In the spring of my junior year of college, I took a fiction-writing class. This was possibly one of the most exhilarating and terrifying experiences of my undergraduate career.
There were probably about 20 of us in this class—it was a very in-demand course which, each term that it was offered, filled to capacity very quickly. We met two or three times a week, and we’d sit in a circle, reading drafts of each other’s stories, offering praise and criticism. Probably more criticism than praise, but we were often reminded to offer a positive before enumerating the negative—or the “could-be-improved.”
I’ve never been one for sharing my deepest secrets to large groups of strangers, and that’s pretty much what this felt like. Writing is such a personal, self-revealing endeavor—fiction or not—and I felt so vulnerable offering up my writing efforts to this group of my peers. It may have been different had I actually known and trusted them all as individuals. Or not.
My preference through the years has always been to write and publish, without the median experience of critique. Even as an editor of others’ work, I’m more apt to proofread and reword sentences, making the prose technically more readable. I’m much less likely to offer suggestions on content and direction. I’ve never thought much about why this is, but I suspect it has something to do with the whole “do unto others as you’d have them do unto you” mentality. I don’t want to be told by someone else what it is I’m trying to say. And I don’t want to tell others what they’re trying to say either.
I know that there’s a fine line here. Critique is and should be a good thing. Iron sharpening iron. Two heads are better than one, and all that. And there are different kinds of writing, which is something I deal with daily—the writing I do for myself vs. the writing I do for my job, which is supposed to fit a certain formula to meet the needs of the organization and to communicate the mission. Even then, I am prideful enough to resist editorial advice, no matter how gently it’s given. But I ultimately concede that it’s necessary, and usually on target.
Back to the fiction-writing class. I remember one day, the professor asked us which we preferred—to write or to have written? There was a split decision there, but the consensus was the latter. Our professor confessed that she found the act of writing “torturous,” but that it was a compulsion that she could not escape. I’m not sure I completely related to that, then or now.
It’s never been particularly cut and dried for me. When I’m “in the zone,” there’s nothing so exhilarating as the process of writing. But there’s something particularly wonderful—a sense of relief, even—to have completed a project: an essay, an article, a newsletter.
So, how about you? To write or to have written? Process or product? Or both?