisely the same way we saw it, too.

But trusting a reader isn’t only about hoping to hear praise of our work or confirmation that we achieved what we set out to do. Trusting a reader means that we may have to accept his or her view of our work as different from our own. Another person’s response, sometimes so different from our own, can help us understand how far we’ve come from earlier drafts and how far we may still have to go in order to shape the work into a fuller, more complete story.

This distance–this space between where we are and where we hope to be–is what a trusted reader’s response to our work can help us see because often we are blind to our own work. We stand too close to it and can’t get the same perspective as a neutral reader, can’t see our work the way a reader sees it. When we’re writing the story, we’re inside it, and, no matter how hard we may try, it’s impossible to view the story simultaneously from the inside and the outside.

That’s why it’s essential for the sake of our work and our development as writers that we learn to trust others with our work.

But who should we trust? Parents or spouses, close siblings or friends, who may only tell us what they love about the story? An editor, teacher, fellow writer, or agent who may tell us only what they think is missing?

That’s why trust isn’t something to give automatically to anyone, simply because they offer to read our work.

Trusting a reader means giving her our heart, trusting that she’ll return our heart to us intact, still beating, still full of mystery, rather than dissected, no longer pulsing with life.

It means trusting that a reader will listen to our words without any expectations other than those that we raise within the story.

And it means trusting that a reader will listen without an agenda or hidden motive and be able to articulate how he feels about the story because of the words that we planted as seeds on the page to arouse his feelings.

It means that we’ll listen carefully to criticism when it’s given honestly and sincerely, and it means acknowledging that the flaws in our stories aren’t flaws in us but rather rough spots in the story that still need sanding and polishing. (It means not giving our stories to readers who will tell us only that they want us to write a different story, the story that they’d have written.)

We can place our trust in a reader when we feel that reader is willing to give us his or her heart, just as we’ve given ours, and when we sense that his or her response comes from the same place that our story came from.

In the end, we can trust a reader when, after sharing our work, we discover in his or her response a doorway into our story that helps us continue our exploration with passion and enthusiasm.

Who should you trust?

Trust the person whose response inspires you to keep writing, whose trust in you as a writer shows you a doorway, a path, a way forward that you hadn’t seen before.

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