The old-school doorbell jingled as I stepped out of the dark parking lot and into the Gallery Pastry Shop. I scanned the brightly lit room with the aroma of vanilla and sweet yeast and found Bethany at the large, varnished table in the corner, her round glasses fixed on a book.
“What can I get for you?” asked the waitress with the bright pink streaks in her hair.
“What kind of teas do you have?”
I need something not too sweet but that I can fidget with. The rest of the group trickled in. Jim, Donna, and Chet pulled up to the table. Drew sat at the far corner and adjusted his backwards baseball cap.
“Where’s Sujata?” someone asked.
“She’s coming. Let’s wait a few more minutes.” I sipped my fruity tea. That week it was my turn to receive critique for my short memoir about the dive and crash end of my marriage.
In round one, we went around the table and each person gave detailed compliments. Sujata had three typed pages with little red asterisks that marked her favorite lines. As the others gave their compliments with smiles and enthusiasm, I nodded and jotted down a few comments. My fingers hovered over my keyboard in anticipation for round two. I wanted to capture every comment.
In round two, the other writers pushed back and kneaded at my memoir with well-developed critique. As we went around the table, I found myself interjecting, “It’s okay. Just spit it out.”
As a writer, I enjoyed the compliments, but I hungered for the critique. I knew that without critique, my writing wouldn’t improve. Without it, I would be stagnant. My writer’s group can give me something I cannot give myself: a different perspective.
Growth or Injury
The growth that takes place when someone lovingly shows you a perspective you could not have seen on your own can be tremendous. It can be exhilarating. It can be like the rear-view mirrors and backup cameras that help you see your blind spots.
But I have also received criticism that was deeply painful. Through the years, uninvited advice has brought injury instead of growth — and not just from middle school bullies and authoritative bosses. I have received critical uninvited advice from a person who does care for me, and I convinced himself he had my best interest at heart. But rather than ready myself to take notes, I started to tune him out at, “You know what I think?”
After my writers’ circle, I found myself asking a lot of questions. Why do I hunger for critique in my writing group but feel threatened by advice from a family member? How can we make sure a loving confrontation feels safe?
It may have been my week to receive critique for my memoir story, but the week before we were digging into Chet’s fictional piece about a man grappling with the loss of his son, and the week before, it was Donna’s story about a girl whose car was pushed onto the railroad tracks. Part of being in a writer’s group is giving well-thought out critique. But the other part of being in a writer’s group is receiving it. Everyone takes a turn throwing his piece is on the table for dissection.
In Ephesians, Paul tells us, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This isn’t just for marriages. It’s for any relationship between believers. As Christians, we were meant to submit to each other. Relationships are always out of balance when only one person does the submitting. If I walk in feeling more spiritually mature, or in a stronger walk with God, then my self-righteous attitude will not only pollute my advice but may also damage my relationship with that person. If I’m planning to give criticism, I had better prepare to receive humility.
Ready to Receive
A few weeks ago, Chet gave a suggestion to the group about writing dialogue. He said, “I have been told that if you want to write really strong dialogue, you should write as if each character is trying to steer the conversation the direction he wants it to go.” For the next few weeks, I looked for opportunities to test his idea. I listened to the people behind me while I stood in line. I listened to the family at the table next to me in the restaurant, and I even listened to myself. And it’s frighteningly true. Most of the time, we all try to steer the conversation in our direction.
If I'm going to confront someone in love, I need a posture of openness. I should prepare for the conversation to take unexpected turns. This hasn’t always gone well for me in the past. When I approach someone about betrayals or hurtful words, I want to be vindicated. But I still have to be ready to listen. Even in conversations about less personal topics, my assumptions can get in the way. Damage happens when I am tempted to believe that I already understand the other person’s motives and situation.
While the publishing world is highly competitive, writers groups are not. When one person’s work becomes a more vibrant, accurate portrayal of the story he is trying to tell, we all celebrate. A writer’s group can both challenge and encourage. But if someone were to pull up to the table, whether consciously or unconsciously, to demonstrate superiority, then the sacredness of the circle would be gone.
Unfortunately, when I approach people, I often carry a lot of subconscious motives. And I doubt that I’m alone. Sometimes I am just wanting to be heard. Other times, my ego may do even more damage. If I have an “I-told-you-so” in my heart, the sacredness of the conversation is gone. If I have an agenda, I do damage. If I enter the conversation with anything less than profound humility and a Christ-filled vision of success for that person, my hidden motives will derail the healing and encouragement.
We All Need Feedback
Just as I use the rear view and side view mirrors in my car to warn me about the SUV approaching from the left so I don’t wind up in a collision, I benefit when my community can give other perspectives on my relationship with Christ and the world. This feedback is no less than sacred. When done in deep love and profound humility, it shapes and encourages and strengthens me. When done in deep love and profound humility, it better prepares me to carry out God’s calling for me in the world. When done in deep love and profound humility, it is the mutual submission that brings reverence for Christ.
How, then, can we create a culture of encouraging humble confrontation and loving truth? How can we bring the writer’s circle to the community of faith? How can we correct each other in mutual submission so that we can all grow into deeper Christian maturity together?
Monica Tatera has a passion for writing, storytelling, and journaling her ongoing conversation with God. Sometimes, she can almost keep up with her intensely extroverted ten-year old daughter, Arielle, who keeps her busy trying new things and keeps her telling stories by asking “for another one, mama, please” at bedtime or around a good fire. In her free time, Monica enjoys camping, biking, and attempting to train her incorrigibly neurotic and loving black Lab.