Friday, 4 July 2008


(Part of getting to know my own processes, and recording them, as necessary for the course later in the year).

It is both interesting (mildly), frustrating (very) and unexpectedly damaging (to me and my writing process) to have debate with and occasional feedback from a writer with little or no imagination. But also watching the onslaught on other writers, its taking its toll.

Everything I have written has elements that can only be described as gifts from somewhere I have no control over, a joyous well that bubbles up with images, connections... wacky, crazy, poignant, original. And it's those that have got my work noticed, in addition to the voices, the craft stuff.

In the end, we have to work with those who at least understand what we're doing, and who give straight feedback on the work itself. Too much of the opposite eats away after a while, like acid on a stone.

Of course, if the writer doesn't create a work that makes the reader 'believe' what is happening, that is another matter. If the character isn't solid, if the voice is out, the language not appropriate, that is one thing.

But if a reader, intelligent, well informed, well read, feeds back time after time that no person ever does this. Or feels this. Or could possibly do a, b, c... and does it in a way that is laden with sarcasm... it builds up and has an effect.

There is a Workhouse inmate like this. Great, articulate, clever, amusing... but also unwilling to exactly say where he is published. Playing games. Keeping team mates dangling. And in the end, it becomes all about the person, and not about the contribution they make to the team.

I feel crunch time approaching, and maybe it is a good thing. I need to work harder at the novel. Breakthrough of sorts in passing 50K last week.


I am finding that his voice has become a parrot on my shoulder. Instead of thinking 'Oh this is such FUN writing this...' I'm going through a patch of hearing his voice: 'This wouldn't happen. Rubbish. Oh wow, you can't write that. No person ever ever could do that. This is crap writing...don't even edit. Bin it...'

Yes, its weak. Yes, I shouldn't let it through. I know all that.

But it does have an unexpectedly deep effect on what I'm doing. In an interview for Eclectica, due up later this month, I was asked if the Glass Bubble in the title story of my collection is representative of my writing in any way. And of course, yes, it is. It's where everything comes from. And sadly, I am finding out how fragile it is. How easily shattered.

And there is no way on this planet I could put what I'm writing now on my own place for feedback. And that is just crazy!! So I'm putting up poetry, and I am happy knowing I'm just 'crawling' in the running race with that. I seem to have reversed the 'caring about negative feedback' processes here. Usually we tend to get stronger, don't we? Or maybe its just this a passing thing. We'll see.

But also, its happening at a time when I know I desperately need to take a back seat anyway.


Sarah Hilary said...

It's such a difficult thing, isn't it? Getting that balance right between believing in your own writing and yet not becoming arrogant, allowing room for criticism. The trouble is critics can get it wrong, do get it wrong, often. But because we're taught (and self-taught) to listen, because we place value on the special connection between writer and reader - the receptive quality of what we do - we cannot shut our ears to anyone, even when we suspect (or know) they are wrong. This is what I was getting at recently on my blog when I described a writer's ego as both ferocious and frangible. We NEED to believe in ourselves but we also need to know we're connecting. If even one critic puts a hammer to that, it all falls down. All I can really say is think how many people ARE receptive to your writing. I quite understand that you cannot knock this parrot off your shoulder right now, but try and put him in his place - mentally - against all the songbirds on your other shoulder who have told you - and will tell you - how your writing moves and touches them. It's not just that your imagination is stronger than the parrot's. There is also the matter of your experience, the lives you've known and observed and shared. Perhaps the parrot needs to get out of his cage a little more, see something of the world. Then he will see how real your characters are, and how believable.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

yep, sure is difficult.

Golly, I know a writer can't possibly please everyone, and I know my writing can't please anyone who is only interested in correct verifiable everyday minutiae. I don't do that stuff, never have.

I've been surprised at the cumulative negative build up, and how it's ever-present now when I write. I think much of it is caring about the effect of this on other writers in the team, when really, they are all grown up people and can look after themselves!

Jo said...


it seems to me that if it can be imagined, so it can be done - when it comes to people. i have had people say the same to me but i think that is their issue - not ours.


Vanessa Gebbie said...

It is, except when it becomes ours whether we like it or not!

Jo said...

it's not your fault if yo have a brilliany imagination and they don't. let them bang on about how much they know, if it makes them feel better - bloody backseat writers!

Vanessa Gebbie said...

There's all aorts of writers, all sorts of readers. Those who want detailed, realist sceanrios, those who want imagination to fly.

Ive just come to the point where I don't want ascerbic feedback from t'other sort. Craft based, analytic, ... fine. But contempt because a reader doesn't 'like'... is useless, for both of us.

Douglas Bruton said...

This made me sad, what you wrote... really sad. FW is a rich and vibrant place and that has to be part of what you have done here, and I consider it a great gift that you allowed me to be part of this. And to see how much you give to everyone there, the encouragement and the support that moves them all forward... it is sad that you feel pushed to leave by this parrot that has taken up residence on your shoulder.

