Whenever I successfully complete a story, poem or creative work, my first impulse is that of a high school gossip with a secret: share it. I await the person’s opinion with anticipation and excitement akin to unwrapping Christmas gifts.
As Paulo Coelho said, “writing means sharing. It’s part of the human condition to want to share things – thoughts, ideas, opinions.” Writers were never meant to exist in a vacuum. Our novels, short stories, flash, poems, memoirs, and essays are our tools for relating our suffering, triumphs and resulting wisdom (or futility) to the rest of the world.
Sharing your creative work is to be expected and encouraged. There are probably a number of people available to you, whether it’s your teacher, a friend, or even your mom, all with their own opinion and insight. However, it is important to be discerning and to give your work the attention, effort and readers it deserves. Here are the things I’ve found to be most helpful:
- Find a writers’ group
Although feedback from family and friends can be encouraging and useful, fellow writers impart particularly insightful, detailed commentary from a place of knowledge and experience. Writers’ groups can be found almost everywhere — local colleges, coffee shops, art centers, readings, events, and even Craigslist. You can also find local groups by doing a basic Google search. Some groups may be invitation only, some may have an application process, and others may be open to anyone.
The first step is finding a few groups and going to meetings. You can also found your own group. However, it is important to join a group that is right for you. In her article “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, or How to Choose a Writers’ Group,” fiction writer and blogger Holly Lisle lists the criteria of an organized and effective writers’ group:
- Does the group have a clearly defined goal?
- Does the group have any interest in the kind of writing you want to do?
- Does the membership arrive and get to work, or does everyone just stand around and talk about writing?
- Are there any rules for people who are criticizing each others work?
- Are there any rules for people whose work is being criticized?
- Does the group have set guidelines for behavior?
- Do the people who are there like each other?
- Does everybody bring work to each meeting, or do you hear from the same three people?
- Is anybody happy to see you?
You may find a group that seems nice at first but ultimately lacks in community interaction, productivity, common interests or useful advice. You may also choose to attend multiple groups to get something different out of each of them. Whatever works for you, find a community of writers who can become familiar with your work and provide critical, applicable commentary in line with your style and goals.
- Submit on a regular basis
With the stresses and constraints of daily life, this is one of the most difficult things to commit to habit. However, submitting your work to literary publications is the best ways to get straightforward, impartial, yes-or-no feedback from people who do not know you and will not stroke your ego. In short, submitting to literary journals tests whether your writing can make it in the real world.
The bad news is, your work will be rejected. A lot. Sometimes you may even feel as if you have been rejected personally. The good news is, there are a multitude of journals, magazines and publications out there, and chances are one of them would love to publish your work.
Duotrope ($50 per year), Submittable, and Poets & Writers’ Literary Magazines and Journals Database, are just a few of the many submission tools available to writers. These services provide an abundance of information about publications, such as genre, mode of submission, reading periods, response times and acceptance rates. Duotrope and Submittable also allow you to archive and organize your past submissions.
Your work could be rejected, you could be asked to submit again, or your work may be accepted and published, maybe at a smaller publication, or maybe (just maybe) at a big-time publication. You never know until you try.
- Participate in readings
A more immediate way of sharing your work with the public is to participate in readings. Readings take place year-round and can be found in many of the same places as writers’ groups. They come in a variety of styles (genre-specific vs multi-genre, traditional reading vs dramatic performance) and with a variety of audiences.
Public readings allow writers to focus on the way their work sounds when read aloud, to share their story with an audience and receive an immediate response. Readings can be nerve-wracking, but it gets easier with practice. A public speaking course can offer useful skills such as pacing, volume, and presentation. Participating in low-risk readings where you don’t know anyone can also help to quell the nerves and acclimate you to speaking in front of a group. They are also one of the easiest, self-effacing ways to promote your work, whether you are looking to publish or sell an already-published book or collection.
- Think before sharing
This rule of thumb applies to all potential readers. Your impulse may be to share all of your work with everyone and anyone right away, but this is not always the best move. Not everyone will be the right reader for you, and not all work needs to be shared with everyone.
I learned this lesson after sharing a particularly personal poem with a workshop. The poem expressed a difficult experience I’d struggled to write about in the past. I’d finally been able to put the words to paper. I was proud of the fact that I’d written something – anything – about it and hadn’t totally hated it. I hadn’t considered other factors: the fact that the group was large, what I was sharing was deeply personal and new, and that I was going to have my work critiqued.
Even though my classmates provided constructive, useful, critical feedback, I left the group feeling defensive and cheated. What I realized later was that I had cheated myself – I hadn’t given the poem time to ruminate, hadn’t given myself time to revise, and hadn’t been emotionally prepared to share that experience with others.
Ernest Hemingway said, “I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but to always stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.” Treat your writing like a well – share the writing that is closer to the surface first, and give the deeper, more intimate pieces the time to be considered and revised.
- Become a feedback master
Criticism can be really tough as a writer. The comments you receive may be too vague or too specific, too ruthless or too sugarcoated. You may put more effort into editing the work of others than they put into yours. You may feel that some workshop members just “don’t get” your work, or that literary journals don’t put any thought into rejections. Though this may be true for some, you have a choice: to either let criticism control, limit or discourage your work, or learn how to interpret it and use it to your benefit. Mastering how you receive and give criticism will inevitably make your life easier as a writer.
One of the best ways to start getting good feedback is to offer it. Find ways in which you can exchange your editorial services with others – this could include tutoring, swapping work with a fellow writer or reviewing someone’s work online. (I believe the world of criticism to be karmic: you get what you put into it. And if that isn’t the case, stop sharing your work with that person or group.) When it comes to receiving and using the feedback of others, wait a few days before revisiting others’ workshop notes; comments that may have offended you during workshop may seem more reasonable and useful after some distance.
In the case of submitting to journals and magazines, not all rejections are equal. Vaguer responses such as “did not fit our needs” mean a variety of things, but more specific rejections with phrases such as “please submit again” or even personal critiques are a gift – use these opportunities to better your work and send it out again.
Amy Tan said, “writing is an extreme privilege but it’s also a gift. It’s a gift to yourself and it’s a gift of giving a story to someone.” Use these and other resources to make your writing the best it can be, and when it’s ready, send it out into the world.
Paulo Coelho Quotes: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/p/paulocoelh620609.html#IQWODcoCKJXWilLy.99
Holly Lisle, “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, or How to Choose a Writers’ Group.” http://hollylisle.com/the-good-the-bad-and-the-ugly-or-how-to-choose-a-writers-group/
Ernest Hemingway Quotes: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/e/ernesthemi115157.html#lScyou1E50Eb1q2e.99
Amy Tan Quotes:
- Not Myself: On Writing Other Perspectives -
- “Lessons for the Genres” -
- “Don’t Tell Me What to Think or How to Feel: Avoiding Didacticism” -
- A “Real Job”: The Legitimacy of Creative Writing -
- “Instant Gratification: Sharing Your Creative Work” -
- “The Overly Sensitive Writer” -
- Be Yourself: Memorable Characters in Flash -
- Letting the Small Magnify the Big: Symbols in Flash -