The Prose Poseur

They don't give these mugs to just anybody! (Thanks again, Sarah W!)

They don’t give these mugs to just anybody! (Thanks again, Sarah W!)

I went to my first children’s book critique group in 2006 at a local Borders Books & Music. Arriving with a few copies of my manuscript in hand, the group welcomed me with open arms. Better still, the critique I received that night was positive and thoughtful enough to give me a lot to chew on after things broke up. I was jazzed and energized. I wanted to get started on a revision right away.

So instead of going home, I set up shop in the café to slurp a latte and edit. I was working there for about 15 minutes when I noticed someone watching me. The woman, let’s call her Becky, was a member of the critique group. She had not brought a story, so I had no idea what kind of a writer she was. I did know, however, that she wasn’t a very good critiquer; her comments that evening were unfocused, benign, and across-the-board positive. At the time, I had pegged her as the type of person who went to great lengths to avoid conflict.

Right away her presence in the café struck me as peculiar. It had been 15 minutes since the meeting broke up and I was seeing her only now. She also seemed to have no intention of buying anything.

So when our eyes met it wasn’t an “Oh, hey, you needed a coffee too, eh?” kinda vibe. It was a bit more like a stalking. Not a legit, creepy one – instead, her stalking attempt was a lot like the way she critiqued my story: unfocused and benign.

Because I had noticed her, I had forced her to be social. “Oh, hi! I really liked your story. Really liked it.” she said as she approached the table.

“Thanks,” I replied.

“I was planning to have something to show for this meeting but I just couldn’t get around to it. I just couldn’t find the time.”  

“That can be tough sometimes.”

She nodded. She looked at her feet. Then Becky said, “Can I talk to you a minute?”

I did not want to talk to her for a minute. I had three reasons why:

The first reason was purely selfish; I wanted to revise my manuscript without interruption.

The second reason was because of the weirdness of this encounter; I wasn’t threatened by her stalkingishness, but I was uncomfortable with it.

The third and most important reason was that no one who asks, “Can I talk to you a minute?” ever follows it up with something you want to hear. Never. Ever.

But it’s almost impossible to say no to a “Can I talk to you a minute?” On its face it’s such a minor request, isn’t it? A minute? Anyone can spare a minute, right? What are you, some kind of selfish jerk? And even if you are a selfish jerk, do you really want to telegraph your jerkiness by saying no? And if you do say no, you then have to follow it up with more than a minute’s worth of lame reasons why you said no and, well, that’s just opening up a whole new can of worms.

So she said, “Can I talk to you a minute?” and I said, “Sure.”

So Becky began. “To be completely honest, I really do have time to write,” she said. “I just can’t. At night, after the kids are in bed, I pick up a book and read. For hours. I know I should be writing, but I don’t. I know I’ll hate myself if I don’t write, but I still don’t. I’m like, ‘Just one more chapter and then I’ll write.’ But then I go ahead and read another chapter and another chapter until it gets too late to get started. Then I feel guilty that I didn’t write and I go to bed hating myself. So I say, ‘I’ll do it tomorrow. I’ll write tomorrow.’ But then tomorrow comes and I do the same thing. I spend another night reading or watching TV or whatever.”

Her story went on for much longer than what I wrote here – a lot longer than a minute – but the above is the gist of it: procrastinate, guilt, repeat.

The two of us had been there together for about 20 minutes before she finally lobbed a question in my direction.

“What should I do?” she asked.

By the time this question came my way, I was fed up with Becky. I would’ve killed to have the amount of time she had to write. Not only did she squander this precious time night after night after night, but at this moment she was squandering my time, too.

So I said, “What should you do? Here’s an idea. Write something. Either that or acknowledge that you’re not a writer. From what I’m hearing, it sounds like you just like the idea of being a writer.”

It was as if I punched her in the face. And, in a way, I suppose I had.

Immediately I tried to soften my view without abandoning it. “Writers don’t have to be published or anything,” I went on. “But they do need to have a fire, you know, a desire to write. Do you have that?”

“Yes, I do!” she hissed, summoning a rage that I didn’t think she had in her. “I know I do because I want my name on book more than anything!”

That didn’t answer my question, but at that point, the answer would suffice, thank you. Whatever ended it.

