I posted Tuesday that a woman who knew my father from way back when — never a good thing, trust me on this — would be on my first grad critique panel. I was extremely nervous about it and then you all responded with such a tidal wave of “You got this, girl!” and “What, you worry? Pshah!” that I literally put my head down on my desk and made a whimpering sound. The sound of pain came from not knowing how to thank people that I mostly don’t know for being so righteously great. I mean, who are you? Who does that? How do I thank you for rallying around me in my moment of faltering? From the sub-cockles of my heart, with a kind of helpless, blissful bewilderment: Thank you. Thank you for that.
And yeah, it was super, super weird — both the crit itself and that this woman who knew my dad had a position of authority in a room with my work. More on that in a minute.
The critique structure itself is problematic and I learned this firsthand yesterday. I’m certainly not the only person who feels this process is far from perfect. In fact, it’s nuts: You’ve got under an hour, it’s five panelists on one artist, and the work the artist is showing is in progress, so an onslaught of feedback at that raw stage is really only helpful if the artist is expressly looking for it. There was a moment yesterday morning when I thought, “I could totally go off the rails if I listened to everyone’s opinion right now. Stay the course, Fonsie.” It’s not that I wasn’t receptive — I need all the help I can get, trust me. But there’s help, there’s insight, and there’s noise.
There were several times when there was agreement or consensus from the group about a certain passage and a couple times they all had similar questions about this or that concept and that was helpful for sure. If five people agree that there could be more cinnamon in your apple pie, you should probably increase the cinnamon, you know? In this way, the critique was valuable.
And as for the lady? Well, at one point I almost started crying. I didn’t cry. But I’ll tell you what made my eyes burn.
You all don’t know this because I’ve never said anything about it, but my father is an aspiring writer. He’s been aspiring his whole life. He’s never published a book. I don’t believe he’s published anything, though I can’t say for sure. A search online yields only his website and there are no publication credits there. (Note to self: Make sure to include my publication credits in bio for new website.) All I know is that my dad’s whole life has been this quest to write the Great American Novel or some canonical book of poems or whatever and so far, he ain’t written it.
I’ve heard stories about my dad’s attempts at writing. The manuscripts he burned because no one would publish them. His refusal to be edited because he’s such a genius, I guess. From what I’ve read, his work could use an editor and guess what? Everyone could use an editor. All of us. Me. You. My dad. The most terrifying thing about writing a blog — aside from delving into really, really deep waters like I’m doing right now — is that you have no editor before you hit the “Publish” button. Every one of these posts is a first draft, basically, and really, it’s ridiculous. Any decent writer knows she needs an editor, that your piece is only as good as your editor. The blog, it laughs at this truth and I do kind of love the immediacy, but it’s foolish unless you take it seriously (I do) and treat it as a way to practice writing and to connect with people. Check and check.
My point is that I try every single day to successfully put words together for this blog, for papers, this book I’m writing, my column, all of it. That my father has been unsuccessful in his writerly ambitions is heavy, guys. It’s really heavy. Heck, my mom’s writing a novel, too. What if they’re both no good? Where does that leave me? I know I’m not a great writer, but I’d like to be decent and I’m trying to get better. Nothing matters more to me. What if my book stinks? What if it goes the way of my father’s many novels: burned, trashed, unfinished, or buried in a desk somewhere, never to see the light of day? It’s possible. It’s more possible than running into someone who knew my dad from 30 years ago, I’ll tell you that much.
When I was looking at a page of my chapter yesterday in that room and that woman made some comment about it, that’s when I thought I might cry. Because all of that Dad stuff flooded in. It’s bad enough that my father shows up sometimes in the fears I have about being a bad writer; it sucked that he had to be there in flesh and blood while I was trying to be a good one.