Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Memories Of The Nursery

I returned to my in-person critique group on Monday night. It is a community group, open to anyone, and it meets in a bookstore twice a month.

I'd been away for a while--for two reasons. First, I was busy marketing Bad Girl and, second, erotic romance is an inappropriate genre to read out loud in a bookstore. However, since I'm working on a paranormal, I decided to go back.

There were about fifteen people in attendance, four whom I'd not met before. I was introduced to a woman who had written a short story. She's a talented writer, and I'll look forward to hearing more of her work.

Perhaps it was because there were so many new people, perhaps it was because I had been away for a while and was seeing the group with fresh eyes . . . no matter what the reason . . . I found myself reflecting on the hope and bravery embodied in a community writers' group.

It takes enormous courage to join a group of strangers and share your manuscript. I am not at all nervy about speaking in a group or about meeting strangers. However, walking into that group four years ago took everything I had. To sit down among people I didn't know and read my work out loud while shoppers milled around the circle was terrifying. Never mind that those strangers were then invited to share their thoughts on what I'd written.

Looking back, that first reading was both a rite of passage and a covenant of sorts. I had committed to the pursuit and, to mark that commitment, I stood naked in front of the world and declared my intentions. My fear was only matched by my hope.

I learned a lot in that group. I learned to beware of people who attacked me instead of my words. I learned to beware of takers: those who wanted critiques, but who didn't reciprocate. I learned to avoid the narcissists, who regard their work as perfect and anyone who suggests otherwise as the enemy.

I learned "to take it" as my father used to counsel my brothers--to listen to harsh critiques, yet not take them personally. It was about the words, not about me. Contrary to what my heart told me, my work was not me. I found my first small measure of professional distance about my writing in that group.

I learned to give positive feedback as well as negative. I learned to support others as I hoped to be supported. I learned to celebrate my friends' successes and to derive from those successes the hope I needed in order to stay optimistic.

I learned, and I grew.

One of my favorite children's stories is The Velveteen Rabbit. I did not read it as a child. I was an adult trying to cope with disappointment when I first encountered it.

The Velveteen Rabbit is a new toy that is given to a boy for Christmas. Being new and inexperienced, he is shy among the other toys. The only toy that is kind to him is the Skin Horse, the oldest plaything in the nursery.

"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender . . . "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

"I suppose you are real?" said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.

"The Boy's Uncle made me Real," he said. "That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always."


Jen FitzGerald said...

Oh, Maya, that was a wonderful excerpt, and brought tears to my eyes. For you see, I do have my own Velveteen Rabbit/Stick Horse--literally. A neon-green stuffed bunny I received for Easter when I was about three. I loved that thing to death. Both ears have fallen out on multiple occasions, and dutifully sewn back in. First by my mom, and then by me when I knew how to sew. Both eyes have fallen out at one point or another and been glued back in. I even lost Green Bunny once. And a sad day that was. I was far from home, and inconsolable. The friends I was with tried replacing Green Bunny with a stuffed monkey, but there was no way it was going to replace Green Bunny in my heart. And you can imagine my joy when Green Bunny was spotted in the neighbors yard a few days later. My dear friend, Tina, braved a tall fence and three large dogs to save Green Bunny from a fate worse than stuffed animal death. And as you can probably imagine from that point forward, Green Bunny was left safely at home. Because some things are just irreplaceable! And I have Green Bunny to this day, safely packed away in a box. And just perhaps I need to dig him out of that box and love him again.

Jen FitzGerald

John Arkwright said...

As an academic type I find that I have a lot of distance between myself and my work. I have not agreed with everything that each reader has said, but I often learn from readers and revise.

I want the research at its best before the editor and reviewers see it. And I realize that if two readers who should be able to follow the research are lost, that I have done something wrong.

I generally find that people who read my research appreciate it more than the reviewers. Readers appreciate when the writer simplifies. But if the research is easily understood, some reviewers think that it is too simpleminded to be any good.

Maya Reynolds said...

Jen: Lovely story

Maya Reynolds said...

John: Most of us DO have professional distance in our profession. I'd written academically for years without the sense of nervousness I had with my first fiction manuscript.