You Are Not Your Story

There are a lot of stories out there that never make it past the first draft. Not because they’re no good – but because the author is having an identity crisis. If you’re afraid of submitting for critique, this article will suggest one of the reasons why you might be having that hesitation, and encourage you to see the situation from a different viewpoint.

Stephan James

Raise your hand if you’ve ever said, of a story you’re thinking of submitting for critique, “What if they don’t like it?” Keep those hands up if that’s the reason your story hasn’t gone past the first draft. No judgment here – my hand is the highest in the room.

Unfortunately, this happens far too often. I’ve seen it plenty of times in both online groups, like here at Critique Circle, or in-person writing groups. People hold back on sharing something they’ve written for the wrong reason. Most of the time they don’t even realize it, either, and they make excuses like “It’s just not quite ready yet” to keep from putting their work out into the world.

The thing is, I don’t think they hold back because they’re afraid that their peers will tell them that the story has flaws. Instead, I suspect they subconsciously believe that their peers will tell them that the writer has flaws.

This happens because it is so incredibly easy to identify with the story.

I get it. You've poured hours and hours and hours into making your work as good as you think it can be. The thing is, when you spend so long at a specific task, it becomes very easy to identify with it. “This is my story and my idea. This is my effort. This represents my skill.”

However, when you merge your personhood with the story, or a script, or a poem, critiques can feel like personal attacks.

Because someone who doesn't know you, doesn't know the time you've put in, doesn't know how much you've tweaked and changed and revised and reordered and scrapped and refined and proofread, just swoops in and says, "Yeah, it doesn't work." And you're devastated. It's as if they said, "You are not a good person for having written this."

How dare they!  Don't they know that this is the best you've ever done? Don't they know this is the thing that will define you and confirm your ingenuity, creativity, and wit to the rest of the world?

Nope. They don't.

The only thing they know is, that your heroine initially wanted to save the prince, but then on page eight her goal somehow changed to wanting to destroy him and they don’t understand why. Or they don’t get why your spacefaring species, which is technologically adept enough to create wormhole drives, somehow can be brought down by an indigenous population with blow darts.

Something just doesn’t work, and that’s all that a critique is. It’s pointing out the parts of the story that need to be better, tighter, clearer.

It’s not a critique of you, the person. It’s not a critique of your effort, your skill, or your passion.

So in order for you to actually fix the problems in the story, you're going to have to find a way to cut the umbilical cord and let the work stand on its own.

You as the author have to step back and distance yourself from the story.

After a couple of times of feeling like they’re coming after you, you start to get defensive. To protect yourself from those perceived attacks, you wrap everything up tight and don't submit anything.

This is a problem, because if you're so tied to what you've written than you can't see the flaws, or are unwilling to change them when they're exposed by the feedback, then you're inhibiting the opportunity to make the thing better.

Ultimately, this is holding your stories back. If you’re not getting critiques because you’re afraid of what those critiques will say, and how that will make you feel about yourself, then your story isn’t going to improve.

This is hard to do. It takes noticing that you are identifying with a story and practice to separate yourself from it. Write a story. Request critiques on it. Remind yourself that the critiques are about the story itself, not about you and your self-worth. Take the critiques with a grain of salt, and change the story. But don't change you! Change the thing- that's what the critique is for. 

Then, when you've made it better, perhaps get a second round of critique and see if you’ve fixed the problems from before. [Frankly, there’s a chance you’ll find some new ones, too. That’s okay.] Let those critiques again be about the story, and only about the story. Revised according to the critiques, keeping in mind that they’re not saying anything about you, and send it out to your target market.

Then start over on the next one. Make another outline. Make another draft. Remind yourself that the story is the story, and you are the author, and that critiques are about the story, not about you. 

Do it again. And again. And again.

And again.

And again.

Eventually, you’ll get there. You will recognize that the story is a thing, separate from you, the writer. Seeing it as a thing apart will allow you to do the work necessary to make it better.

Ultimately resulting in a story that truly is the best it can be.

19+ Comments

1910orange

What if it’s a memoir?

Nov-30 2021

Jimfrost

What if it’s a first account biography?

Nov-30 2021

1910orange

I am not my story–I am Legend

Nov-30 2021

Travalgar

I say, it would be fucking hilarious if someone critiqued my memoir like a work of fiction.

“The main character’s journey is too monotonous. It needs more conflict.”
“I can’t relate with him at all! He’s just too unlikable. I mean, who ran off crying in the middle of a rainy night when a love interest rejects his advances at that age?”

Nov-30 2021

1910orange

what stephan really meant was to make sure things happen in a way that is somewhat relatable. Truth is often stranger than fiction, and if a twist is coming, there needs to be some form of foreshadowing.

Well, I am just being meme.

I consider great story tellers the kind that can even make the most trivial and mundane things meaningful and interesting. Not many can do that. That is why, I often find myself reading meditative novels and watching slice-of-life iyashikei anime. They can even make a simple breeze hold so much meaning to it.

