Sometimes, a flat tire isn’t a metaphor. Other times, it is.

Hello, out there, world. I’m back from my yearly blogging hiatus, having just finished another epic summer of teaching. I’ll be gearing up for teaching again in the fall, but, happily, my schedule will return to something that resembles a human life. During the intense slog of the summer, the idea of getting back to my work-in-progress, the novel I’ve been working on for two and a half years, helped me get through heaps of grading and lesson planning, so when I had the opportunity to attend an MFA alumni weekend at my alma mater, I took it as an opportunity to jumpstart my creative writing engine for the work ahead.

The weekend itself was amazing; reconnecting with classmates, having the opportunity to read some poems from my forthcoming book, and presenting and listening to other talks by alumni were all exactly the kind of food my creative mind needed, and I’m grateful to everyone who made the weekend so successful and helpful.

Then, toward the end of the weekend, came something I probably should have done without: a book doctor’s critique.

I’d been eagerly awaiting my half-hour session with the book doctor for some weeks. My book is creeping toward completion in its third draft, but it has some distance left to go. I hoped to leave the session with some concrete ideas for fixing the problems I knew about, and a heads-up as to the problems I hadn’t anticipated. I hoped for the kick in the posterior that I needed to finish this book well. So when I sat said posterior down in the critique chair, pen and paper at the ready, I was taken off guard by what happened.

The book doctor told me that the only good thing to do with my first chapter was to get rid of it (as no reader would stick with the book long enough to read the second chapter). He told me that my point of view wouldn’t work. He told me that my sentences were unwieldy and rambling. He made a reference to being stabbed in the eye by the errors in my writing. This all took roughly five minutes, so I had the other 25 in which to sit awkwardly in his presence, probing for some suggestions that didn’t involve, say, giving up writing altogether and becoming a llama farmer. I left the session feeling like someone had let the air out of my tires.

Later, on the trip home, as I sat sweating in the stopped car while waiting for a ferry, I called a writer friend to inform her that, according to the doctor, I am unable to write prose. I’ll admit it: I was looking for a pep talk. I wanted someone to tell me “screw that guy. Finish your book.” Unfortunately for my now shaky confidence level, that’s not what she had to say. “Even if you only ever publish poems, you’ll still be glad you tried writing novel,” she told me. Ouch. Book doctor: 2, Davio: 0. I decided not to seek any more get-up-and-go at that point, because the assessments of my writing were getting worse and worse. As the ferry slouched toward the mainland, I couldn’t seem to quit thinking about what they both had to say. Maybe I really wasn’t any good at fiction. Maybe I’d “only” ever publish poems. (Which, for the record, I still think is a pretty big deal; it’s hardly an “only” to have a poetry collection coming out, right? Someone, please, say “right.”)

So when I hopped in the car the following morning to start another week of classes, the flat tire that had developed overnight felt not a little like a lame metaphor. The fact that the service station down the street didn’t have a functioning air pump (I’d hoped to fatten the tire up enough to get me to work, then deal with the flat later) only extended that crummy metaphor. The fact that I hadn’t gotten more than a few hours’ sleep the night before…well, that made the metaphor seem not only crummy and over-extended, but also pretty damn depressing.

Today, the first day I’ve had off from work in quite a some time, I had my tire (the literal tire) fixed. Now to fix the other one. I’ve decided that it’s entirely possible that the book doctor is right, and that my writing stabs people in the eyes (sorry, readers. Please wear protective goggles next time you visit this blog). It’s also possible that my friend who gave me the anti-pep-talk is right, and I’m not going to write anything mainstream in my career. There is, however, no law that says I can’t keep trying. I’m going to finish working on this book, and I’m going to make it the best novel that I can. Maybe the book and I won’t get far with our flat tire, but maybe we can at least make it a mile or two further than anybody else thought we could.

10 Replies to “Sometimes, a flat tire isn’t a metaphor. Other times, it is.”

  1. Right! I always tell my writing friends that success in literature is part talent, part drive, and a big helping of finding the right audience for your work. You have the first two, no prob. The home for your novel may not turn out to be the Taj Mahal, but there is one, I assure you.

    As for the book doc, I say: physician, critique thyself!

  2. I haven’t read your fiction, but your description of the critique suggests that he did not try to improve your manuscript, but attempt to wedge your manuscript into a pre-determined form. That strikes me as his limitation, not a statement about the quality of your work.

  3. I think that is one possibility, Stefon. It’s entirely likely that the project of this book (which is, admittedly, a weird project) didn’t fit his idea of a commercial novel. I do think that he was trying, in his somewhat startling way, to help me make the best book I could, but I tend to think that highly prescriptive help is not always the best help.

  4. Thanks for sharing this, Kelly — I think at least a few of us are recovering from discouragement mode after the past weekend. Like Stefon, I haven’t read your fiction either, but your nonfic and your poetry are incredible — powerful complex and accessible. As my former classmate Sara Shute once observed, “to survive as a writer in a critique situation you need to cultivate your inner ‘fuck you'”. I would say that such an inner spirit needs to be cultivated in this (and probably other) instance(s). Party on. We’re all behind you, believing in you, and holding the vision of success.

  5. Thanks, Stephanie. This whole thing is tricky, because no one wants to be the writer who “takes criticism badly,” right? I’ve started to wonder if maybe I am that writer–the one who can’t take any small critique before crying foul. (But I think I have enough evidence on the table to suggest that I generally take criticism pretty well indeed.) Maybe what I’m responding to isn’t so much what the book doctor had to say as the spirit of how he said it. My gut says that we can break critique down to two categories: Yes and No. The best advice comes from a place of Yes, but I don’t think that’s where this list of insights came from. Maybe we need a little inner monologue, as you say, but maybe we also need to listen to our instincts when it comes to the spirit of that critique. I hope that you are also recovering well from any knock-downs this past week as well, and I say YES to you! 🙂

  6. Thanks back although I think I may have miscommunicated what I was getting at. I agree with you completely that feedback that helps us make our work better is invaluable. The point I was trying to make was precisely the insight that you shared more articulately than I did — namely that there is a a gut level “knowing” that tells us whether the feedback is useful or not. And you’re right. the whole thing _is_ tricky for a number of reasons. Thanks again for sharing your expertise with the rest of us!

  7. What a beautiful post – despite its recap of your bummer book doctor experience. I wish I’d been the go-to gal for your pep talk ’cause I’d have waved my pompoms high. Unlike a few other folks who’ve commented here, I HAVE read your fiction before. And, in a nutshell? It’s beautiful, it’s moving, it deserves to be written and read. Channel the energy created by the emotions from the critique and GET WRITING!!! I can’t wait to buy the finished/printed copy and mail it to the doc…

  8. Stephanie, I think we’re on the same page. 🙂 We’ve got to trust our guts when it comes to advice, or we’ll be confused at best and crazy at worst!

  9. Kobbie, thank you so much for this sweet vote of confidence! And I love the idea of mailing a copy to the book doctor at the end of all this! I am giggling mischievously… 😉

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