A writer friend of mine and I were talking recently about her present writing project and, being interested in her project and wanting to help her out, I offered to read a sample chapter for her. She said yes,with a big smile and we were off and running. Before I left though I turned to her and asked, “Okay. What do you want me to do?”
“What do you mean,” she said, still smiling but straining a little.
“You can ask me for what you need when I read it and I want to make sure I help you out so… what do you need me to do, in addition to reading it?”
She looked at me for a long moment, then , smile disappearing, said, “I don’t know. I mean…what do you mean? I never thought about that.”
“I can critique , look for strengths, look for weakness, line edit, read and give overall impressions, look at narrative structure or character, read and tell you I love it, read and tell you to send it out immediately – does that help? I want to help but I want to help you the way you need help.”
The smile appeared again. “I never thought about it that way. Let me think what I need and I”ll let you know when I send the manuscript to you.”
“Excellent. I’m excited to read it.”
This was not the first time I”ve come up against this. In a writer’s group I was in once we allowed each other to ask for what we wanted in a critique – since critique means different things to different people. One new writer auditioning for the group said to me, “But what good is it if you don’t get feedback that tells you what needs to be improved?”
I said, “Sometimes you need just to hear yourself read a piece out loud or get an audience reaction (facial, verbal, energy, laughter, snickers). It all comes back to what you need. Not everybody needs a knife taken to their work.” He didn’t like this and decided not to be a part of the group – probably for the best.
A couple of years later I was working on a memoir of my time working at Gay Men’s Health Crisis doing HIV/AIDS work and it was very painful stuff to put down on paper. At a writer’s retreat I decided to read some of it out loud to the other writers. I asked for what I wanted before I read. I was used to doing this by then so I did. I just wanted to hear what it sounded like. It was too personal to be critiqued yet and I said so. When I was finished reading, one writer raised her hand to comment and when I called on her she started to take it apart. I stopped her in the middle of her fourth or fifth sentence and said, “I don’t want a critique. I’ll take a question about the material – ” and she interrupted me. “But you need to hear -” and that’s when Lawrence Block saved me. He said (yes, he was one of the writer’s at the retreat – the Lawrence Block of Matthew Scudder, best seller, fame), “Didn’t you hear what Joe said? He said he just wanted to read it out loud.”
There was scattered applause, like softly popping incendiaries. Then I took my seat back in the group and another writer took the reader’s chair.
Thank you, Larry.
Ask for what you need. You’re allowed.