There’s something I figured out a long time ago: if I want to glean important information from my writer’s critique group: I must listen without falling apart. It’s still my book and I can write what I want, but if I choose to be part of a writer’s critique group, I have to close my mouth, open my ears, take legible notes, and grab hold of my pulse for the ride. Listening to someone else talk about my book, my baby, without the awe I feel I’ve earned – it’s hard not to fall sobbing on the floor. Ouch! I can’t be thin skinned in a critique group.
I’ve written often about critique groups, mostly from the perspective of how one should behave when attending, (respectfully) or relating how another writer missed an important message from the group because he stopped listening at, “This part didn’t work for me.” I’ve belonged to several groups; most didn’t work for me for reasons I don’t need to discuss here. My current group suits my needs. The members are articulate and know a lot about writing, at least from an academic position. I accept that the purpose of belonging to such a group is to improve my writing by hearing what they perceive as me falling short of good storytelling in some part of my work in progress, the hard lessons of what doesn’t work. The comments that make me cringe.
My most recent submission to the group was the first chapter of my newest WIP, The Milkman’s Horse, a sort of biography of my grandparents and parents but without any real facts. Yes, you read that right – no facts, just some specious memories, poorly recorded tales, unsupported information, all of this from people no longer alive, or who no longer remember, or whose original accounts were wrong to begin with. I’m talking here about fiction, pure fiction, the basis of novels. The most factual contributions to this tale comes from my own memory bank, all of it put in storage before I turned eleven. Shortly after that birthday, my parents moved us 5000 miles away from family and friends, a distance so far that we basically lost contact with grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors, and all other family historians who might have corroborated or corrected the facts stated by my parents. For you who are Millennial, this occurred pre personal computer, Internet, email, and smart phone. All storage was filed in my head and could not be confirmed by Wikipedia. Letters took long to write, in ink, longhand, and replies took about as long as it might have taken the Pony Express to race across the Pacific Ocean. A roundabout way of telling you: I have no means to find out if anything I always believed about my family is true. So I made it all up. I’m nervous and sweating that someone will call me out on a “fact” I got wrong, about which they know the truth. Ouch!
Which brings me back to my critique group and the review I got about the first chapter. The crits began with the usual introduction – I like your writing, you write well, blah, blah – polite and inconsequential, a sweet way to set me up for the real crit. But… the most common complaint was that there was too much Yiddish in the story. Everyone felt the same, no matter that a translation was only a phrase or sentence away. I did include more Yiddish than is commonly heard in New York among nearly all ethnic neighborhoods. My mom’s family spoke with much Yiddish interspersed between their heavily accented English, and also included deposits of Polish and Russian. Not only individual words, but the construction of the conversation reflected the way Yiddish is spoken, with modifiers coming after objects, and many sentences resembling questions even though they may have been demands. We third generation kids became adept at the olio of language.
A Yiddish-English conversation:
Nu, you want I should tell you how mameh was farklemt after that meshugener Polack Yid, mitten drinnen, tells her his watch is missing, she should go look for it and bring it back to him od razu.
“You’re eating my kishkehs out with all your tsores,” she’s yelling at him. “Nishtgedeiget, you should maybe look for it with that shiksa under your bed.”
“Kineahora,” he mumbles and backs away.
“Naydi tsarya,” she spits. Nu, down the steps he’s running and she hollers, “Hok nicht keyn tshaynik!”
So, let me tell you how upset Mamah was after that crazy Polish Jew all of a sudden tells her his watch is missing, she should go look for it and bring it back to him right away. (od razu: Polish)
“You’re eating my guts out with your problems,” she yells at him. “Don’t worry, maybe you should look for it under the bed with your Gentile girlfriend.”
“Stay away,” he mumbles and backs away. (Kineahora is a superstitious Jewish phrase meant to ward off the evil eye.)
“Go tell the tsar.” (naydi tsarya: Russian) she says. So, he’s running down the steps and she hollers, “Stop bothering me.”
Is it any wonder I didn’t know the word “fork” until I was ten? It was always a gupple.
Though this conversation was not in my book, perhaps there was so much Yiddish it interrupted the flow for readers. Though the story will lose a bit of the flavor of my childhood, I should yank out some of the words. That will hurt. Ouch!
Mirtseshem – God willing – I’ll get it right, and if I don’t, it’s not for lack of trying to pay attention to my critique group. I may not have the thickest skin, you can see the blood hurtling through my veins. But I am paying attention to you.
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