Writers work alone, once established, with a baseline of conviction—not that they know what they are doing, because that’s almost never true. It’s more that they know their own processes intimately enough to trust the blind stumbling forward that the occupation demands.
Weirdly, writing’s sort of the epitome of deferred gratification. Though we all brag about Process being everything, that process is in fact the strangest, most uncertain, groping affair. Instinct (and experience) tell us we’ll somehow be able to work with the resulting mess.
Established writers (by whom I loosely mean, artists who’ve been at it awhile and built a reasonable body of work) have usually forged, by that point, relationships with a couple of people they trust to respond honestly and constructively to their work.
Just one or two people.
For the developing writer, that’s scary. The American system of apprenticeship and education seems to command that we come up through seasoned ranks. And that means asking people you believe fairly knowledgeable to look at your stuff and pronounce it Good. Or okay. Or okay except for this or that part.
And many of these developing writers feel (logically enough, on the face of it) that the more Thumbs-Up’s they can gather in responses to their work, the better. So they send it here and there and have entire workshops and similar well-intended groups look and comment.
And I think that’s finally a mistake.
Why? Because you’re diluting, or even annulling, whatever painstaking authority you may be scraping together during your quest. You’re giving it away. You’re assuming that their perceptions are clearer, better, more substantive than your own.
It works differently for everyone, of course. And I’m not arguing for arrogance, or egomania, or paranoia.
But my sense of the game is this: Trust just one or two other (smart, empathic) pairs of eyes to consider your vision insightfully.
And if they don’t get it, trust yourself, first and last.
Eventually, a day arrives when you understand that you alone bear the vetting burden—that the pile of pages before your eyes will be more or less what you are after.
And if they’re not, you know what to do.
Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Life, just nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.