Wednesday, June 20, 2012


“The person who teaches writing is not much more than a midwife. After you help deliver the infant, it is ungracious to say, Madame, your child has two heads and will never grow up. The procedure I follow is, after it is here, to announce only if its alive or dead.”
~Flannery O Connor

This week I’m moving on from Rilke’s Book of Hours to Flannery O Connor’s letters (The Habit of Being). Readers who might be avoiding Flannery because the dark tinge to her stories should dive into her correspondance. She is the ideal letter writer. One of the first things I wanted to bring out in our discussion, is Flannery’s relationship to the criticism and to the encouragement she receives for her work. Her confidence in the face of criticism is inspiring. Would that my skin were as thick! In an early letter to a publisher, she says plainly what I hope someday to be sure enough in my work to echo:

I am not writing a conventional novel, and I think that the quality of the novel I write will derive precisely from the peculiarity or aloneness, if you will, of the experience I write from…In short, I am amenable to criticism but only within the sphere of what I am trying to do; I will not be persuaded to do otherwise.

I am at fits too amenable to criticism and not amenable at all, but it has less to do with my confidence in my work and more to do with my emotional state at the moment. I have cut good poems to pieces over an imagined bad reaction, and then spent days pieces back together the original text. I’m a neurotic and uncertain editor. Receiving criticism is difficult. It has to be strained through the sieve of what we know about the critic - his taste, understanding, education; and especially, it has to be strained through what we know about our writing. Criticism is only helpful if it is related to what has been written, criticism based only on third party reviews and impressions is - for the most part - useless.

Even respected criticism though, is of limited value to us. But it has it’s place, and within that place, it is essential to us as writers, unless we are only writing in journals for our own, personal use. Criticism gives perspective and balance to our writing. It’s easy to fall into careless habits when there is no one calling us to task for our mistakes. But the critic can’t be allowed to take over, at the end, it isn’t his story to abandon or to save, and both the writer and the critic have to accept their roles if they are to accomplish anything together.


  1. It is hard to strike the right balance between surrendering completely to criticism and blindly ignoring all warning signs. I'm receiving some of my first serious criticisms about my work these days and am taking the opportunity to test my balance, so to speak.

    I'm developing a few principles to guide me through:
    1. I take the worthiness of the story itself as a given: any criticism I accept must be with regards to the individual choices I made in telling it. In other words, as a general rule I will not simply give up on the story.

    2. I consider why I made the decision being criticized and weigh that against the critique. If I still think the decision was right or necessary, I know I can safely disregard that particular objection.

    3. I quote Theodore Roosevelt's "It is not the critic who counts" speech judiciously to myself.

    And...well, that's pretty much what I have so far. I'll develop more as time goes on and I receive more opinions (and yes, that is a hint that I'm eager to hear yours).

    By the way, this comment heralds my finally getting a start on your Christmas Present, so I'll be posting my responses to the questions on my 'Vita Nova' blog.

  2. Interesting thoughts BT!

    I'm eager to give you mine, but I want to Finish the story first, and that takes a while, because batteries don't last forever, and I'm always trying to do too much on the computer..but by Yarrow's Birthday, I'll have some responses for you!

    I like the idea of having principals to work from in receiving criticism, but I'd be careful, especially in #2. You may have had fantastic reasons for making a decision, but reasons don't make a decision right or necessary, and sometimes something that seems necessary just doesn't work, in which case you have to be willing to see that, and move on.. Know what I means??

    I'm Thrilled you're doing the Christmas present!! I'll be following!