Things wrapped up quickly after that. As she stormed out, Becky vowed to have a story to be reviewed next month and I was left alone. I had a knot in my stomach and was too ashamed of my jerkiness to focus on my story. The evening was a complete wash.

Becky didn’t show up to the next critique meeting. In fact, I never saw her again. A big part of me feels terrible about stomping on her dreams. They may have been pipe dreams, but they were hers and I had no right to lace up my hobnail boots.

Another part of me, however – the part that’s seven years older and enjoys forgiving myself – wonders if I might have done her a favor. Maybe that fateful night she learned something about herself. Maybe my actions gave her permission to enjoy her evenings without guilt. Maybe, after she puts the kids to bed, she can read and watch TV in peace, knowing who she is. There’s no shame in not being a writer. Quite the opposite, really.

Then, once in a while, I imagine that what I said was the kick in the butt that prompted Becky to act. Maybe she writes now. Maybe she found a new group. Maybe she’s published. Maybe I did a good and noble thing.

And maybe I have a few pipe dreams in me, too.

63 thoughts on “The Prose Poseur

  1. Ooh. Juicy problem. Thanks for sharing this. My critique group nickname is “Susie Mary Sunshine.” Being less across-the-board positive is something I’m really working on. Some of my best critiques have come from jerks. Usually fuels the fire, so hopefully that is what ended up happening for her!

  2. As always, your honesty is what sets up/sets off your writing. I can’t be as mean as you were, but yes, you probably did do Becky a favor. This is why I laughed at the end. In my stories (and books, and all my writing) I always want to finish with a happy ending. So as I read your post to the end, I thought your last paragraph would say that you stumbled upon an AMAZING book a year later, and the author was… of course, Becky. Oh, and in the acknowledgements page, she says, ‘Thank you to the kind jerk at the coffee shop who made me realizle that I AM a writer, if I just sit my ass down and write.” (or something similarly romantic). Ah, I love reading you first thing in the morning.

  3. What a fun story! I think she’s way to tired to write at night and needs to find a time several times a day to scribble things down. A lot of people are too tired to write at night but can read, but if she doesn’t ever write then she’s just a reader. By the way I wrote a poem about you the other day, pop on over to my blog some time (if you have a minute LOL) (stalker alert amber LOL)

  4. You probably weren’t as jerky mean as you think you were, it may have come across as a bit harsh, but I’m sure wouldn’t have been enough to knock her away from her dreams. It probably either kicked her into action, or after fuming for a while she just went back to how she was before.

    By the way, are you ready for tomorrow? 😉

    • I’m not usually like that. (And when I feel an especially bad bout of crabbiness coming on, I will go to great lengths to try to excuse myself.) Becky just caught me at an especially bad moment.

      I am ready for tomorrow, my friend. My next blog post will be devoted to defending your ridiculous opinion. What animal will I be supporting, by the way? (I was secretly rooting for dung beetles.)

      • You’ll have to wait and see I’m afraid, I can’t give you any pre-warning, I might have considered doing so if you hadn’t called my opinion ridiculous. Although I’m sure you meant ridiculous in a good way 🙂

  5. She sought you out, Mike, AFTER watching you at the meeting. Clearly, she felt you had something to offer her – and you did. It may not have been in the form she desired it; however, my guess is that it was what she needed. You were honest, you were not mean-spirited. Could you have been more tactful? Perhaps, but then she may not have received what she came to you for. Forgive yourself, my friend. You did not, nor do you, have the power to deter ANYONE from accomplishing that which they hold dear! xoxoM

    • When I was a newspaper reporter, I would often get buttonholed by locals who stopped by the office to explain their latest conspiracy theories. When such a conversation got too long or intense, I would often get a phone call from one of my fellow scribes. I’d pick up the phone and hear: “Pretend this is an emergency and get the hell outta there.”

      I would tell Mr. Crazyman that I would love to talk more about his tinfoil hat but I have to cover a crime in progress. Then I’d make a graceful exit.

  6. This reminds me of an old story about a young violinist who has practiced and won awards, but still isn’t sure if he has what it takes to become a professional musician. So when a famous conductor comes to town, he begs an audience and asks if the older man will listen to him play and tell him if he should continue spending so much time practicing and playing.

