Recently, I passed an essay draft to one of my favorite early readers, a writer named Cindy Zelman. I’ve known Cindy since we were students together in the MFA program at Pine Manor College, and she’s one of the few people I ask to occasionally read early drafts of my work. This time, when Cindy sent her comments back, she was worried that she might have been too hard on me. She suggested that she should have balanced some of her criticisms with more positive feedback. I told her not to worry; her critique was just what I was looking for. I didn’t need someone to tell me that my essay was great; if it had been great, I wouldn’t have needed an early reader.
One of the luxuries you have during a low-residency MFA program is a faculty mentor who reads your early drafts. It doesn’t always feel like a luxury, however. It can be mortifying to send your work to an established writer, and to receive it back a week or two later with extensive, and not necessarily positive, comments. The days between the date I sent out my monthly packets and the date I received them back were often the most painful days of the process. When I opened up the envelope with shaking fingers, I knew I could be facing disappointment. There were times, especially early on, when I was sure I had sent something relatively strong, only to receive extensive comments on its weaknesses. Those comments were often accompanied by complimentary or positive notes that hardly seemed to register. Of course, as much as you tell yourself that you are involved in a learning process and the whole point of it is to get better, in truth, you just want to be good. And when get your work back and realize it needs major revision, it’s easy to think you’re just not very good.
One of the revelations I had during the course of the program was prompted by Michael Steinberg. One day, he pulled a manila folder packed with papers from his briefcase and set it down on the table in front of him. “This,” he told me, “is all of the drafts I’ve done, so far, of one essay.” I looked at the folder in shock. The stack of papers was so thick, it could have been a dissertation. He started pulling out pages, and showing me line after line of scribbled commentary from writers who’d read his early drafts. Of course, everyone works differently, and not all writers write quite as many drafts of a single piece, or show their early work to other writers. But that day I received an important lesson about the value of being open to feedback and revision.
The truth is, it takes courage to invite readers’ comments on your work. I never particularly enjoyed the workshop experience, where a group of other writers discussed a manuscript, arguing over its strengths and weaknesses in front of the silent, miserable-looking author. But I did learn that feedback from a writer, or writers, whose instincts you trust is valuable. Your draft readers don’t have to be people who write just like you — Cindy Zelman and I couldn’t be more different as writers. Instead, figure out who picks out the types of things you need to hear, whose thinking gives you good ideas.
Usually, I ask someone to read a draft of my work when I feel stuck for some reason. Often, I’ve already worked on the piece for some time, and have gotten it as far as I feel I can take it with my current line of thinking. But I know it’s not “there” yet, that something isn’t working. I don’t yet have that excited feeling that tells me, “Now I’ve got it! It’s finally right.” So I take a break from the essay, and pass it on to a very trusted reader. Usually, when their comments come back, something in what they say will break the logjam. Suddenly an idea will come to me that will get me past feeling stuck. It might be an idea straight from the reader, or it might be something very different than what the reader suggests.
Of course, I’m human. Sometimes I feel a little stunned, at first, when I receive feedback that sounds negative. I can even get a little defensive. But I do all I can to let those feelings come — and quickly go. The truth is, they’re not important. All that’s important is that whatever the reader tells me leads to a better text. A good reader just points out what wasn’t working. It’s up to me to figure out how to fix it.