Salve for Souls

Monday, April 27, 2015


It was "Sarah's" first time at our writers' critique group. Her eyes wide with enthusiasm, the young woman sat on the edge of her seat. She appeared poised to dazzle us by reading from the book she was writing. Certainly, she believed it destined to be a bestseller.

 Our group consisted of journalists, novelists, editors and beginners. We met regularly to evaluate and polish each other's writing. We divided the time, each reading aloud from a work in progress, then the rest of us offering our input. It was our policy to begin each critique with praise, before suggesting ways the story might be improved. This worked until Sarah joined us.

That meeting started out like all the others. Sitting in a circle, we each took our turn. Then Sarah's turn came.

Proudly clutching her manuscript, she cleared her throat and with a big smile, began reading. At first, I thought it was just me that none of it made any sense. There was no story or plot, only disconnected thoughts that went nowhere.

Sarah was still smiling when she finished and looked us over, as if waiting for the accolades. We were supposed to begin with praise, but none of us could think of even one positive thing to say. The room was as quiet as a tomb as Sarah's smile faded.

Kay, an editor known for her diplomacy, began. As gently as possible, she told our "newbie" the truth. Sarah did not take it well. Her eyes filled with tears.

"My husband said the story is wonderful," she blurted, sobbing.

She then ran from the room, slamming the door behind her. Kay followed, trying to smooth things over. But it was too late. The damage was done.

After that fateful day, I would occasionally bump into Sarah. I tried speaking with her and asked about her writing, but she always brushed me off. The contempt in her face revealed dislike for me and others in the critique group. We were not worthy of her time. Nor were our opinions worthy of her consideration.

That is sad because who knows where her writing could have gone, given some attention. What she read, might have been a germ of an idea that needed the guidance of more experienced writers.

Our critique group would have helped Sarah along her journey. And writing is always a journey, often one that is long and hard.

It is likely that Sarah's husband thought he was being kind by telling her what she wanted to hear, rather than what she needed to hear. She believed him and it impeded her development.
However, I know from experience that the soul of any serious writer is battle-scarred from criticism, harsh editors, brutal critiques and rejection of our work. Still, we go on. We keep writing, learning and hopefully, improving. Of necessity, we develop a thick skin like our friend below.

As far as I know, Sarah's work never went anywhere.

John Greenleaf Whittier put it well. "Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, 'It might have been."

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