This post is the second in a two-part series written by Trayle Kulshan (read the first post here). Trayle recently finished her memoir, “Revolutions”: 99 lyrical, 99-word stories from her travels as an aid worker. You can find it on Amazon and read samples on her website.
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A single page at the end of my book spells out “Gratitude,” but the generosity of strangers, of women, of friends cannot be contained on a page. I asked for a lot of help. And I got it. And it made me a better writer and a better person.
Asking for and getting feedback on my book was a way of making connections with people and building a community around myself when I was feeling lonely and isolated. I’d moved to a new city, I was a new mommy, I was not working, and I missed “my people.” Connecting with like-minded artsy-fartsy folks kept me sane. So while feedback served an important role for my book, it also played a bigger role in my life. The feedback mechanisms I talk about here don’t have to be used for a project. They can just be used.
My previous post may not have made it explicit, but as someone who was very insecure and has trouble making decisions, feedback was priceless to me. It helped me figure out exactly what it was I was trying to create. I wanted to publish and I wanted magic. I needed help.
Feedback wasn’t about making me more confident, it was aboutmaking sure I’d thought of everything. I’m very iterative, I like to try lots of things, I like to compare things. Again: What mattered. What didn’t. Feedback is essential to revision, and revision is essential – no matter how beautiful a writer you are, you need to revise. Feedback helps keep that revision process objective.
To that end, I sought feedback everywhere I could: from total and utter online strangers, from online strangers with whom I had a connection, from paid professionals, and, of course, from friends.
Strangers offer a voyeur’s eye, someone outside your context, someone who has not been briefed.
You can find strangers in online writing forums where you critique others work in exchange for them critiquing yours. People in these groups are supportive, but critical. There are good admins (so no nasties), and feedback is well-directed through simple forms and prompts. In a word: they are professional, but for amateurs. I loved Scribophile, but there are others. I chose Scribophile because it was free, it has lots of groups, and it was recommended by a writer friend.
I really appreciated the variety of eyes that read my words: “I’m into erotica, so this was outside of my genre, but I enjoyed this poem about goats because of the strong imagery. I think you could strengthen the connection between the opening and closing lines.”
I also learned a lot from critiquing others. Critiquing others helps you be objective when self-critiquing and revising. It is a skill that has to be built, like a muscle. I learned what I did not enjoy reading (cliché and sentimental), but it also made me see value in these pieces, which showed me that others (who might hate my style) could still find value there. (Or not, and that was okay too.)
You know how in humanitarian projects there’s always a “community contribution” to encourage ownership? Well that concept is pretty universal, which brings me to the next level of feedback: paid, online, writing groups. Being a paid group, we were all committed to each other and encouraged by a professional facilitator. This helped me to develop a consistent writing practice. I produced content. I wrote every day. This was the only way I could have honed the 99-word story form.
Find what fits you: I chose to join a group for women working on long-term projects. I received valuable feedback on larger sections of the book, often chapters at a time. Because we were like-minded folks (not erotica lovers), this was a space to be encouraged and develop confidence. I needed that too. I needed someone to tell me it was good enough. To tell me “Fuck yeah, do it.”
Related to this, I also invested in working with a professional writing coach, which was key to me as an amateur writer. They read your work, ask you questions, and give homework to make your work better. One of the most important questions.my coach, Jena Schwartz, made me answer was, “Who is your audience?”
I imagined who might pick up my book inside a cozy bookstore: An American woman who might not have had the opportunity to travel, who needs a little shock out of her wisteria garden, who has never gone barefoot. A high school student who writes dark poetry, a girl, who might be shy and insecure and wear weird clothes even though she’s trying to be cool. Iggy Pop, no shirt, leather pants, normally loud but pausing quietly to appreciate the brevity of my work (I heard he’s into short things) and then gets loud again, to make my book go viral.
And of course, Oprah was going to read it and be blown away.
Friends and family were valuable, but also challenging and complicated. I’m still not sure why.
I have several friends who gave multiple reads and feedback, whose words (and some art) remain in the book. They are folks who know me, who didn’t know all the story, but who I could trust to know it before I shared it with everyone. I cannot give enough gratitude to these people. When you write your book, you will find these people too.
I also have several friends who made off-handed comments that shaped the book: “You should try flash-fiction” (leading to my 99-word obsession) or “I have no idea what you are talking about” (leading me to having a “Context” piece in each chapter and working hard to make connections explicit, but not too explicit).
It was also strange. Some close people seemed to shy away. Maybe they didn’t know what to say or were embarrassed or just didn’t have time. At first, I took this personally (ego alert!), but learned to respect it. My husband is the best example: I wanted his feedback because I discussed his family. (Actually, I wanted his approval.) It sat on his bedside table for a long time, and I was frustrated with him for not getting into “my art” (ego alert!). All he said was that it was fine. And that was all that mattered.
I’ve presented my writing process (or something of the sort) in a fairly linear manner. This is not representative of reality. It was iterative. It was messy. It was all happening at the same time. It was emergent. It was fun. It was a privilege.
I can’t say that enough: writing a book is a privilege. Creativity is a privilege. That’s why, if you’re thinking about it, you should do it. You should tell a story. If you’re privileged enough to have access to a computer and adventures, that is enough reason. It is a selfish act, but selfish is okay. It helps us grow and understand ourselves and to understand each other. And it’s fun.