Join Prism Book Alliance® as Edmond Manning goes Outside the Margins today.
In 2009, I attended a week-long Iowa Writer’s Program summer retreat, my very first “half-considering professional writing” experience. I discovered they loaned the prestigious name to the summer program, but not the quality.
One reviewer said my work was hard to read, considering I write porn. (In the chapters I distributed—the first two chapters of King Perry—two men flirt.) Another man’s criticism was that as a straight, Christian man, there wasn’t a lot there for him. I made him feel rejected. Someone complimented my use of punctuation. (It’s true. I am gifted. I frequently use periods when ending declarative sentences.)
A retired Canadian magistrate approached me after class. He want to tell me—in confidence—that when he served on the bench, he oversaw a lot of child pornography cases. A lot. He nodded in a meaningful way—which, if he were Dick Van Dyke, would have implied a magical adventure. But he was not—so I felt like a pedophile who writes porn.
I said, “This is about two gay men. No children are involved.”
He said, “Oh, I know, I know. I was just offering my expertise. In one case, we got 60 gig of child porn off one computer.” He assured me he didn’t know how much a gig was, but he was told it was a lot.
I said, “Gay men don’t molest children. Child molesters molest children.”
He said, “I know, I know.”
He gave me the Dick Van Dyke wink before he sauntered away.
The next time I was critiqued, I was more selective. I worked with three other gay men, each of whom had written a novel. We each wanted a full-length manuscript critique. We discussed our six rules to keep the feedback safe. We followed these rules for the first two critiques with great success. When it was my turn, someone said, “Hey, we’re doing great at this. Let’s try it without following rules.”
The experience was awful.
At one point, two of my critiquers (yes, I know it’s not a word) laughed about a plot point they thought absurd, too ridiculous to include in a novel: the kidnapping of a baby duck. Yes, it was ridiculous, but I wrote to honor the beauty of surrealism and its relationship to San Francisco, so, they were laughing openly about something I nurtured deeply in my soft and fuzzy heart.
Without rules, their advice slashed without conscience, making fun of my attempts at a unique narrator voice, and how I had failed. I took notes and tried not to cry.
When we debriefed, I told how excruciating the experience was, their meanness, their laughter.
With shock in their eyes, they said, “Yes. We were over the line.”
To their credit, each man apologized.
Good people, enthusiastic about words, can be dicks when it’s time to discuss “what works.”
Last week, I attended the Lambda Literary Writing Retreat, a 2016 fellow in fiction.
I was critiqued.
This is what I learned.
A powerful critique group is Christmas dinner with intense family, distant cousins related through words. Related, yes, yet distant enough to write differently from each other. Some cousins we love better than others, though, yeah, yeah, yeah, we love the whole goddamn family. As we sit around the drunken Christmas table each day for workshop, the manuscript submitted is always metaphorically titled: “How about religion?” And you all go at it, offering what is beautiful and what is not, and then everyone starts having strong opinions about HOW BEAUTIFUL and HOW MUCH TO FIX. It sometimes gets messy in pursuit of the best honesty available to each of us. Feelings get bruised.
This is family, after all.
The pages I submitted were from a new piece I’m researching and writing, titled Zacchaeus. It’s about the short tax collector from the Bible. I guess it’s a genre piece–historical novel–but I blush admitting this. In the past few years of publishing novels, I have experienced intense snobbery from those who believe genre fiction can’t boast thick, strong sentences or introduce life-pondering moments. The book ends happily? Oh. Have you considered guiding it somewhere else?
The night before my Lambda critique, I wondered, “What’s the worst that could happen?” I thought, maybe, I had already experienced the worst thing, being cornered by an octogenarian winking at me about child pornography, but things can always be worse, so I decided, “I could burst into tears.”
Yup. Worst thing.
