Monday, October 06, 2008

Do you STILL expect your partner to read your drafts?

"I'm so disappointed," said Clarinda. She flopped down in the seat across from me at the coffee shop, looking dejected.

My raised eyebrow asked her to go on, and she proceeded to pour forth a litany about how her fiancé the engineer wasn't sufficiently interested in reading her manuscripts. "He makes every excuse," she wailed. "He's riveted when it's something ridiculous on television, but all I ask him for is an hour or two once in a while to comment on a chapter, and . . ."

I waited while she went on, and on, and on about his general failings. Worse, she said, the last time he actually did sit down and read something of hers, he tore it apart. Why, she almost thought he was jealous. Of a silly book!

If you are like the majority of us, then the loved ones in your life (spouse, partner, children, parents, friends, extended relations, even fellow scholars in your department) can be the absolute worst choices to read your unpublished work. Don't be surprised if, along with perfectly natural jealousy, you also encounter large-though-perhaps-artfully disguised doses ignorance and fear.

Poets report to me that their sisters read their drafts and pronounce them "dirty," following that up with a warning that publication could potentially embarrass their parents. Novelists wail about how mothers or fathers stop halfway and say the book would be much more interesting if it resembled the work of Mitch Albom, John Grisham, or Mary Higgins Clark. Scholars kvetch that their spouses seem more interested in slowing them down than helping them get ahead ("Don't you think you need to go to Russia before you can write something about these Russian authors?" "Why not put this away for a few years and work on something else?" or "Isn't this really something an expert should write?").

After years of hearing about these subtle put-downs, frenemy comments, undermining attitudes and general lack of literary support coming from the very people that my authors wish would form their core fan base, I have adopted a firm position. None of us has satisfactory colleagues. We all come from cretinous dog-packs that barely pass as human families. Each of our worthless, self-absorbed friends fails to meet the mark. This is true for every last one of us! That's why we need to seek our support elsewhere (and it's also part of why this office exists).

So please, everyone who has been living in disappointment that the lawyer you want to marry doesn't do a very good job of reading your work, lay down your arms. Form or join a support group of fellow writers instead, preferably ones who do not live with you, compete with you, or have to see you at family get-togethers (i.e. readers outside of your department, or better yet not even on your campus!). Populate it with folks of similar accomplishment and goals, and set some ground rules about who reads how much how often, and precisely how feedback is to be offered.

The sooner you get your loved ones off of the hot seat where they never belonged in the first place, the happier (I promise) everyone will be.

PS: This also goes for those who think their partners want to read their work. One time out of ten this is correct. The other nine times those longsuffering folks will almost weep with relief if the author seeks pre-publication feedback elsewhere.

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