Writing may start in a solitary space but it cannot remain there and thrive. As with all creative endeavors it begs for community. And let’s face it, living is a creative adventure, so the need for community is not limited to Writers or Artist. It was L'Engle who said that the Artist can never be a good judge of their own work. The Artist may think great what is merely average. In the same vain, she can perceive as awful what is in fact a masterpiece. So when another Writer asked if I was interested in a Writer's Workshop of sorts, an informal gathering of Storytellers, I said “yes” with all the eagerness of a man thirsty in a desert offered a glass of water. For though I live in a town that has one of the highest educated populations per capita, it is oddly lacking in a serious writing community. In this group I discover there is something shaping, humbling, and igniting that happens when people from all kinds of backgrounds come together to explore a common fire.
We meet in an Irish pub that, back in college, was the same place a few of my professors would meet with students to carry the classroom discussion into a less formal space. There must be a draw about pubs that facilitates creative endeavors. Just ask the Inklings, that gang of scholars and Writers that fueled the Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Chronicles of Narnia, to name a few. I have my own version of catalytic space among these great writers with whom I meet every few weeks to critique each other’s latest works.
From the first pint we each expressed a longing for true criticism – the kind that is willing to punch you in the face when needed, but also is right there to catch your head from falling after the blow. We all have people that will tell us some piece of work is great. These plaudits most often come not so much from an appreciation of the actual material as an authentic appreciation for who we are. If we are lucky and blessed we are loved well because we are loved with eyes or ears that see past the often harsher story we tell ourselves, even when it comes to our writing. (See, that L’Engle was on to something.) But we also need peers in our field that will call a spade a spade and be kind enough to say this or that piece of work, no matter how much effort was put into it, is rubbish. Most of the time it is somewhere in the middle – gold covered in rubbish – and a good critique will help determine what is gold and what is for the garbage bin.
An aspect of life that I have had to reawaken as I engage this group has to do with listening. If each of us comes to the table with our critiques of a certain piece, and all just said what we thought and leave, then we would rob each other of something richer. Listening to how others read the story - what they found significant or irrelevant or needs work – offers new ways of seeing that I miss from my own perspective while also affirming those things I might second-guess. I find, too, that when it comes time to offer my own critique I am more inclined to speak in such a way as to be heard. It’s a speaking that is more thoughtful even if it needs to be critical. It is not always what you say but how you say it… otherwise, we probably wouldn’t listen to most of what’s good for us.
When it came time for my own writing to fall under the heat lamp of critique, the thing that was most centrally criticized was the thing I’ve known all along: though I do a good job in describing settings and others characters, there is so little offered of me.
Holding back is an art form that I mastered in some bent early child hood way. There is propriety that says one could use to hold back out of kindness and courtesy. There is a Southern kindness that applauds keeping one's cards close; never let them see you sweat, never burden another with who you are - as if who you are is something less than the small facades we offer each other every day. This can be the kind of holding back that is more like robbery; the kind that steals from others the chance to receive the best of who we are, who we are created to be.
As with any creative endeavor, the result is always influenced by who the Artist is, what the Artist pours into it. In my case, my Writing isn’t what it could be because I am holding back the waters of who I am, pouring so little of the uncomfortable raw self into the work. It was a humbling reality to discover that which I struggle with in my non-writing life had seeped its way into this realm. I shouldn’t be surprised. As a Photographer I know the heart of the shooter most poignantly shapes the picture caught through the lens. And so it is no different in the words I write. Could it be that a Writer is only as good as they are willing to lay out the vulnerable and uncertain, letting the reader into some sacred space that is frightfully awesome?
How would I have known that a key thing lacking in my creative work was actually the best part of me if I had not been so kindly shown that mirror by my peers? The idea of community is something about which the greater “We” talks addendum with very little full engagement in the reality of community. Each of us knows we need it. Each of us, consciously and often unconsciously seeks it out. Why else would so many coffee shops stay in business? But how many of us actually step into the rich mess that comes with listening openly, speaking intentionally, and offering up our most precious creative selves?
The Jewish Proverb, “Iron sharpens iron, so it is with one another,” isn’t just some abstract spiritual wisdom. It is based in practical realities of metallic properties. Though many use stones to sharpen a knife, it is often two pieces of metal that give an edge the ability to cut with hair-thin precision. The trick of it is, the two pieces must be close enough together to make contact. Regardless of the sphere of community, we have to get close enough, vulnerable enough to feel the strike of another’s medal.**
**And that is not a typo.