And Get Some Feedback

(This note continues my earlier post, “Get out of the House”.)

A year ago I wrote about abandoning a solitary existence and joining two writers’ groups. It’s time to follow up. What has this move done for me?

I can say confidently that subjecting my work to peer review is the best thing I have done in the last 10 years.

I had been giving myself too much leeway. Allowing myself too many easy choices. Just because something rang true or interesting, I would use it without questioning the reader’s ability to share my reaction. I had not bothered to take responsibility for every word I used.

Now I found myself subjected to the scrutiny of other writers, with their distinct views of literature. They were unwilling to give me a free pass with one or another of my arbitrary choices just because they liked my work in general. This increased my demands of myself. I could see my work more critically. I developed more respect for the reader. I was given an opportunity to improve.

Much of my prose and poetry has been significantly optimized after being “Gutted”. It’s amazing how, as authors, we may overlook the most glaring errors in our plots that others will immediately notice. The most egregious typos! Other eyes help. Educated, creative minds behind the eyes help tenfold! And by no means is this limited to detecting the problems I missed. It’s also about pinpointing the opportunities I might consider, alternate developments that might make more sense. Every now and then, a work will take on a new dimension after I incorporate all the feedback.

I hear voices. The voices of my fellow writers, commenting on one or another decision I make, sentence I use. Although one might feel insane with so many voices in one’s head, I feel enriched. I have the wisdom and the experience of a dozen other creative minds in my toolkit. Often, I don’t even need to have them read the work to gauge their reactions.

And there is more. Giving constructive feedback is also a challenge and a learning process. Do I speak about the work from my own point of view as a reader? Do I adopt the view of the author’s “target reader”? Do I find a good balance in between? Do I propose a major change if one seems warranted to me? Is there more of myself or of the author in my feedback, and which is best? Are my literary theories and writing recipes sound, interesting, well thought-out?

But it’s not all about discussing one another’s work. There is more to discuss. I have become exposed to so many fascinating thoughts, brilliant works, talented authors – enough for two lifetimes of reading. Thought spurs thought. Information exchange spurs enhanced creativity. We step up to become small players in a larger world. I’m no longer a solitary writer stewing in his own isolated universe. I’m part of a larger context. I have escaped into the outer realm. In doing so, I have obtained not only a strong team dedicated to helping one another grow, but a wide frame of reference, and, last but not least, a lovely bunch of friends.

I have upgraded to a better version of myself as a writer while having a lot of delightful interactions.

I would love the Guttery to pour over every word and every punctuation mark I have ever set down, but one gets only so much reviewing time. I await my next opportunity to be Gutted and whatever that entails in my growth, as a writer and a person. In the meantime, I am inspired by the others: their thoughts, their favorite literature, their participation in life as creative beings, their ways to string words together, their emotional worlds, their particular ways to tell their particular stories.

The world is full of voices, and only one of them is my own.

Imagine there’s no

“My work won’t be finished until I’m dead and buried, and I hope it’s a long, long time,” John Lennon says to an interviewer.

Five hours and four bullets later, his work is finished.

Exactly 30 years later, the loss is still painful to me. An act of a single distorted individual – and a perfect metaphor for how crudely dysfunctional the humankind really is. A brilliant, contradictory, outspoken voice – extinguished.

But there is more to this than the crudeness and the loss.

The music remains. The story remains.

We’ve learned something.

What’s the lesson? The old and true “live your life as if every day is your last”? Is it really possible?

Perhaps another way to put it is: live your life so you make enough of a difference. Just enough so some distorted individual might want to kill you.

I don’t want anyone to be killed. But may we learn how to take more risks for the good cause, in our work and in our life.

And may John Lennon sing and think and talk and imagine in peace, because I don’t think he’s ready to rest.

Get out of the House

A year and a half ago I barely left my house. I shared my time between my work and my art. No one in Portland knew me, and I didn’t know anyone. Laurie, my partner, gets the credit for pushing me out into the world. In September 2008, she stated that my life didn’t have enough context, that there was nothing to discuss. I was offended at first, but after thinking about it, I saw that she was right. I applied with the Guttery and joined Portland’s Poems and Coffee group. Being accepted by the Guttery took over 3 months. By contrast, Poems and Coffee are open to anyone. They are a wonderful free-flowing group for poets and those interested in poetry. This is where I ran into Shawn Austin, a local poet whose work immediately appealed to me. Eventually, Shawn and I decided to form a new group, The Moonlit Poetry Caravan, with a narrower focus and operating by acceptance only, to ensure a responsible participation.

In a matter of three or four months, I had made a dozen new friends, all wonderful writers and thinkers. I couldn’t believe I had been missing this experience for most of my adult years.

In September 2009, Bruce Green, a dear friend and a Guttery member, set up a reading for the Guttery at the Blackbird Wine Shop. I felt that we did a good job, and it was fun to perform in front of an audience, my first experience of that sort since earlier this century in San Francisco.

Now I was hooked! I attended an evening at The Show And Tell Gallery, followed by an open mic session. I enjoyed other poets and read some of my work. Each space has its own vibe. I liked the vibe here at the Three Friends Coffee House. I talked to Melissa Sillitoe, the curator of Show And Tell, about staging our own performance. She kindly gave us the floor on February 8, 2010, allowing us to present our 1-hour fairy tale “Love Outlives Us”.

Since then, I visited and/or read at Tony’s Tavern downtown, Three Friends, Hillsboro’s Last Monday Poetry, If Not For Kidnap in Portland, Stonehenge gallery, Overlook Park annual poetry event, and several other locations. John Sibley Williams, Shawn Austin and I are reading on September 26th at St. Johns Booksellers in Portland, 2pm. A whole team of us are going to perform in Seaside on 10/2, with a three hour marathon music meets literature performance (5-8 pm, Beech Books, Seaside, OR).

Strange how much can change in your life once you step out of the house and into the world. And if literature is not your interest, all of this still applies. It’s more fun sharing with others than being cooped up by oneself. Get out of the house and make connections!