Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Finding Your Inner Matryoshka

Looking back on my progression as a writer, I can see that I've gone through several different stages. I've thought about it a lot, and I call the process the Matryoshka Syndrome, after the round Russian dolls that nest one inside the other. Each doll represents a stage.

Stage 1 is the Clueless Stage.

Here are some of the symptoms:

1. You write loooong letters but seldom mail them.

2. You love crossword puzzles, puns, clever dialog in movies.

3. You scribbled stories or poetry as a child.

4. You always have your nose in a book.

5. You carry on a mental narration of things you see and do.

6. You dream in narrative.

7. You're the one picked to write the Christmas Pageant or office skit.

Stage 2 really isn't a stage. It's more of an epiphany.

This is when it hits you: you're a writer.

It's like everything is divided into Before Writer (BW) and After Writer (AW)

My Stage 2 hit when my mother died. Before then, I thought all the little narratives I did during the day were because I was always composing a letter to her. My epiphany came as I was mentally looking for words to describe the pool of yellow blossoms under a palo verde tree. I came up with saffron shadow, but I also came up with the realization that I was a writer.

Stage 3 I call Rosy Closet Dweller.

You've discovered you're a writer, and even though you never use the word to describe yourself, you think you're good at it.

You churn out stories, but you're not ready to share with anyone.

It's kind of like a nestling bird. She knows she's going to fly someday, but first she has to grow the right kind of feathers. Only with the writer, in order to grow those feathers, she's got to leave the safety of her nest.

The closet writer has to leave her rosy closet.

Stage 4 is called First Sharing.

This stage is the most crucial in a writer's development. It's like presenting your baby to view, expecting everyone to find him beautiful, and they say to you, What an ugly baby. We're so sorry."

If criticism is too harsh or not balanced with praise and encouragement, the writer may never advance to the next stage. My writing group has a maxim that we follow in giving criticism: 2 positives before the first negative. For this stage, that maxim has to be observed.

This is the time when the emerging writer needs to discover that there's more to learn. She won't want to learn if her spirit is crushed by criticism that is beyond her capability to understand. If she makes it through this stage, she's ready to tackle Stage 5.

Stage 5 is the Apprenticeship.

Like a carpenter's apprentice, you've got to learn the skill before you can buld the forms that are constantly in your head.

The way to learn to write is by writing. This is the time to write and put it out there for people to criticize. But, the writer at this stage needs to choose her critics wisely. This is the time to find a supportive writing group, people you trust who will teach without trying to quash your unique voice.

A writing group is great for several reasons.

1. You're associating with people who understand what it's like to have to write.

2. It pushes you to write. Like Weight Watchers, if you have someone to report to, you're apt to be more productive.

3. You can set critiquing standards.

4. You'll be learning the craft by lessons and practice.

5. You'll grow more used to criticism, and criticism is what will make you a better writer. It's like a pruner's shears or a refiner's fire.

Stage 6 is the Armadillo Stage.
By this time, you've grown a thick skin, and you're ready for a Critique group. The same criteria that applied to your writers group should be applied to your critique group: you need to find a circle of people you can trust. But in this instance, they need to be people whose writing you admire.

In stage 6, when you share your work, you say:

Don't pull any punches, because I want this to be good.

Tell me when it's not working.

Tell me when a passage, no matter how brilliantly written, is superfluous.

Tell me when my characters are cardboard.

There aren't any hard and fast rules about critique groups. Here is mine. It consists of Tanya Mills, Terry Deighton, Ann Acton, Christine Thackeray and me.

We named ourselves Writeminded, and we wrote bylaws governing the number of members (5), frequency of meetings (weekly), who would be chair (we rotate, each taking a 2-month stint), how much each can offer per meeting (5 pages), and how long sessions will last (2 hours).

We meet each Thursday. On Tuesday, everyone emails that week's passage to the other members, so by Thursday we're all ready to discuss. With five people we only have time to read 3 submissions each time, but we critique all. We don't read our own work. The chair gives out the assignments ahead of time of who will read whom.

Though we're great friends, we don't do any visiting. This is work time. We get right to it, and when we're done, we each email the marked-up passages back to the author.

Two of my critique group are members of my writer'group. The other two I met at a writers' retreat. Tanya lives in Eastern Washington, Christine lives near the Oregon border, and Terry, Ann and I live near the Canadian border. However, distance isn't a barrier, because we meet by Skype.

We all have our strengths:

Tanya is great with dialogue and with paring away excess verbiage.

Terry is the grammarian. She not only knows what punctuation or usage to use, she knows why.

Ann is our emotion lady. If she doesn't feel it, she lets us know.

Christine sees the big picture. She sees themes and lets you know if you're straying from your theme or defaulting on your contract with the reader.

I think my strength is vocabulary--recognizing when a word isn't quite right for the context.

I remember that inner Matryoshka when one of my group says, "I don't buy that. You haven't offered motivation." I don't get offended. How can I when she's doing me a favor? If she doesn't buy it, the reader (or agent or publisher) isn't going to either.


Terry Deighton said...

You are also the best cheerleader among us. If all else falis, Liz will like something about what I've written or at least point out how much I learned from the critique.

Liz Adair said...

Thanks, Terry. I changed that from my presentation, because I thought I must have some writerly strength. I can recognize the one each of you have in a flash, but I had to think to recognize my own.

Valerie Ipson said...

This is awesome! Such a great presentation and I love the use of the dolls. My daughter brought back a bunch from Russia.

Joan Sowards said...

Great outline of the stages of a writer, and clever use of the dolls. Thank you for the insight of each of your critique parters. What a great group!

Liz Adair said...

Thanks, Valerie and Joan,
I love the dolls, too, Valerie. My son gave me nativity set of nesting dolls a few years ago for Christmas.

And, Joan, yes, my critique group are fabulous ladies, and as a group we're very strong. I learn soooo much each week as we meet.

Rebecca Talley said...

Excellent! Wish I'd read this years ago!

Liz Adair said...

Me too, Rebecca. Not this, of course, but something like it. But I think you have to live through it and make the discoveries yourself. As in learning to read, readiness plays a great part in learning to be a writer.

Deana said...

Love the stages! It is interesting to realize how little I know though. I didn't even realize there was a difference between a writers group and a critique group.
So ANWA is a writers group because it is so large and a critique group is smaller. I like it:)

Deana said...

Oh, and I can't forget to mention how great it is to know that there are others out in the world who think and dream as you describe so perfectly in stage one!

Liz said...

Thanks for your comments, Deana. Writers groups can be small, too, but to me, they're a combination of education, practice and gentle critique. A critque group can take many forms, but it's for critique only and is a more rigorous exercise than critiques that happen in a writers group, usually.

At least, that's my take on it.

Susan G. Haws said...

It was helpful to identify my ppersonal stage and how to progress. I liked the doll analogy.

Rachelle said...

Wonderful! I love how you described this evolution of the writer so accurately.

Liz Adair said...

Thanks, Susan and Rachelle,
This is a very personal journey, but it's surprising how many people have traveled the same road and felt the same feelings along the way.