I don’t buy into the “books as babies” meme; I’ve blogged about that before. On the other hand, we writers can be insufferably proud, insanely protective, and like babies ourselves when it comes to sharing our masterpieces with other mortal humans. I suppose we all think we are writing for the gods.
So, what should you say, when your writer friend presents you with his newly hatched novel, or her hot-off-the-press screenplay, or that volume of poetry or political essays? What if it’s unreadable, more boring than slugs crossing a sidewalk? What if you discover, in that black and white voice, some previously unknown, but now in-your-face, perhaps unsavory aspect of your pal? What if you see, in one of her characters, an uncanny exact resemblance to yourself? What if you’re not in there, anywhere? Because isn’t that why you’re reading the stupid thing, to see if you’re in it?
In published works, written by strangers, a book is just pages, pages just words, all cooked into a meaningful stew. You don’t know the chef; you gobble it up or spit it out without the slightest concern for her ego, the waste, or wondering where the groceries came from. But we read our friends differently; the smell of personhood wafts off every page as we turn it. Inner voices won’t shut up, as insistent as snooty wine tasters. Is this story based on her life? Is that character him? Is she talking about me? Well, I never knew! It’s all very awkward.
Having been handing my word bouquets over to other people for centuries (well, it feels that way. Really, since about 1981, barely three decades), I know what it’s like to be the writer, waiting to hear how great my work is. Pacing, pulling weeds, cleaning house. Whatever it takes to stay patient, trying to pretend it’s no big deal. Oh, you’ve had my novel for three weeks now but you haven’t had time to look at it yet? Six months later, still no response. Taking manuscripts back, leaving friends behind. From this side of things, it’s often quite painful.
Rarely, a writer friend gives you something so good that you can respond easily, truthfully, with great flowing praise; in these cases the problem is how not to sound too much like some fawning suck-up falling at the feet of a genius; how could that ever be good for your friendship? Meanwhile, knowing how hard our would-be author friends have worked on their not-so-interesting books, being nice people, we often choke up, unable to gush honest praise, yet not knowing which kind lies to tell. “It’s not the genre I usually read.”
The responsibility ultimately falls back upon the scribes; that’s my latest wisdom. Before sharing that precious tome, clarify expectations, timelines. What kind of feedback do writers want? Sometimes we crave careful criticism; usually we just want instant applause. Wow! There’s some great stuff in there! I’m so impressed by your dedication and hard work. Thanks for sharing!