They Just Don't Get It!

By Terri Main

I teach at a local community college. This semester I'm on sabbatical leave. I am writing a training course for new online teachers. So, I've been asking our veteran online teachers to add me to their course to get ideas. This means I'm also getting emails to their students. This week I got one which started me thinking.

It was from David Borofka, an accomplished fiction writer. In the email, he told his students to not respond in the discussion forums where other students are critiquing their work. They are to not defend or explain their writing. To quote from the letter (used by permission):

I'd like for you to know what an author's true experience is like: writers
send their work out into the world and they don't get to explain it, defend it,
or get to negotiate with a reader. And that's true whether the reader is an
agent, an editor, a publisher, a book reviewer, a critic, or the reader who
plunks down $25 at the Barnes and Noble counter. And unless they're invited to be on OPRAH,they don't even get to have a conversation about it with their
adoring fans.

In this respect, we're in a somewhat helpless and passive position, but
that's partly because when we release our work to others, that work becomes
theirs rather than ours. We listen to the reactions, and we can agree or
disagree. Sometimes what we hear may make a story better in revision. Other
times, we'll hear junk, and we just have to make the decision to take that
reading/reaction for what it is: a reader's opinion.

I love this and will probably incorporate it into any of my future writing classes. I have seen this happen often in critique groups. I have been guilty of it. Everyone misses my wonderful symbolism or they don't understand my character or they are confused by the plot. They are just so stupid! Why can't they see what's right in front of them? So, I jump in and try to explain it to them. It must be their fault. After all, it couldn't possibly be my writing.

Okay, an occassional person may miss the point, and you shouldn't try to please absolutely everyone. However, if even one person in a ten person critique group doesn't "get it," that means ten percent of your readers might not get it either. And, as Dave says, you can't negotiate with or explain it to them. Take every criticism you receive seriously before rejecting it as a case of stupidity on the part of the reader or an isolated incident. If you have the chance to do so, talk to the person, not to explain or defend, but to find out why she or he didn't get it. First, find out how they interpreted what you wrote. Then ask why they interpreted it that way. Finally, ask how you might have made your intent more clear.

This isn't easy. It means setting aside egos for a moment or two. Writers have strong egos. This isn't a bad thing. If we didn't, we wouldn't presume to write for others. However, it is hard to sit quietly and listen as our work, our masterpiece, our creative offspring is being evaluated negatively.

I know this. I am working with an editor/mentor right now finishing a novel, something I haven't seriously attempted before. And I find myself saying, "Why can't you see that?" only to have to answer, "Because I didn't show it clearly enough."

I will leave you with the concluding words from Dave's letter. I'm trying to take them to heart. I encourage other writers to do so as well:

If the reader doesn't get it, the problem may lie in a bad reading. Then again,
the problem may be in the text of what you've submitted. And that's your job


Deborah Cullins Smith said...

We all want to think that, as writers, whatever we've written is a complete masterpiece -- easy to grasp, honed down to the last comma, colon, and question mark. And we should take heed when people don't "get" it, and be willing to revise.

On the other hand, I'm afraid there will always be that handful of people who won't get it even if we drop bricks on their heads. My ex-husband never seemed to understand any of my poetry. I was floored by his inability to "get" it. He's a very intelligent man, so mental capacity was not the issue. Other people understood, but the one person I NEEDED to receive affirmation from was the main person who couldn't catch my drift.

There will always be people who don't understand you as a writer. I believe our calling is to write the story, hone it to the best of our ability, seek the counsel of those we trust, edit, revise, and hone again -- then send it out into the world to sink or swim!

Bravo, Terri. I've added that quote to my notebook. Thanks!

Bob McCarty Writes said...

Terri -- You don't know me from Adam, but I'm swimming around cyberspace in search of book junkies who might be interested in reviewing ten installments of my soon-to-be-self-published (fall) fiction work, SCRATCH OFF. If you're interested, please visit my blog, Bob McCarty Writes. Thanks in advance!