Sometimes it takes me a while to figure out what’s going not-quite-right in the Girl Group. In this case, the problem was a perfectly ordinary notebook computer sitting on the table in front of one of the members at each meeting. That computer always looked a bit wrong to me, like a rocket ship in a flower garden. We have a “no cell phones on the table” rule that guarantees we won’t get distracted by messages, but we had never discussed the use–or nonuse–of any other sort of technology.
It seemed a little too bossy to ask the writer taking notes on her computer to stop. Maybe, I thought, I was just being techno-silly; after all, I write on a MacBook Pro and a MacBook Air. Why shouldn’t this writer use her favorite piece of equipment if it worked for her?
But the longer I watched what happened when she was getting critique from the group and taking notes on her computer, the surer I was that the computer was a problem. So the week before her next at-bat I wrote her a short e-mail, something I do frequently with the writers in the Girl Group.
I have an idea I’d like you to try this week: when you take notes during your critique, forgo your notebook computer and take those notes by hand. A writer who types on her tablet or notebook or laptop during a class, even for note-taking, is distancing herself from what’s going on in the moment. You’re putting a thin wall of protection between yourself and the critique you’re getting.
Until now the computer hasn’t been an issue: I figured that you’re the most tech-savvy and the computer worked best for you. But I’ve changed my mind. Or to put it differently, you are the techiest–but now I’m pretty sure that the computer note-taking approach isn’t serving you well in terms of becoming a better writer.
So I think it’s time for you to put the computer aside in favor of being fully in the group when you’re receiving comments on your work. No hiding behind a screen. No wall. No looking at the keyboard instead of looking at the faces around the table. Get yourself a pretty paper notepad or something else nice to write in, if that will help. Geralyn scribbles notes on the back of her manuscript; so does Ali. Jennifer uses a stack of 8 1/2 by 11 paper. When I’m getting critique in my own writers’ workshop, I use my favorite pen and take notes on the first and last pages of my manuscript.
The best thing to do when being critiqued is to listen and breathe. Hear what’s being said. Most of the comments you’ll get will already be written on the copies of your manuscript that we hand back to you when your critique is finished; still, you’ll probably want to continue to make a few additional notes, to catch the nuances and to be sure you don’t lose any gold.
However, the most important thing for YOU is to lose the fear of being critiqued. You’ve become a fantastic critiquer–1000% improvement since you joined the group, which is exactly what I expected. You give great help, but you have to let down your guard a little more when you’re getting help. Even if it feels more comfortable to have that computer wall, you’re working against yourself when you put it between you and the group. Why? Because the group’s thoughtful, sensitive comments will help you become a better memoirist and fiction writer.
Therefore, no computer. Paper and pen will make a huge difference in what you take away from the group’s critique. When you see your notes in your own handwriting, you’ll remember much more about your reaction to those notes: Good note? Bad note? Useful note? Irrelevant note? All of this will come back to you in a different way from the way you remembered notes taken on your computer.
Of course I could be completely wrong about all this, but please give it a try anyway, to see if the difference is significant to you.
SIDEBAR: The writer agreed to try taking notes by hand, and we haven’t seen that computer on the table in many weeks. From my point of view as leader and teacher, this has been a hugely positive change, a writer much more engaged in everything that’s going on in every meeting. Have the other members noticed the absence of the computer? I don’t know. It hasn’t come up.
FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast
Willow Books, Acton, MA
The Book Loft, Columbus, OH
Modern Times Bookstore, San Francisco, CA