focusing on the write thing

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My "cheerleader," Cynthia Leitich Smith

My “cheerleader,” Cynthia Leitich Smith

My "cheerleader," Lauren Myracle

My encouraging retreat critique group--Ann Finkelstein, Anna Boll, me and Lori Steel

My encouraging retreat critique group–Ann Finkelstein, Anna Boll, me and Lori Steel

Vermont College of Fine Arts

Vermont College of Fine Arts

Someone once told me that the way detectives learn to spot a counterfeit is to study the original. The more familiar they are with, say a real $100 bill, the easier it is to see the differences in a fake. In other words, they focus on the good, not the bad.

This weekend I participated in a retreat for writers of novels for children and young adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier. Now, I’ve been to lots of writing conferences and workshops over the last decade, but what set this experience apart was the emphasis on the positive. Retreat organizer Sarah Aronson told us at the outset that when we receive a critique we should not discount the good comments we receive.

Too often that’s just what I’ve done. I think to myself, This person is only saying kind things to let me down gently before the hammer falls. But Sarah encouraged us to really listen to the observations about what we’re doing well. The good bits are, after all, the parts we want to create more of, right? By concentrating on recognizing my authentic writing voice, not the counterfeit, I’m better able to hear the difference between what’s true and what’s tinny. Sarah’s advise made all the difference for me. I soaked up the good comments, not to pump my ego, but to learn how to make progress.

It goes without saying, but here I go saying it, that this doesn’t mean I get to ignore the parts of my work that need, well, work. (Some of it is downright stinky. Get the clothes pins please!) And sure, it’s essential to listen to constructive criticism, to consider the suggestions of others and to welcome even hard-to-hear feedback. But allowing myself to accept words of specific affirmation has caused me to see my abilities in a whole new light. I’m better able to see what’s possible, instead of thinking, this is impossible.

As a result of embracing the positive, when our amazing presenters like authors Cynthia Leitich Smith or Lauren Myracle or Candlewick editor Andrea Tompa humbled me with kind words, I could thank them. Was I shocked? Okay, yes. But I was still able to thank them instead of waving the words away.

I came home from the retreat feeling rejuvenated. My faith in my abilities was bolstered a bit and I can honestly say I feel hopeful for the first time in a long time. I am energized, instead of deflated. WOW, does that feel good!

You may not be able to escape to a writers retreat in the mountains of Vermont (I’m still stunned that I was able to!), but let me encourage you to adopt the same shift in focus. You will be amazed at the difference it can make. I’m positive of that.

You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, don’t mess with Mister In-Between. – Johnny Mercer

11 responses »

  1. Wow, you had a great time – I can tell, and yes, you have GOOD things to think, write, and do now that you’re back in Jackson reality. Maybe a poem to sneak in spring? 🙂

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    • Hi Catey, The girl with the totally spot on, natural writing voice! So glad I got to meet you and hear read your awesome work. Write on. And please stop on by Frog on a Dime again. You’re welcome to visit any time.

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  2. Kudos for taking this leap. I debated and debated about going… Conferences have been a mixed experience for me in recent years – a combination of inspiration and frustration. Yes, sometimes even deflated. So glad to hear you came out of this one feeling rejuvenated, energized, and hopeful – what more can you ask for!

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    • Thanks for sharing, Kristin. I jumped into this one before I had a chance to debate with myself, otherwise I may not have gone either. It’s always a gamble with these things–will the critique givers “get” what I’m trying to do (and as a result, give me usable feedback) or will I come away crushed or just more confused. I’m glad the gamble paid off big time this time. I hope you can go to a YCFA retreat in the future. I’m guessing you’d love it and I know the folks there would love you.

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