Thinking It Through

Tonight, several of us gathered at the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow read some of our work. Heretofore, I’ve enjoyed reading my poetry and my stories, but last night it felt different; strained and uncomfortable, as if I were reading bad first drafts to a group of strangers. Nothing they did made me feel that odd sensation; it was me.

In fact, I was reading bad and incomplete drafts that attempted humor but in general failed; these were pieces of work about which I was neither proud of  the underlying message nor happy with the quality of the writing. As I read the two pieces, it occurred to me how far they had to go before being finished, suitable even for informal readings to a group of fellow writers. Despite my unease at the two pieces I’d just read, I considered reading another one, a piece so early in the stages of drafting that it still includes notes to myself about missing scenes and areas that require rewrites and/or abandonment.

Most of my colleagues read powerful, heart-felt pieces. Somehow, the juxtaposition between my ill-conceived humor and their earnest emotional outpouring created an ugliness that reflected badly on my selections for reading. I was looking for something I didn’t get, too; criticism. I don’t think any of us went in with the idea that we were looking for that, but I realized early on that’s what I wanted. But the environment wasn’t suited to it.

The third piece, the one I almost decided to read, was a story I started many months ago but abandoned early. Its opening scene was of a man in a Paris motel room leaving money for a sleeping call-girl, along with a note thanking her for sharing herself with him and wishing her a better future than her past had been. Then, he takes a train to the airport to catch a flight home to New York, with a stop in Iceland; he texts his girlfriend back home to let her know of his plans. On the plane, he begins writing in his journal when he is introduced to a seat-mate, a female writer, who is heading home to Rekjavik. I’d made notes of quite a bit of back story about this guy; he had been in Paris to arrange for the secret sale of nuclear components to a group of Japanese zealots who would later be discovered to be terrorists. My protagonist is doing it for the money, but he doesn’t expect things to go so horribly wrong as they soon will.

It’s one of those stories, like most I write, based on a scene with no coherent path to a plot; but I have since developed at least part of the plot. The most important aspect, though, is the guy’s struggle with what he has done, not only with the nuclear components, but with his life, including cheating on his girlfriend with a Paris hooker.

I guess I wanted to read a number of disconnected paragraphs to my colleagues in the hope that I would get ideas and advice. But I didn’t feel the connection coming to fruition last night. So, the best thing for me to do was to do what I did; I went back to my room and I thought it through.

Several times during the last few days, various members of our entourage have mentioned coming back here solo. I think that would be best for me; the read-arounds are fun, but not productive for me.  I hoped for feedback; instead, I think the overwhelming need among my peers, and I include myself, is to offer accolades. Some days, I love accolades. Today, I’m in the mood for brutal honesty and assistance.

After sitting in my room for a while, I realized I was getting more out of my own self-critique than I might have reasonably expected from feedback from my colleagues. And that makes a solo trip back here for a solid week or two an appealing idea.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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One Response to Thinking It Through

  1. Mary Lou says:

    I have read all three of your posts. So, I will comment on all three here.

    As usual, you are overthinking it. I know, I’m a fellow over-thinker. I may be the world’s champ.

    You are a poet. That does not mean you can’t write the best damned novel anyone has ever read, but at your heart, you are a poet.

    As for feedback, you did not say you wanted feedback. It is friend/critique/read-around etiquette to say “I would like some feedback on this one” or “I need help with this one” or as I often ask my critique friends “Do I keep it or set it on fire?” You have to ask, otherwise in that setting, you will not get what you need.

    Now, I would like to ask you a favor. I know you are a traveler in mind, in spirit, in writing. But you need to take one of your works – the one that means the most to you – and finish it to the end. Make the best damned bad guy anyone ever met. Split that personality and make the other half the hero. Finish it. Good or bad novel. It doesn’t matter.

    I speak from experience and even as I tell you this, I have my own characters that need to be completed, finished and put to bed. Good, bad or otherwise. I have wrestled that alligator for years and it’s still not finished.

    It’s something about the process of going over the edge, taking the chance, closing your eyes and jump. You have the talent. You have the imagination. Go for it.


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