I recently joined a new writing group, The Village Writers. I attend their critique group for novelists when soccer games, Cub Scout meetings and the like permit. It’s a wonderful group with an excellent method. Instead of reading work aloud and getting casual comments, we have a rotation that calls for two writers to be critiqued at each meeting. The writers on the hot seat distribute selections in advance, so the rest of the group can read and thoughtfully review them. At the meeting, critiques are presented in both written and oral form. What’s more, the members of the group are all fine writers and capable reviewers.
Since I think so highly of this group, you can imagine how pleased I was when my first submission was met with a great deal of praise. There were suggestions for improvement, of course, which I took to heart, and corrections for things like French words whose spellings I butchered, but overall, the word on my selection was “terrific!” I was mightily encouraged.
While the feeling of encouragement remains with me, I discovered a dark side to all this good news. (I can just hear my beloved wife saying “you would!”)
The very next writing session after that positive critique I found myself tightening up at the keyboard. I was thinking about all the swell things my colleagues had said and I wanted to hear more, so I started to write what I thought they might like, not purely what I liked. Fortunately, I realized pretty quickly what I was doing and cut it out.
Then there was the danger of Big-Head disease (BHD). Of course they were praising my stuff! I was brilliant, wasn’t I? I was going to finish this novel, get an agent in a week, get a six-figure publishing deal in two weeks and quit my day job in three weeks. So, long, critique group! Have some free tickets to my workshop. Clearly there were two aspects of BHD. One, I became distracted with dreams of future glory that took my mind off writing for its own sake. Second, I started to imagine I was more talented than the very people who were lifting me up and helping me do my best work. Shame on me for both.
I also found myself minimizing the things that needed fixing. There was one issue the vast majority of reviewers agreed on, which was that I needed to clarify what the game of Dungeons and Dragons is all about for people unfamiliar with it. It’s a big problem in the opening scenes and if I’m not feeling the urgency of it, I’m going to forget about it. If I want to produce something worth reading, I can’t afford that.
The lesson then, friends and neighbors, is to keep the good, encouraging feeling praise brings you; it can help sustain you through leaner times. As for the corrupting influences of praise, keep a weather eye out for them, and if they come calling, kick them out the door.