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Do You Mind If I Say Something?

Sometimes, when I have a piece published—fiction or nonfiction or poetry—my first instinct is to send everyone I know a link and to sit back and hope they’ll reply instantaneously and acknowledge the brilliance of the prose (or poetry), to acknowledge that I am a wonderful writer (and person), and that there is no other writer they would rather read in the midst of their busy lives, or that what I have written resonated so deeply with their own experience that they are immensely grateful I have written it. I am still surprised when friends and family comment on what I have published in a negative way. Often, they will ask if I mind if they say something—a rhetorical question—though what this something is may be hurtful, insensitive or intrusive. Or they will praise the piece beyond its worth insincerely and then offer an interpretation of the deep subconscious meaning of the story based on what they know of my struggles and biography. This, I find, many people do with relish. Indeed, I do it myself with authors I read and don’t know because I love to read biographies of writers. But I don’t do it with writer friends I know. I leave that analysis to the pundits of future generations.

Recently, when I had a mildly autobiographical short story published in a worthy online magazine, I sent it round to friends and family and sat back and waited for the adoration and adulation I deserve. A few people said they enjoyed the story and that it was well written. Of course, I already knew that; it had been accepted for publication. One or two mentioned a typo or two or a more serious punctuation snafu. These comments were nitpicky and unhelpful. No writer requires correction after a piece has been published. What are people trying to say to me with these nitpicky comments? I am not sure but I think, in some way, I have made them uneasy and the nitpicky comments are a cover. If they have more courage, they will make comments about the underlying unconscious treasure trove from which the story was surely born. Even the literary nonfiction and journalism I write invites such comments. All this, after publication. I never show friends and family a draft in development. Their unfettered editorial voices might stop me cold.

I am always a bit stunned when a student begins a sentence with, “I read this draft to my boyfriend on the phone last night,” or “I showed it to my mother.” Albeit, there are many writing couples who share their work and are able to critique one another’s work—Nicole Krauss and Jonathan Safran Foer come to mind—but that kind of relationship is rare.

It’s not that the people close to us, people in our lives, can’t be supportive, encouraging and nurturing of our efforts. It’s that they are too close, they are usually not writers, and they cannot help us develop the potential in our work. Or they may be writers but cannot see the work—your work—as separate from your biography. That is why every writer requires readers and, later, editors. And these readers have to be other writers or readers who are not familiar with our biography. The work has to stand on its own so that we can study it and revise it well on our own.

So, when a piece is done and I’ve sent it round, what do I want from my close circle of family friends? What is fair to expect? Truly, I don’t know. Yet, I keep sending my published work to family and friends most of the time. And then sometimes I don’t, for all the reasons iterated above.

I am reminded of an anecdote about Georgia O’Keeffe. Tired of the barrage of analysis about her paintings of flowers—they were often compared to vaginas—she shifted to skulls.

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