Nov-30 2021

Rawrites

Never underestimate what people do at any age Travalgar. Our vulnerabilities are what make us interesting.

Nov-30 2021

Timark

hahaha, everyone who was ever rejected. cant relate. too funny.

Nov-30 2021

Grutar

I think it what the article is saying can go the other way too. I get absolutely thrilled by any small amount of praise of my writing. I find myself counting down the days until my submission comes up in the queue like I’m counting down to Christmas. I know there will be constructive criticism, but there will also be some praise like a little present waiting for me to open. A bit of perspective can help me there too. CC is not for showing off, it’s for working on improving my skill, which is far from perfect.

The one time I did a crit of a memoir, I used phrasing like “It’s not clear what the narrator is thinking here. Maybe you could expand her thoughts” to add a little distance between narrator and author.

Nov-30 2021

Kezzek

At the same time, sometimes people are actually insulting you and your capabilities as a writer. As writers, we’re all (of an admittedly varying aptitude) able on some level to couch an insult in flowery language. I get that the idea of this post is to create some kind of separation of writer from the written, but the argument laid out here is based on a fairytale idea of what it means to write for a community of writers. Sometimes people are gonna be catty, and competitive. Sometimes people are gonna put each other’s writing down for a quick ego boost. Better to recognize that for what it is than to pretend that everyone is always actually criticizing only the writing. I think it makes it easier to let it slide when you’re interacting with things as they actually are rather than telling yourself a little white lie. But maybe that’s just me.

Nov-30 2021

Luluo

Agreed. I can take criticism because I know it’s someone trying to help me. What I don’t care for is being directly insulted, then having others insinuate it’s because I don’t like criticism. No, dude, I thrive on criticism. I’ve done some of my best work after being told, “this doesn’t work for such-and-such reasons, and I know you can do better.” What I don’t like is being told, “this sucks, and you’ll never do any better.”

Nov-30 2021

Timark

take the punches. they hurt but they instruct.

Nov-30 2021

Travalgar

And since this is the age of social media, a well-placed, well-timed, well-worded, and well-shouted insult can hurt not just your ego, but possibly your book sales and perhaps your entire livelihood as well.

Maintain your persona, writers. You might not survive by solely rolling with the punches today. You have to roll gracefully, too.

Nov-30 2021

James_dash

It’s a good reminder and helps with paralyzing anxiety and self-criticism. If people criticize your work, it doesn’t mean they’re criticizing you as a person.

That said, I wonder how you would classify “fictionalizing” something that really happened to you, something you’ve experienced, or which relates to your experience of life? I am convinced that the line between what is deemed “fiction” and what we call “real life” is blurry at best.

The main difference between a story and real life is that a story has to make sense, whereas real life is random, absurd and follows no such internal logic. If you’re recounting a story that happened to you for real, you’ll likely still formulate in a way that makes sense to your audience, even if the events themselves seem to be deprived of such logic and meaningfulness.

What do you guys think? What is the line between fiction and real life (assuming such distinction exists)?

Nov-30 2021

Marisaw

Did you actually read the article? The message is encapsulated in this section:

"someone … says, “Yeah, it doesn’t work.” And you’re devastated. It’s as if they said, “You are not a good person for having written this.”

it’s about recognising that a criticism of your work is not an insult to you, it’s a criticism of the work. And that applies to memoir as much as fiction.

Nov-30 2021

Timark

not of you but of your efforts. Just when you thought you were getting somewhere, you learned something new.

Nov-30 2021

Jimfrost

:thinking:Aha. Yes. I was… never mind. Happy writing :slightly_smiling_face:

Nov-30 2021

Alhambra

I understand the message of the article, but I can’t agree. Again, it’s just me; it might work perfectly for others.
When critiquers say such and such major things didn’t work for them in the story, they don’t mean its writer is a bad person; but it’s implied (however politely it might be worded) the writer is not that good at their craft. If they were better at it, the story would be as well. There’s no way around it; if the story is really well-written, there will be only praise, likes and some nit-picking.
Occasionally, there might be critiquers, who are not into the genre, so they won’t like the story in general, but it’s a different thing.
It’s like saying that not being able to get a job after thirty interviews is not about you as a person. Okay, but it’s about you as a professional (and sometimes as a person, tbh, but that’s aside), which also sucks.
How to avoid self-worth erosion given the criticism? At least, for me, it’s admitting in advance I’m not that good as a writer and I need feedback in order to improve.
I also know I might not get the job after the interview, but I’d still go there, because (1) maybe I will; (2) even if I’m not, it’s still practice.

Dec-03 2021

Marisaw

But surely there is a massive difference between “you are a bad person” and “you are not that good a writer yet.”

Writing is a skill you have to learn, like any other art form. I dance and play the piano. I have never once felt a teacher was calling me “a bad person” because I made mistakes or didn’t reach a certain level.

Dec-03 2021

Alhambra

Of course, but I don’t think anybody implies in a crit that an author is a bad person.

Dec-03 2021
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