Sparked by Words

Thin Skinned

scary-young-manThere’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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Comments on: "Thin Skinned" (42)

  1. It’s very difficult to find a critique group that fits. It’s why I appreciate your always thought-provoking comments. People like you are a gift to writers.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Oy Vey! or Oi Vay as they say in the Hebrides.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Dear Shari Bonin-Pratt, Human Being,

    It’s not that you need to be thicker skinned, You need to grow a thick coat of hair.

    Freddie Parker Westerfield, Certified Canine Therapist, RET

    Liked by 1 person

  4. lindarkirsch said:

    Nu? Maybe Ich vayst nisht, but I love the Yiddish parts of your books. Of course, I’m neither a writing critic nor the general public, – just a loving and appreciative friend.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You know everything, chavertah punim! ❤ 😀 Thank you for the the vote of confidence. I'm going to send you the chapter, if I may – you might enjoy it more than anyone. Should have thought of this before.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Seeing how I adore your heritage, I believe I would have found less of a problem with the Yiddish parts and more of a problem with myself not being versed well enough to understand it. For me, using the language submerges me right into NYC and a life I’ll ever experience. You’re blessed with incredible history, whether it is passed down correctly or not. A thick skin helps. I haven’t any to spare…

    Liked by 1 person

    • The problem wasn’t that there was Yiddish in the story, but that most of the readers didn’t understand it and trying to figure it out pulled them out of the story. That of course is a bad thing and it’s why I have done a lot of thinking about how to fix this without destroying its integrity. Out in California we hear much less Yiddish than what sounds out on the streets of many states on the East Coast. So it may be that Westerners and Mid-Westerners would struggle more.

      Nowadays, even a lot of Jews would have a hard time with the Yiddish – it simply is no longer a language being spoken anywhere except for a few enclaves of Ultra-Orthodox Jews who continue using it as a primary conversational language in their communities. Long answer there about why it’s problematic for me, but I’ll resolve it one way or another.

      Audrey, thank you for your kind and compassionate comment. We are of course connected – Jew, Christian, Muslim, Bahai, Buddhist, and in my opinion, everyone. We are each of us children of God no matter the choice of religion and ritual or even of choosing to recognize no religion or no God. Some say we are all born of the stars and I like that thought as well – we are connected from the infinite. I only wish we could all live that way, pursuing compromise, civility, respect, and peace for all of us.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Personally, I think you should keep the Yiddish style in there. Sure, use words that more people understand, but I truly love the Yiddish style of dialogue. Example from you: “…you want I should tell you how…”. There’s something so homey, soothing, and, [get this] fun about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Glynis, I’m smiling as I read your comment. I agree, it feels like home because it’s what my family sounded like, especially when all the aunts. uncles, cousins, and grandparents got together at big raucous family parties. I’m working to pull the translations closer to the Yiddish. And that business about not knowing the word “fork” – absolutely true, and a few other English words I didn’t learn until I was “old.” Thing is, I wasn’t particularly unusual in my language confusion – friends sometimes struggled with the same issues.

      Thank you for reading and always, thank you for your input. How is your own writing coming? I was about to contact you, just to say hello and hope you’re doing well.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I missed that meeting, Shari. And, worse, I missed that submittal. I’ve read several stories with lots of dialectical language and it didn’t bother me. I have a whole scene in my with pidgeon Russian-English.

    Great comments from everyone. You seem to have struck a common interest.

    Liked by 1 person

    • No worries, we can’t all do everything, and I do know what you were doing and how important it is. I was a bit disappointed that everyone was so anxious about the Yiddish, but if that’s what readers think, then it’s something for me to seriously consider.

      I’m always impressed with the thoughtful comments of my readers!


  8. I love the conversation here—both the Yiddish and the translation. Maybe because my dad grew up in a Jewish neighbourhood and learned Yiddish as a child.

