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Corrections Are Good: How to Take Critique Like a Dancer

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Today’s guest is Kim Bullock [1] whose novel-in-progress (working title The Oak Lovers) has already been receiving praise. Historical fiction author Stephanie Cowell says this, “I’ve seldom read a novel with such intense passion. I was unable to put down The Oak Lovers; this is a riveting book.”

The story, based on family member Carl Ahrens (Kim’s great-grandfather) is a compelling tale of art, love, and sacrifice. The artistic gene has been handed down through the generations. Kim’s oldest daughter inherited her grandfather’s artistic skill, and both her daughters are gifted dancers.

[pullquote]My thirteen-year-old daughter is a serious ballet dancer and I find it interesting how ‘corrections’ are interpreted as a positive thing in the dance world. It occurred to me that some of the lessons she has learned could easily be adapted to help writers not feel so overwhelmed when they receive feedback…[/pullquote]

Kim, one of WU’s valued Admin Assistants, has an MA in English from Iowa State University, where she received the Pearl Hogrefe Grants-in-Aid for Creative Writing Award and also taught composition for a couple of years. In addition to contributing articles to historical publications in both the United States and Canada, she takes on freelance assignments for Living Magazine, a regional publication, and has been a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Contest for New Writers.

Kim’s website for Carl Ahrens, a major character in her current novel, regularly attracts the attention of collectors and art historians, and she has given several keynote speeches on his life and place in art history. She lives in Dallas, Texas, with her husband and two daughters.

Connect with Kim on her blog [2], on Facebook [3], and on Twitter [4].

Corrections Are Good: How to Take Critique Like a Dancer

My daughter, who had not known a plié from a tendu until age nine, was understandably terrified when she entered her first class at one of Dallas’ most prestigious classical ballet schools.

She had been the prima dancer during her one year at a beginner studio, performing front and center in the recital. “Work hard and you can go anywhere you want in the dance world,” her teacher had told her privately after ballet lesson number three. I was in the room at the time, and I watched that spark of a dream ignite in her eyes.

I feared her passion for dance might be snuffed out by trying to compete in a room full of girls who had been on tiptoe since toddlerhood, but my sensitive perfectionist emerged from class dry-eyed and grinning. She did chinés turns all the way back to the car, narrowly avoiding trash cans and hedges.

As she twirled, she rattled off an extensive list of things she had done wrong in class that day: everything from her hyper-extended elbows to her weak turnout and lazy fifth position. Her old teacher had apparently failed to correct her bad habits, so she would need to relearn everything

Though she did not seem upset in the least, I had to ask. “Did you receive any roses with all those thorns?”

“She didn’t name my butt. If it sticks out when you plié, she’ll give it an old man name,” my daughter explained. “The girl next to me was told to ‘put Fred away’ three times.”

Her beaming expression warned me that laughter would in some way lessen her tremendous accomplishment. I refrained, but the effort it took ranked somewhere between writing my Master’s thesis and childbirth.

If I were a ‘dance mom’ I’d have understood the reason for her joy that day, but my ballet experience had been limited to one year of reluctantly flitting around a studio pretending to be a butterfly. I knew even at six that elephants possessed more grace.

Corrections are a good thing, just one small rung under a compliment on the desirability ladder.

Sasha and Kathy 1 [5]
Photo by Deborah Downes at Take to Heart Images [6]

Watch any ballet class and it’s easy to pick out the teacher’s pets. At lower levels favorites will be told “good job” a time or two, but the instructor will often adjust an arm or raise a leg higher in arabesque. The corrections will be nit-picky tweaks she does not offer to the other students. As a dancer progresses up the ranks, particularly in studios with a dance company attached, the manhandling intensifies. Feet will be forcibly pointed, knees turned out, backs bent, legs raised, rears pushed in. Dancers having an off day can expect to be yelled at like a new recruit at boot camp.

That’s terrible! Do it again! You dance like a drunk zombie! Your arms look like dead chickens!

Have too many off days and something much worse happens. The yelling stops. The teacher will pass by with barely a glance. The student becomes invisible.

Teachers don’t waste time giving corrections to dancers in whom they see no potential.

Read that last sentence again, only substitute the word “teachers” with “editors” and “dancers” with “writers.”

Hits home, doesn’t it? This perception is why it hurts so much when we receive a form rejection or, worse, no response after sending off a manuscript.

What about the opposite extreme, though? How can a writer not become overwhelmed and discouraged if a critique partner or editor sends back what appears to be a dissertation on a manuscript’s faults?

[pullquote] The next time you receive pages of editorial notes, don’t reach for the tissues or a stiff drink. Don’t renew your insurance license. Instead take a deep breath and repeat the words my ballerina once said to me: “This person must really love the book if they spent so much time with it.”[/pullquote]

This is the perfect time to consider feedback with the mindset of a dancer. The next time you receive pages of editorial notes, don’t reach for the tissues or a stiff drink. Don’t renew your insurance license. Instead take a deep breath and repeat the words my ballerina once said to me: “This person must really love the book if they spent so much time with it.”

More Ways to Think Like a Dancer

How do you deal with critique, especially if it is extensive? If you danced (or still do), would you add something to this list? Have you ever adapted lessons learned from another form of art to enhance your writing?

About Kim Bullock [7]

Kim has an M.A. in English from Iowa State University. She writes mainly historical fiction, though has also contributed non-fiction articles to historical and Arts and Crafts publications in both the United States and Canada. She has just finished The Unfinished Work of M.A. [8], a novel based on the rather colorful life of her great-grandfather, landscape painter Carl Ahrens.

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