And that you feel for the damage he is doing to others, too. This only testifies to your generous heart. And maybe all of what I am saying is too slushy for a blog, but V, you do good things in the world and on FW, and so many of us appreciate what you are.


Vanessa Gebbie said...

You be slushy, D. I need that at the moment. Bless you.

Maybe we dip in and out of feeling strong about what we are doing? I just know I don't feel like that at the mo. Something happened last week, some sort of breakthrough, I found myself scribbling like fury, 'talking to' the character who decided to break through and talk to me.

In a bloody garage where the car was being services.

Ahem. So will keep a seat right at the back, where I can slip in and out without people noticing. Between vists to the psychiatrist!

Sarah Hilary said...

I second what Douglas says about your generosity deserving a better reward, although I know you're not looking for one. I've had some weird (and wonderful) experiences writing with online groups. I mean REALLY weird (and really wonderful). One for the long car journey on Sunday, I expect. What I will say is that I think there is a certain type of online "contributor" (often referred to as a "troll") who participates with the specific goal of messing with people's heads. It's part power-trip, part unintentional laziness or lack of etiquette because he/she is online. I know perfectly polite and smart people who wouldn't dream, for instance, in not thanking in real life those who have helped them in however small a way. But put these same people online and they go cyber-space crazy, batting at every ball in sight and generally behaving like kids in a crowded playground. There's a novel in here (and I'm writing it!). Take heart, and maybe take a break from being online at least while the tricky next leg of the novel is underway?

Douglas Bruton said...

You and a psychiatrist... thought I was supposed to be the one on the edge of madness!

Keep talking to theose characters in your head. But watch out for the men in white coats (and I don't mean Peter Stringfellow!).


Vanessa Gebbie said...

Re trolls... I've met a few of those! I wonder if boredom/a lack of self esteem is the issue.
Sounds like we have plenty to talk about in the car. Look forward to Sunday!

Ossian said...

It sounds like you may have outgrown the workshopping process. Many writers say that it's fatal to discuss work in progress before a first draft is finished anyway.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Funny you should say that. I've never understood that before, and was thinking that if you are in a 'safe' group, then feedback was an essential part of the process.

But since my damascene conversion in the garage last week... I may just be thinking differently. And anyway, 'safe' isn't always constant.

Ossian said...

Stephen King has a very good take on this in his book On Writing, he says that he writes the first draft of his books "with the door closed" and he writes it "to tell the story to himself". He does this literally with the door closed. (He also describes the process in a number of good metaphors, for example as unearthing something buried.) He writes subsequent drafts with the door open - literally, his wife is there and he takes her opinions. The second draft is done "to tell the story to other people". So it's a great metaphor, I think, telling the story to oneself first, almost like tuning into to a faint short wave radio and transcribing something from Mars, then rushing out and telling everybody what you've heard. (I'm getting carried away now.)

Ossian said...

It also fits in with Anne Lamott's theory in her book "Bird by Bird" about giving oneself permission to write (in her words) "a shitty first draft". "Nobody is ever going to read your first draft," she says. One of her great breakthroughs was giving herself permission to write shitty first drafts. Perfectionism is the enemy before a first draft is finished, so the question becomes: what is the point of workshopping part way through a first draft?

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Yup, I can see the analogies work, and sound eminently sensible. Steady on there... I'll send round a cool beverage...

Apart from the spouse thing. My husband blessim, does not 'do fiction'. This is probably why we are still together. If he reads something of mine it is a)by accident, b)like watching someone deciphering runes, c)unhelpful apart from the bit where he says 'it's really good'.(!)

If I say why? He goes all glazed.

Douglas Bruton said...

Sometimes my stories only for me, and the struggle is making them over into something for others to wonder at. And sometimes finding that others don't share an ounce of the wonder and back to the metaphorical drawing board... or sometimes straight to trash.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

If there is something that 'you' wonder at, a wee bit of magic, in the first draft... please don't bin them. I know some feedback says do that... I think that is v wrong.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Hi Os

re "no one is ever going to read through your first draft..." well, other than the team on the M Phil, in my case. And that's quite a scary prospect.
I have to get this thing done before September. Preferably a wee bit polished!

Julia Bohanna said...

Vanessa, I have come to this very late but I am also distressed (and distressed is the right word - although it might sound strong) that this has got to you quite so much. Sarcasm and cynicism can be more erosive than anything, because they live on far longer than simple angry words. We all have those as writers but it is that soulessness and thin imagination that will never 'get' certain types of writing - especially the soft, ethereal nuances hidden within.

I undertand your need to step back for a while, to shake that voice - a flea from a dog's ear - and to find your own voice. I echo all that Douglas says. We want to see the writing but also to see you happy and productive.

Let Ireland blow it all away and for it all to be words, music and friends.

Cyber hugs