    Liked by 1 person

    • No kidding – what a story that is. Do you mind sharing what neighborhood? Did you learn any? Thanks for contributing your perspective, Peggy.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It was actually in rural-ish northern Washington State. My grandfather was a State Senator and owned a general store. Many said granddad would have been a rich man if he hadn’t fed anyone in his constituency who needed feeding. I’m guessing their close neighbours were Jewish and that’s who my dad played with. But it may have been kids from school generally. I

        My dad died young in a car accident. Nine years later my mum remarried to Sy, a Russian Jew. I’m pretty sure Sy spoke Yiddish too. I know a few words. The ones most people know, such as schmaltz.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Now that IS a really interesting story. Sorry that your dad died so young – leaves such an unfillable blank for a young person. Thanks for sharing, Peggy.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. I think the critique group probably have a fair point. I don’t know any Yiddish, so I found the examples a little hard to follow without the translation. As long as the group are not too brutal and know what they’re talking about, I think it’s a good idea to get their feedback, even though it may sting a little at times. (I say this, but I’m the world’s most sensitive person when it comes to feedback. The slightest negative comment and it’s sackcloth and ashes for the next three weeks.)

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I’ve never heard Yiddish (I live in California and I’m Catholic), but I enjoyed learning about some here. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m also in California – Orange County (which I refuse to call The OC – too pretentious for my taste) Very little Yiddish spoken here either, it’s a dying language.
      But I grew up back east and heard it everyday, sprinkled in between English – I never knew the difference until we moved to Hawaii and no one understood me. Of course, I didn’t understand the kids who spoke Pidgin either. LOL
      Glad you liked the post, Cathleen.


  11. I lost my good writer’s group when we came here and eventually gave up looking for one here. They all seemed to be sickly sweet appreciation groups, whether warranted or not. I wanted the tough message although like you it is sometimes hard to take. I encountered a similar problem as a lot of my dialogue was Bislama which is a form of pidgeon English. Although I felt it necessary for the flavour of the country and I tried to keep it simple so that it was able to be understood easily my main criticism was that people struggled with it. They didn’t seem to be able to think a bit laterally to decipher the words even though (I didn’t give a translation) I put a sentence afterwards to make the meaning clear. eg ‘”sippos sumfala stap long other side ol i kam?” This had not concerned us as we had expected our new employee would originate from the other side of the island as this was where most of the French speakers lived.’ In the end, in response to feedback I also put in footnotes, cut back on some of the Bislama or substitued some words for English ones. I think you have to keep the grammar at the very least to give a feel for the vernacular but perhaps with fewer yiddish words or choose words that will be used frequently in language and perhaps we can learn them as we read. Looking forward to hearing how you will deal with this problem and also to reading The Milkman’s Horse as told by an unreliable narrator.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’ve encountered exactly the same things I ran across with regard to foreign language. I even wrote a glossary. But I think one of the problems with a crit group, even a really attentive and intelligent group of people, is that you can’t read the book in its entirety. At least in our group, we read about 4000 – 5000 words twice a month, but one story may only come up for review 5 – 6 times a year. That broken reading pattern creates a disconnectedness with the reader. They just can’t remember the details over such a long period, and they lose the fluency they might develop were they able to concentrate on one book for a week or two, start to finish. It’s why I’ve never given my crit group more than one fourth of my book, over about 18 months – two years. After that much review, I have a sense of what they will say and they’re no longer useful.

      I then have to find readers who will take on the whole book. This has proven very difficult; few people want to commit, and some don’t have the skill to be able to detect the essential elements that must be addressed. So, I will have to find a professional editor, and that’s more of a financial investment than I can afford at the moment.

      But I basically agree with you about using foreign language in a book. Readers don’t have the advantage of gauging inflection, gestures, and body language along with the words, so translation becomes a distraction. I’ve already simplified much of the Yiddish but am trying to keep the nuance of how Yiddish is constructed.

      Don’t know what to tell you about finding a good crit group. I’ve been lucky as I’ve also had the other “nice” but useless experience.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. With pros – comes the cons, with darkness – comes the light, with day – comes the night, there’s a negativity to every positivity but we shouldn’t forget its the other way round too!
    Every bad phase will give a new phase too, hopefully a good ‘new’ phase. Thin skinned is definitely not a flaw among a group of critics, what we can learn to do is ignore all that surrenders us – there are people who will always criticize you -what they don’t realize is that criticism is welcomed but only when it is conveyed in a positive tone and way – I wish they knew! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re right of course – there is balance but it’s sometimes hard to sense. My point is that if we ask for critique then we must be open to receiving it. If all we want is a gold star, we should go talk to our moms. The critique group wasn’t at all negative in the presentation of the issues they felt didn’t work, but they were adamant and (mostly) in agreement. I changed some of the story language because of their input.

      I appreciate your contribution to the discussion. It’s always helpful to learn another side of a multi-faceted issue.

      Liked by 1 person

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