It is no surprise that writing can be a lonely endeavor. While loneliness is, in some ways, a necessary part of being truthful with the pen, gathering others around your work is crucial, not only to the story in progress but to the eager artist within you.
There are many writers, artists, and storytellers who have something to say and something to share, but are not willing to release their precious work from the safe haven of their own laptop, portfolio, or spiral notebook.
It’s true that some work is not for sharing. It’s personal and something that has been stirred out of you so that you may simply become a better person. But often there is a fear-based restraint holding talented writers and artists back from realizing their full potential.
Criticism. What if they don’t like it?
Fear. What if I’m not good enough?
Inadequacy. What if my work is not worthy of other people’s attention?
Notice that all of the above sentences are questions. And who is asking the questions but the artist herself?
What if she is wrong? What if he’s selling himself short? What if the piece you have safely hidden in your file folder is just the thing a child needs to hear? What happens if you never let it go?
Critique groups are the key to sharing your work safely and giving your art the opportunity to become the best possible version of your idea.
Recently, I contacted several SCBWI writers to find out how their critique groups have helped them turn the corner as artists.
In speaking of her novel Pink Prisoners, author Sarah Barthel, an SCBWI critique group representative, notes, “I was really stuck looking for the right voice. I read books that I loved, books that I hated, books on the same topic and in the same genre. However, the way I finally hit upon ‘the voice’ was by bringing the first chapter of my book to critique group literally seventeen times.”
She brought it written in first person, written in third person, written as a play, narrated by the mother, et cetera. The list goes on, as did her dedication and perseverance.
“Their patience and guidance as I struggled through those drafts was SO helpful,” Barthel continues. “I would never have completed the novel if it wasn’t for their help. Drafts that I thought were brilliant didn’t work when read by others, and drafts that I thought were dull moved some to tears. Critique groups are the best for support and strength.”
Yes, it is scary the first time you share your work with a new group of people. And although the medium itself is merely paper, what’s on it is a part of you. It’s even scarier when you’ve finished reading and they tell you that you should write the same thing over…and over…and over…perhaps seventeen times! But do we show up to remain the same, or do we show up to grow?
I don’t know about anyone else, but I personally do not enjoy growing. I like my thoughts, ideas, and dreams to remain safe. But what good is that? As storytellers for children, part of our job is to illustrate moving beyond fear. The ideal place for an artist to develop and grow is in a healthy and encouraging critique group.
Darcy Zoells, an author and critique group representative from Hinsdale, says that there are four priceless gifts that her critique group has given her. “First,” she says, “their advice on my manuscripts is incredibly on target. I can remember fighting certain comments, then taking the manuscript out of a drawer a year later and seeing, clear as day, that they were right all along. Second, when we wrote a joint novel, each member taking a chapter in turns, it pushed me to write scenes I would never have thought possible. It really opened my imagination to go to some pretty scary places but, overall, improved me as a writer. Third, when I am at the lowest point, wondering why I am writing at all, I conjure up their encouraging comments in my head, thinking, If these incredibly talented people liked something I wrote, then maybe I need to keep at it. Last but not least, they have become very dear friends.”
If you have been hesitant in finding a group that suits you, please consider this an invitation. Information on SCBWI-Illinois critique groups can be found at http://www.scbwi-illinois.org/Membersonly.html.
Lastly, don’t be misled by the word critique. A good group critiques the pen but encourages the heart.
The Prairie Wind. www.scbwi-illinois.org (May 2009)