heartburn, and the digestion of feedback

Kurt Vonnegut
This post is 4 years old.

Question: how do I know if what I’ve written is any good?

The short answer: you don’t.

Say you write a short story about your Uncle Max and his shoplifting habit. You work a long time on the story, and now you believe it’s done. It’s as good as you can make it.

You print off a couple copies and you give them to people to read. The range of responses you get is astounding:

Your mom wonders if Uncle Max will be offended; Uncle Max wants to know if your mother will be embarrassed;

Your best friend says, you know, I really like where you’re going with this.

Your best friend doesn’t think it’s done. Should you sit down and start revising? You show it to a wider range of people. Your friend Janet who has some short stories in print says: You know I just can’t get into first person narratives. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. Your coworker says: wow, where do you get the time to write? Your boss says, When DID you get the time, and: I liked the bit about the dog.*  You find a writing workshop, where other people are working on short stories or novels. After a couple meetings it’s your turn so you submit Uncle Max. The range of the feedback is confusing:

You have a good eye for detail.

I liked the way you built tension around the police interview.

There’s a certain raymond carver feel to this, were you reading him while you wrote?

On the way out the door a woman who writes obituaries for the paper says: I really liked the scene with the dog.

So you put the story away for a month, and then you take it out and read it again. You remember the rule of thumb: if one person makes a specific criticism, take note but don’t do any editing. If two people dislike the same scene, make another note. Three people have exactly the same problem with your story? Get out your pencil.

You come to the conclusion that the bit about the dog is good. In fact, it’s the only thing that works at all. So you delete everything but the scene about the dog, and start from there.

This cycle could repeat itself a hundred, a thousand times. At some point you have to trust your own instincts and send the story out to magazines and journals. That process may go on for years, too, and mostly you’ll get photocopied no thanks letters, but every once in a while you’ll get something encouraging and insightful. For example: The story about your uncle’s dog was funny and moving, and I liked it very much. But it’s not right for us here at Mechanics Today.

So you got a little stamp happy, sending the manuscript out. It was worth it for this note. And you’ve learned something: only submit to places that like the kind of story you’ve written.

I once went to a reading by Charlie Baxter at the Shaman Drug bookstore in Ann Arbor. I haven’t been in touch with Charlie for a long time, but at that juncture we were acquaintances, I guess you’d say. So I went up to talk to him before the reading and he was standing there with a copy of his just-published short stories in his hand, and he was making changes. In ink. I was shocked. Um, I said… um, now? Right now?

And he said: it’s always right now.

So people reading along silently as he read aloud were stymied now and then. I saw one of them check the edition and printing information, but of course nobody would interrupt a reading to ask if he really meant small? because on the printed page it said asked. Nobody put this question to him, because it was his story. His story, his call. However. The only writer I know of who actually revised a lot of stories and then published them again is Louise Erdrich. It was an odd move, and much discussed at the time.

So how do you know if you’ve gone over the top, or if the story is any good, or if the scene works? You want to know when you are done. Here’s the answer. Some clever writer (does anyone know who?) put it in plain words:

It’s all a draft until you die.

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