Constructive feedback early in the writing process can often make all the difference in the quality of the final product, but that doesn’t make hearing it any easier. Author Joe Treasure describes his time in writing group and how he learned to take criticism.
It isn’t easy to get the kind of supportive criticism that will help you improve as a writer, particularly if you’re unpublished. People don’t take you seriously, or just say nice bland things, or try to undermine you for weird reasons of their own. A good writing group can help, but not all writing groups are good.
When I gave up my full time teaching job in Wales and moved to Los Angeles, I was able to give more time to writing. I was missing regular contact with literary friends, so I joined a writing group just up the coast in Malibu. I went to my first meeting, taking a piece I had written on that week’s theme. We gathered in the home of the group’s leader, Suzi, in a room overlooking the ocean. The meeting began with a guided meditation. Then we got to work.
First to read was Ira, a retired attorney. He gave us a glimpse of himself as a teenager on the subway from the Bronx with his immigrant mother to buy shoes on a meagre budget. His ogling of the bosomy blond across the aisle earns him a cuff across the head. Ira’s mother, with her habit of reverting to Yiddish in moments of stress, was clearly known and loved by the group.
Suzi marked her approval with a throaty hum. “So rich,” she said, tilting forward in her rocking chair, “so rich and so true.”
Jim was next. Jim’s father, a Texan car mechanic who finds Jim looking at gay porn and humiliates him, was also greeted as an old acquaintance. “Jim, Jim, such pain in this story,” Suzi said, with her eyes squeezed shut as though she felt the pain physically. And Jim was commended by the group for dealing so frankly with such difficult material.
Then it was my turn. A disturbing childhood event was the topic Suzi had set. I’d chosen as my subject an occasion when I’d watched another boy being caned in my Catholic primary school. I’d done what I could to seat the experience in the body of my eight-year-old self, to give a sense of fear and helplessness. I was prepared for criticism. As I read my elaborate sentences out loud, I felt I’d laid it on a bit thick.
When I’d finished, Suzi began by saying it was beautiful. “Yes, beautiful,” she repeated, with a little shudder of appreciation. “Beautiful, but evasive. It hints at more than it’s willing to commit to.”
Lynnette, who was chronicling her depression, raised a tentative hand. “I think, you know, you’re holding something back. You’re not letting us see the whole you.”
“Exactly,” Ira said. There were murmurs of agreement.
It was Jim, in his southern drawl, who delivered the knock-out blow. “Seems to me we all need to hear more
about those sado-sexual feelings you developed in childhood.”
I waited for someone to laugh. No one did. The looks were earnest, sorrowful. As my wife commented later, I should have known better than to use the words groin and priest in the same paragraph.
That week’s homework was to capture a memory of happiness in childhood. The instruction was greeted with a communal groan. “I know, I know,” Suzi said from her rocking chair. “Not an easy topic, but see what you can do with it.”
Unlike the others I was glad of the opportunity to keep it light. I decided to follow Ira’s example and introduce a lovable family member. I would write about my older sister Mary, our reluctant but creative child-minder. I would describe the distractions she organized as a teenager to keep me and my younger siblings busy. I thought first about the tasting game, when she would sit us in the kitchen wearing blindfolds and put food on our tongues for us to identify – margarine, honey, mustard – but ruled it out as too risky. Instead I chose the walk up the lane to smell the pigs, the scruffy farmyard, the sudden darkness of the pigsty, the scuffling, grunting noises, and that unmistakable stink – the reason we were there – then out again into blinding sunlight. Some bodily references were inevitable, but I’d be careful to avoid erogenous zones.
I sat through the next meeting with more confidence. I was the last to read. When I’d finished there was silence followed by a collective sigh. The others glanced at each other, and at me, and at the floor.
It was Jim who spoke first. “It seems to me that we really need to know what all went on in that pigsty.”
“Exactly,” Ira said.
Lynnette stirred herself to agree. “I think, you know, you brought us out of the pigsty too soon. I mean, if you want to write, you have to ask yourself, are you ready to get naked?”
Later, as the meeting was breaking up, Ira approached me. “About Suzi,” he said, and he glanced across at her as though not wanting to be overheard. For a moment I thought he was going to confess doubts of his own. But he went on, “She could really help you with your writing if you could just... open up to the process.”
I thanked him. He seemed like a nice guy. That was part of the problem. It’s what kept me going back for longer than was good for me. They were all nice people. And I really wanted to be receptive to criticism, however clumsily expressed. And writing sometimes leads you to uncomfortable places – they weren’t wrong about that. On the other hand, they were following a set of unspoken rules that I hadn’t signed up to. If I asked about technique or voice, they would smile knowingly at my reluctance to shed the mask. In the end I saw that what they were doing was therapy, and they weren’t good at it.
It was an important lesson. When someone criticizes your work, it’s good not be defensive. But you do need to filter out the harmful stuff.
Names and other identifying details have been changed.
Joe Treasure currently lives in South West London with his wife Leni Wildflower. As an English teacher in Wales, he ran an innovative drama programme, before following Leni across the pond to Los Angeles, an experience that inspired his critically acclaimed debut novel The Male Gaze (published by Picador). His second novel Besotted (also published by Picador) also met with rave reviews. His latest novel, The Book of Air (published 4th April 2017 by Clink Street Publishing) will be available to purchase from online retailers including amazon.co.uk and to order from all good bookstores. For more information please visit www.joetreasure.com