My high school boyfriend wore eye liner and had self-pierced body piercings. He dealt drugs and somehow managed to acquire a not-for-hunting gun. He was also Sophomore Class President. He loved me as passionately as one sixteen-year-old could love another sixteen-year-old. And after cheating on me (as sixteen-year-old Romeos are wont to do), he carved an “A” into his skin, right over his heart. We had recently read The Scarlet Letter in American Lit. Did I mention he was passionate? We dated for four years.
My college fella was (and still is) an exceptionally good man. He came into my life without piercings or illegal guns. Not once did he carve anything into his body. But while we dated, we made each other laugh and learned to tolerate each other’s roommates, and he didn’t care when Top Ramen and frozen yogurt gave me an extra fifteen pounds of poundage. However. I was Irish and Protestant (not Italian and Catholic), and that was the ultimate deal-breaker, especially in the eyes of his sweet Italian, Catholic mother. He and I still chat on the phone and exchange Christmas cards, and for that I am grateful. We dated for three years.
My post-college beau was the aforementioned Fritz. I loved Fritz’s parents and sister, and aside from the two over-the-phone break-ups, Fritz was kind and smart. He probably still is, but I don’t know because we don’t exchange Christmas cards. I do know he is a urologist in Milwaukee and based on the fact that he named one of his daughters “Sarah,” I assume he spends a good portion of every day regretting that he broke up with me twice. We dated for eighteen months, including the Time Out in between rounds.
My current boyfriend doubles as my husband. We met when we were both living in Chicago, and because I am 5’4” and he is 6’4” (and because he tends toward obliviousness), I needed to push him down into a snowy patch of Lincoln Park, get his face level with mine, and kiss him; he needed to realize we should give kissing a try. We were engaged ten months later. He thinks I am funny. I think he is funny. He almost never annoys me. He has never broken up with me. He went to see The Sound of Music sing-a-long with me even though musicals are as painful to him as infected body piercings. He loves me through my bouts of mental illness and has easily won Best Father every year since 2003. He did, however, lie to me the first time we met, and it was a doozey.
“I love to read literature,” he said.
No, he doesn’t. If he reads anything, it’s non-fiction Malcolm Gladwell. We’ve been dating for almost twenty years.
When I look at the evolution of my relationships, it makes sense that my search for the Ms./Mr. Write-ing Partner has been no less epic, upsetting, challenging, joyful and meandering. It took me years to find the proper tripod to support me in my writing. I imagine the same has been–or will be–true for you, too.
Why is it so difficult to find a fabulous critique mate?
We don’t want to. Many of us are introverts, passionate about writing because writing gives us permission to be alone in the quiet for years on end. The idea of putting ourselves out there to share not only ourselves but our writing? No gracias.
Writers are really weird. Therefore, it’s a challenge to find someone who’s compatibly weird. Think about it: we are insatiably curious about people who don’t exist, often loving our characters as if they are real humans. We swing wildly from one pendulum end to the other—I Love writing! I Will Never Write Again! Finding a critique partner who is weird in ways that complement our own weirdness takes time and energy. Do you have extra time and energy? No, me neither.
What are we looking for? Sometimes a critique partner can be perfectly lovely except that his goals don’t match ours. He can only meet at 1:00 a.m. on the second Tuesday of every other month. Or he only wants to help with line edits. Or he is always too busy to bring writing to the meeting. Or he wants us to read 200 pages of his novel each week. Critique partners must have similar goals, levels of commitment, flexibility and needs; otherwise we will feel frustrated or misunderstood or unsatisfied. Or all three. It’s wise to chat about goals before we tie the knot.
It takes time to find people who are as jazzed about our writing as we are about theirs. I have been in critique groups where one or more of the members clearly did not like my writing. And vice versa. This scenario stinks, partly because we have to sit there in a circle, pretending we care about something we don’t care about and summon tidbits of thoughtful, constructive feedback for something we hate. On the other hand, our critique partner isn’t helpful if he blows only sunshine and rainbows up our tush. Sunshine and rainbows belong in the sky, not elsewhere. Why have a critique partner if he doesn’t challenge us to grow?
OK. So it’s difficult to find a great critique partner. Maybe it’s just better to fly solo . . .
No! It’s unhealthy to write in complete isolation! Do you know what happens when incarcerated people are placed In Solitary? They lose their minds. And we writers will have an easier time writing a novel if we have our mind. We are meant to be in relationship with one another; others keep us in check, keep us moving forward, always improving. In other words, even introverts need others. Much like the monkeys, we often cannot find the nits in the hard-to-reach places of our stories. We need someone who’s willing to comb through our plots and pick out things that don’t belong. How nit-picky should our co-monkey be? Nit-picky enough to improve our work; not so nit-picky that our story loses all its fur and no longer resembles a monkey. Not so nit-picky that we feel like a total losers. In one critique group, I felt like a total loser. Probably everyone felt like a total loser. Regardless, let’s try not to place ourselves in relationships where we feel like total losers.
A good critique partner is much more than an editor. Have you ever ridden a roller coaster solo? It’s lame. The fun comes when we get squished in beside at least one other person. We scream together. We act brave together. Sometimes we throw up, and it’s nice to have someone who will hold the bag, or at least hold our hair back from our face. My current writing partners (and two amazing former partners who had the gall to move to another state) are amazing barf bag holders. And when I have moments of success, they become people who hold PhD’s in party planning.
So where do we meet available critique partners?
Everywhere. We just have to be on the lookout. And we have to be willing to talk to people who may or may not reject us. One of my fabulous, moved-away critique partners bravely came over and introduced himself when I was camped out at a writers’ conference. We started talking. I could see that he was nice and roughly as normal as I am. We had similar goals. And he was funny. In other words, he was someone I could hang with. He became someone I trust implicitly with my work. And I think that’s a vice versa situation.
I have also met critique partners at work, in my neighborhood, in writing classes, via mutual friends. While not all of them turned into ideal mates (and one was a hyper-demanding sociopath), each relationship helped me get closer to understanding what I need in a monkey. After roughly thirteen years of kissing a wide range of both primates and apes, I have found a few writerly soul mates, and subsequently I have taken out life insurance policies on each of them; without these monkeys, I’d be in deep trouble. I’d be lying alone and fetal in some muddy gutter somewhere. Or In Solitary. Or worst of all, I’d have hit the bumps that writers inevitably hit, lost all hope, and given up on my writing altogether.
Your turn! What do you seek in a nit-picker? Which critique partnerships have been a smashing success (or a terrible failure) and why? In what interesting places have you stumbled upon critique partners? If you have yet to search for a critique monkey, what are the obstacles in your path? Thank you, dear WU’ers, for chiming in.
Monkey grooming photo compliments to Flickr’s Trey Ratcliff.