Random Wrecks

Left a workshop with legendary writing teacher Adair Lara in San Francisco last Saturday and headed up I-80 for Sac, happy, head filled with ideas. At Vallejo ran into a nasty wreck and pulled off the highway onto the frontage road to wait out the mess. Looked like children involved, jaws of life, several ambulances. I ate French fries and looked the other direction until the wreck was cleared, over an hour, didn’t have the stomach for the carnage, nor did others sheltering at McDonalds during the emergency.

Checked e-mail when I arrived at home (sorry, I’m addicted) and found an e-mail from a member of my writing group. It started like this: “Your critique made me so angry and defensive that I had to put it aside for days. You had a few good points of critique on my story, but I couldn’t see or hear them for all your lecturing/ and your re-writing of my story. It’s not a novel or even close to that, it’s one of a series of stories I was asked to write. Creative Narrative non-fiction. You spent a whole page writing about story arc etc from your view, and then lectured me on my story arc, and Adair. NOT helpful at all!”

That took my breath away. I had invested several hours in thoughtfully editing and writing a critique, including  referencing and summarizing Adair’s July/August Writer’s Digest article on the “Elements of Effective Arc” and showing how the story arc concept COULD be applied to his story to enhance dramatic effect, based on what I’d read. I also said honestly that I thought the piece had exciting possibilities. Unfortunately, I inadvertently stepped all over this author’s feelings, felt terrible, couldn’t sleep, got up at 3:30 a.m. and felt sick. I wrote an e-mail of sincere apology, acknowledging that I had tried to apply what I’m learning in my workshop to someone else’s writing and deeply begged his pardon.

Later Sunday morning, here’s the e-mail I got from the angry author: “A Big thank you to Kate C. for listening to my rant so graciously. I appreciate that. It’s a real issue for us as writers to not focus on our own work when critiquing, thanks for seeing that, Kate.”

That tiff with a writer whose work I sincerely admire and who I like personally hit me like a bad crash. I can’t help but feel that if I knew more about what I’m doing as a writer and used the right approach that I wouldn’t have evoked such an angry response, that the exchange could have been constructive, without hurt feelings. What I fear most is that I may have been caught in the equivalent of practicing medicine without a license, which I hope those kids they hauled off the highway on Saturday won’t face when they see the doctor in the emergency room.

I guess all this is to say that, like a girl scout with rudimentary training in first aid, I promise to do my best to do my duty when commenting on the writing of anyone who trusts me enough to send story drafts my way. I will not hurt feelings if I can help it, and I’ll acknowledge when I’m wrong.

Got 800 words written on my new project. Went to a Sunday matinee to see an edgy play, “Hunters, Gatherers” by Bay Area playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb at Capital Stage in the afternoon. Essentially the urbanite characters were reduced to their most basic primal state — killing each other and gnawing on bones. What can I say? It’s brutal out there. Be careful.

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