My critique was midweek, which meant I had witnessed beautiful writing and doubted my own. I think I have confidence in myself as a writer. I really do. Still, I get afraid. At this stage in my life, I identify myself at the core as “words guy,” so they’re not only discussing the black ink on the page, but they’re in my bed, under the covers, in terms of intimacy. Critiquing my style, if you will.
Non-writers suppose critique groups are Victorian word lovers, sipping chamomile tea, making suggestions like, “My dear, mightn’t one consider an em dash for emphasis?” Fuck that. It’s ice hockey. The puck is the current speaker, and we all want to talk next, want that puck right now, and we use long curved sticks to snatch speakership, saying things like, “If I can just piggyback on Fredrick’s point, because, this is super relevant.” Away the puck goes.
When Andrew Holleran, our Lambda fiction facilitator, said, “Okay, first person. Give feedback to Edmond,” I felt that sinking goalie feeling, standing awkwardly with bent knees, padded everywhere with insecurities, metal bars protecting my practiced calm face. They good with words. Me try good with words, but not always good with words…me.
I won’t bore you with the specifics, but I do want to tell you about how my life changed.
The second person to offer feedback said, “I want you to ask yourself about this novel, what is the central question being asked, what is the unanswerable question this book poses? Do you know it?”
It hurt when she asked this, because, yes, of course, I have considered this question. (Well, a variation of the question.) This was a literary snob asking a genre writer, “Have you thought about pondering something bigger than plot?” And it hurt. The speaker wore sparkly eye shadow every day, and when she spoke, her arms danced in the air, like a butterfly’s wings. I had considered her a friend. As she continued her feedback, elaborating on this question and suggesting other breathy insights, I realized something.
She cared for me. She valued my work.
All the shit I brought to this critique, all the previous baggage was mine. All mine. I could carry it with me and let my heart harden, not hearing her excellent advice, or I could listen. Let it the puck in.
As she finished speaking, I mentally replayed her feedback and realized there was not one drip of condescension in her voice. The opposite, in fact. She wanted my work to sparkle, and she was inquiring, have you considered the gorgeousness of which you are capable?
She was doing her best to love me and love my words.
I thought my heart would burst open.
I was home.
But there wasn’t much time to reflect because the hockey puck skidded over to the next person.
I told myself to let go, to welcome whatever they had to say. Trust this crazy Christmas family.
Some people’s feedback rang true, others did not. I typed furiously so I could capture every word and then sort it all out later. Some people didn’t understand what I was attempting, and some of those same individuals offered the best possible insight because they were dead-on, in a way. Careful readers point to problems even if they offer the wrong solutions. One new friend, whose grin still delights me in memory, said in his bright, jovial manner, “You’re missing the beautiful sentences. I suspect you add those later, don’t you? You’re nodding. Yes? I thought that might be the case.”
I do add beautiful sentences later. He knew me.
Family can be the very best thing in the world.
When the critique ended, I had a few comments I wanted to share with the group, including addressing the sparkling angel’s question. I felt joy because I answered her—not defensively, but with gratitude for her insights.
The novel’s central question is this: What would you risk? Would you climb a tree if you were a short tax collector in the Roman empire’s pocket? Would you risk everything in your life—even death—to show all of your love? To understand love? Would you risk being critiqued by a crazy Christmas family because your love of words is such that you need this, you need professionals to point out your shit?
What would you risk?
After sharing my take on the novel’s central question, I tried to explain what this meant to me, to be critiqued so well. To be raked over the Christmas coals by queer professionals who invited me to become a better writer. I belonged to this family. I found I could not put together the sentences I wanted.
Tears leaked out when I spoke in a squeaky voice. “Thank you.”
An hour later, I realized my worst fear had come true. I’d cried in front of professional writers, the very people I wanted to impress. But in the moment, I hadn’t noticed.
I was too busy experiencing grace.
About Edmond ManningEdmond Manning is the author of King Perry, King Mai, The Butterfly King andFilthy Acquisitions. He spends a great deal of time standing in front of the fridge with the door open, wondering why it’s not stocked with more luncheon meats and cheese.
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