    The old man nodded along as the violinist played his soul out, then shook his head and said, “No. I am sorry. You don’t have the fire.”

    The young man was crushed. He quit playing, turned to the family business, and prospered. He always supported the local orchestra, though, in acknowledgement of his past dreams, and was delighted to see that the old maestro is going to be a visiting conductor. At the party after the performance, the former violinist introduced himself and said, “You may not remember me, but years ago, I played for you, and you told me I didn’t have the fire to be a musician. You’re advice hurt, but now I’m sure it was for the best not to waste my life on something I couldn’t have.”

    The maestro smiled and said, “I don’t remember, no. To be honest, I barely listen to the young musicians when they ask me to judge them. I tell every one of them the same thing, anyway, that they don’t have what it takes.”

    “What?!” the man said. “But, but if you didn’t pay any attention to my performance, maybe I did have the fire—I might have been a great musician!”

    “But see,” said the maestro, “if you’d had the fire, you wouldn’t have paid attention to me.”

  7. I agree, I think you did her a favor in the long run, even if it may have seemed harsh up front.

    Thinking you want to be a writer has nothing to do with seeing your name on a book cover. It has everything to do with the endless stories and characters that come alive inside you and demand to be shared.

    • Yep, that “I want my name on a book more than anything” line really spoke volumes. It strongly indicated that Becky wasn’t serious about the craft of writing; she was only interested in the rewards of having written.

  8. I went home and cried after my first critique group meeting.

    In my defense, I went back again and again afterwards. ; ) At that first meeting, four of the women said positive, upbeat things about my first two chapters. But I was the newbie; I didn’t even know what might be wrong with my writing. Finally, the most seasoned, published writer said, “I don’t think I’m the only one… she (me) has some great writing, but there’s no tension. We don’t know what the central problem is.”

    Now, if someone told me this actually happens in writing groups all the time, I probably wouldn’t have cried. But that writer changed my life. I went home with a definitive thing to work on, something the positive, upbeat sorts weren’t helping me by avoiding.

    We all need a kick in the butt sometimes, Mike. And not all of us are equipped to deliver it. I believe in feeling compassion not only for others but for myself. Give yourself a big hug.

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  10. You were not being a jerk. You were honest. She asked you a direct question and you answered it. Period. If she didn’t want your opinion about what she should do, she shouldn’t have asked. Period.

  11. Mike, I think many people, including myself, are often in denial about various aspects of their lives. So when they are confronted with a truth that sends them into the world of cognitive dissonance, they either change the ideas they have about themselves/the situation, or they run away and hide in their denial. You can’t tell by her absence whether she has change her POV or gone further into denial. Either way, I think you did her a service by giving her your opinion. And I can’t believe that you said it using the voice of an ogre. So don’t let this encounter weigh heavily on you.

  12. You did nothing to crush her dreams. I figure a true writer has to have the “burn” for it. Not just to want a name on a book. I think you made her reevaluate her little dream. And if not you gave her excellent fodder for her blockbuster short story.

  13. Mike, the first thing I thought when reading this was “American Idol.” You may not watch the show, but there are people who show up who truly believe they are good singers (not the goofy people they purposely put on). When they are told they aren’t, their hearts are broken. You spoke a truth to this woman, and it was up to her what she did with it then. She may have been too embarrassed to come back, but she likely made a decision after the encounter with you – she found her fire and wrote, or she didn’t. Either way, you gave her the time she sought, and you gave your honest opinion. You’re a good man. 🙂

  14. Becky can make her own decisions. It would have been worse if you had done as she had in the workshops and told her something easy on the ears, something just to make her feel good. Becky’s a big girl. She ought to be ready to handle any advice that she solicits from someone she doesn’t really know. She’s lucky you gave her ‘a minute’ of your time.

    But perhaps you can take mental notes on how next time you might handle something like this in a way that sits with you better afterward. This practice of going over an interaction, perhaps a confrontation, etc, helps me to see how to handle things more productively or tactfully in the future.

