Tugging at the hemline

Recently our writing group critiqued a rewrite of a short story we’d already read several times, in several versions.

Our standard MO is this:  Two members are “at bat”–meaning that they submit work–at each meeting.  (I’m the leader of the group; I don’t submit.) Each submission gets more than an hour of attention. We go around the table, each member giving her (timed) twelve-minute crit of the work while the writer “at bat” listens carefully, takes notes, and tries to keep quiet.  As the leader, I’m always the last to critique; I want to hear everyone’s take on the piece before I jump in and start throwing my weight around.

Often a group member will say what I was planning to say before I get a chance to say it; sometimes a member will say something better than whatever I was planning to say.  (I like that; I’m there to teach, but I love to learn too.)  Much of the time I have a lot to add to the discussion.  The most interesting thing (though probably only to me) is when the whole group makes riveting comments and still misses the essential critical point.

On this occasion  the timer went off on the final member-critique and no one had said what seemed most important to me: the story–a very good one–had gone flat.  It had been rewritten so many times that the writer was exhausted, tired of fighting with it.  I said, “Put the story away.  Stop working on it.  In two or three months you’ll take it out and you’ll see it fresh and you’ll know what to do with it.  Right now you’re just spinning your wheels.  Move on.”

There was a fair amount of wincing around the table and a muttered, “Now tell us what you really think of it.”  But there was no disagreement.  I wasn’t wrong, the group knew it, and the writer knew it too: what she needed that day was permission to stop.  After the meeting she hugged me a little more than usual and whispered that she was glad to be released from bondage, that she was ready to let go of the story for now and work on something else.  In other words, I’d told her what she already knew.

Don’t keep tugging at the hemline, yanking at the waistband, wiggling around to try to make the dress fit right.  Hang it in the closet.  Put it in storage.  Leave it alone for a week, a month, even a year, until you’ve got some objectivity about it–and then you can decide whether to give it a makeover or take it to Housing Works.

There’s nothing wrong with a time-out.  There’s no rule that says once you start a story you have to keep at it until it’s right.  You’re allowed to put it away until your enthusiasm is renewed; if you’re a normally diligent worker–not a slacker–you should put it away until you have energy for it again.

Sometimes you have to chain your ankle to your desk chair in order to get your work done; sometimes you have to push yourself a little harder than you’re accustomed to.  But when you’re genuinely tapped out, put the work away for a while.  Listen to the voice in your head that’s telling you the difference between resistance and exhaustion.


 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Avid Bookshop, Athens GA

The Learned Owl Book Shop, Hudson OH

Porter Square Books, Cambridge MA


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