Thursday, 6 July 2017

Back to the Yoga Mat, Back to the Desk: On Going Deeper

Dave and me in Guatemala, at about the time of the 
"I like you" incident.
(If only we could have kept our eyes open!)
12 or 13 years ago, when we lived in Guatemala and worked in the same building, my husband Dave was working on a piece of writing. He does this every day of his life -- literally: Dave is a writing machine -- so why does this one instance stand out in my memory?

His work that day must have been short and not too biblically specific,* because he brought a draft of it down to my office and asked, "What do you think of this?" I ran my eye over the page. I don't remember what my problem was, exactly, with what he had written, but I looked up from my desk and said to him, "Well, I like you."

Dave had the good grace to laugh at this response. I laughed, too, once I heard how it sounded. It's since become a catchphrase, whenever one of us asks the other for feedback on a perhaps questionable idea.

("Do you think we should adopt a cat?" or "What do you think of putting just one more houseplant in this room?" Answer: "Well, I like you.")

Some might say that we have enough
houseplants already.
It's hard to give criticism to someone you love. It's hard to give criticism, period. (I mean criticism in the positive sense of the word. I mean giving feedback, with the goal of helping someone else improve or perfect the thing they are trying to do). Maybe the reason criticism is so hard to give is that most of us know how hard it is to receive.

In recent years, I've become quite passionate -- some might say, obsessive -- about a pair of activities that I see as inherently linked, in part because they both depend to a fair extent on receiving and working with another person's critique. I'm talking about yoga and writing.

In yoga, outside critique comes in the form of getting adjustments from your instructor. In writing, it's about asking other writers to make suggestions on how to improve your story. Necessary though it is to one's overall practice of yoga or story-writing, many people in both fields actively fear or dislike the critique.

I know some yogis who flinch whenever the instructor steps over to them. They freeze up; they think, Oh God, what am I not doing right? What mistake has this instructor just seen me make? Or they think: The teacher never adjusts Person X over there. Person X must be so much better at yoga than me.

Similarly, I know some writers who approach the writing workshop** -- the process by which a writer shows her work to others and receives feedback on it -- with unmitigated dread. With the feeling, almost, of seeing your own darling child (the story you've labored over so long!) attacked in front of your eyes.

Who am I kidding? I have been that fearful yogi, that insecure writer. I still am them, on given days.

The critiques in a writing workshop, as with a yoga instructor's adjustments, are meant to be helpful, of course. They're meant to help you see what you cannot see on your own, so that you can go back to the work and re-enter it more mindfully. Why, then, do we often experience such criticism as threatening? Why do we often receive an adjustment, or a suggestion for the story we've written, with a sinking heart? Oh my God, I knew it. I knew it. I'm really no good at this.

Writing and yoga both involve a quality of putting yourself out there -- of being seen. What is workshop feedback, or a yoga instructor's adjustment, but a direct outcome of someone else seeing you -- seeing your work? Perhaps it's not the first thing you think of. Writing is, after all, a mostly solitary activity. To do it, you almost have to be alone, and silent, and deeply focused. In yoga, too, the emphasis is on going inward -- on focusing on how your body feels in each posture, or on how each posture feels in your body.

In other words, in both writing and yoga, you're trying to do this thing that feels simultaneously very challenging and very important. Okay, at least that is how I experience these practices. I've been writing seriously for over 10 years, and doing yoga with an increasing sense of commitment for about half as long. I've already given myself -- a fair bit of myself -- to this work. I've put considerable time and effort toward doing these things with as much skill and understanding as possible, and I feel some ownership in them. At some deep-down, largely unspoken, cellular level I really don't want anyone else to fuck with my work. I am -- yes, sometimes -- afraid of being seen

As I've mentioned previously in this blog, I've been working for the past 2 years on my first full-length novel.***  It's been through 4 full-length drafts and has been critiqued by various fellow writers on several occasions. At times, with this novel, I feel like I'm living in it.

Almost exactly 1 year ago,
when I'd finished my first
full-length draft.
Part I of the novel -- approximately the first third -- is, I think, actually finished or nearly so. Recently I've been feeling good enough about it, and getting enough positive feedback on it, that I began to cherish the hope that I was almost done with the whole thing. Last month, I bashed through what I thought was a final draft of Part II. Yeah, baby! I thought. In another month now, the whole book should be done done done!

Dave had read Part I for me already and had liked it a lot. (Thank you, Dave.) Last week, I gave him my new draft of Part II. He read it while I was out of the house (doing some yoga, no doubt) and when I came back, I said, "So?"

Dave did not exactly say, "Well, I like you," but his response was not far from it.

It's too slow, he said in essence. You lost some of the tension you'd built in Part I. You got caught up in a story line that's not really essential. You need more scenes with these characters who cause the conflict, and less of this background building.

Oogh. Oogh and oogh and oogh.

You know that feeling when someone tells you exactly what you do not want to hear but you know at the same time it's right? I had to lie down on our living room floor for a minute.

"Honey, I'm sorry. Honey, are you okay?" Dave said, hovering over me.

"I'm okay," I said from the carpet. "Don't be sorry. I'm pretty sure you are right."

"Yes, but your voice has gone all flat like it does when you're sad," Dave said.

It had. I knew it had, because it felt like a boulder had crashed onto my chest, which would flatten out anyone's voice, wouldn't it? But I tried to tell him I'd be okay. "I don't want you to think I'm not grateful," I said. "I really am. I need to hear this. It's just that I can see how much work I still have to do, and I was really hoping I didn't."

The good news is that I did get up off the floor, after 10 minutes or so of pure wallowing. I didn't try to write anything more on that day. I had a glass of red wine instead and watched an episode of The Handmaid's Tale. (There's some good writing! Both the novel and the new TV series, in case you haven't read or seen them yet.) Gradually, over the next day or 2, I worked through my disappointment over how much more work I must do. I made some new plans. I outlined an 8-step process by which I will now get the last 2/3 of this novel into better shape. I can do each step individually -- it's the only way -- and each step should take between 1 full day and perhaps a few weeks. One step at a time, the work is not too overwhelming.

This new writing work is about going deeper into my practice, as the yogis say. You go deeper by hitting an obstacle but finding your way through it, simply by coming back to it and trying it again -- ideally with someone to guide you. A yoga teacher, for example. Or a fellow dedicated reader and writer, who will think through the obstacle with you, or even help you come up with a new approach.

The new 8-step plan for revision,
on the wall over my desk.
Going deeper cannot be rushed. In my yoga practice, for example, I cannot get my knee completely behind my shoulder yet, no matter how hard I try. I have confidence that I may be able to do this one day, but it will take months and probably years of returning to my yoga mat almost daily -- asking my body to move into this posture as much as it can, again and again, teaching it to go farther. It happens in increments. It happens only if you try again and again -- if you practice regularly.

Yoga is serious work. Writing is serious work. They are both disciplines of the mind and the body, and dare I say, soul.**** But you cannot, or I cannot, practice them in a vacuum. I need outside eyes, other hands.

* Much of Dave's academic writing is too specialized for me (or 99% of the world's population) to understand very well.

** The workshop format is commonly used at writers' conferences and in Creative Writing MFA programs.

*** I did write 2 novels when I was a kid. I don't think they really count. And I do have a novella -- a shorter book -- coming out this fall, hallelujah and FYI. (But no full-length novels. Not yet.)

**** Yes, writing is a discipline of the body. Just ask anyone who's tried to physically stay at her writing desk every day for a given number of hours