  15. You are very cruel person, she might have been the next best selling author, now she sits and watches reality shows after putting the kids to bed! Becky! Becky where are you? I put a dent in my sofa watching an incredible lame series, and then went back to writing. Don’t feel bad sometimes you need to be a couch potato to realize that not being a couch potato is better than being a couch potato, sometimes you need to embrace your couch potatoness, Becky? You can also write your name on a piece of masking tape and stick it on a book, your name will be on a book then. Becky? Ouch! I found her, she just threw a shoe at me

  16. Oh snap! I loved this. And yeah, while it might have been a little bit of tough love to respond to 20 minutes of whining about not writing with, “If you want to be a writer, you have to write,” it was most definitely called for. She needed to hear that.

    Of course, if she’s the type of person I suspect she might be, she may have gotten so defensive about your response that she brushed it off completely and went back to her nightly guilt trips. That’s sad, but it’s not your job to pump her up and tell her what she wants to hear.

    (Finally, a pet peeve: When someone wants the glory of holding a published book with his or her name on it, that has NOTHING to do with wanting to be a writer and being willing to put in the years of work in quiet solitude/agony. But I understand why you weren’t about to spend more time explaining that to her…)

  17. I liked your honesty. I think this Becky needed to hear out loud, what she already knew to be true. It wasn’t you who were cruel, just the truth.
    As far as your playwriting teachers comment about God writing lousy theatre, I think I have to disagree. If we’re to believe all the horrible acts in the world are the result of an angry God, then I’d say she’s putting on a pretty good show. We all sit around our T.V.’s with bated breath unable to pull ourselves awary from watching the next super storm, natural disaster or killer flu statistics. It’s the humans that screw up the ending. Unless of course you’re an athesist…

    • I am not an atheist. I also don’t believe in an angry God.

      “God writes lousy theatre,” is a reference to how stories in life are rarely wrapped up in the rigid-yet-satisfying three-act structure often found on stage and in films.

      The idea roughwighting suggested in the comment thread above (that I would discover Becky’s name on a book and that said book would be dedicated to little old me) would have tied up my story into a neat, self-contained little bow. Life, of course doesn’t work that way. It is at once more complex and more simple than that.

      So the statement, though mentioning God by name, is not meant to be viewed as religious commentary. It’s a statement about story structure.

      Do forgive me if the remark seemed disrespectful or cavalier. That was certainly not my intention.

  18. Oh yes I know some Becky’s… They think they want to be writers but don’t write… they say it is there passion but don’t do it… I do hope she is an awesome writer now… wherever she is these years later.

  19. It happens. I’m sure everyone has had one of those encounters where you look back and cringe because you know you weren’t as gracious as you could have been. Except me, of course—I’m always dainty and polite. At any rate, even if Becky was upset by what you said, you probably *did* do her a favor in the long run. Maybe it lit a fire under her, or maybe it led her to realize that she *did* like the idea of writing more than the writing itself. A lot of people, I’ve noticed, like the idea of “having written” more than the idea of writing. They’re two very different things, as you know so well. So give yourself a break, my friend!

  20. Thought provoking post Mike, thanks:-) I guess I’m a sandwich critiquer. I do like to start with something positive, and then give some specific technical truths and finish with another slice of nice. As for the fire…it’s definitely been re-awoken here in Rwanda but my writing is asking to be just as ‘whole’ as my critiquing. If I have something tough to write, I’ve got to write it…but I’m not keen on writing tough.

    • I critique that way, too: start out positive, segue to constructive criticism, an end on an upbeat recap of the stuff that I liked. I then close with a “I look forward to reading your rewrite,” which is almost always true.

      So glad to hear that your muse is alive and well in Rwanda. I can’t wait to hear about your trip!

  21. Oh my gosh — for some reason I was glued to every word of this post –I just had to find out what Becky said and what happened. *grins* People are so weird. I hate it when people ask you for advice when they don’t actually want it, and instead they just want you to make them feel better about themselves. I once had a girl tell me she couldn’t afford to read because books were too expensive. I suggested the library and she informed me that she didn’t have a car. I asked her how far her local library was and she said about a mile or two. “Walk,” I said. She shut up.

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  23. I have had similar situations develop after editing work (work I did not ask to edit, naturally) and felt subsequently bad by the sudden disbandment of writing attempts. I dunno…six of one, half a dozen of the other, am I right? You’re honest–and you risk this. You’re not–and you risk losing yourself. A conundrum. .

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