Throw It to the Wolves

When I first began studying writing in college, my feelings were a blur of excitement and abject terror.   I was ecstatic to finally be in my degree program and studying what I was passionate about, and I was eager to learn and grow and to find my place in the world as a writer.   But… I was also an introvert, shy, reserved, and overall a private person.  I had been writing for years, but most of my stories and poems were in journals and notebooks that few (if any) people had been privileged to read.  The thought of having strangers read my writing and evaluate it was horrifying.

Little did I know that it was just the beginning.  Throughout my pursuit of a B.A. in Creative Writing, I would be asked not only to let my professors read, critique, and grade my writing, but also to:

  • Hand out copies of my poetry and read it aloud in front of my classmates.  Weekly.
  • Share my writing with classmates and receive their critiques.
  • Go in-person to my professor’s office for him to discuss his evaluation of the story I had written so he could give me suggestions for improvement.
  • Participate in a semester-long writing workshop where I would periodically have to share my writing with 20+ other students and then sit quietly and take notes as they all critiqued it — in front of me.
  • Participate in a workshop where a team of 4-5 classmates and an instructor all read my writing weekly, analyzing how my story was changing and growing week to week and providing feedback and critiques.
  • Read part of one of my stories aloud in front of a crowd at an event.
  • Complete a B.A. Thesis project wherein two faculty mentors evaluated and critiqued my writing deeply and pushed me to better it again and again, for weeks upon weeks.
  • Send samples of my writing out to agents and publishers and receive rejection letters, only to revise and send it out to another… and get rejected again.  (And repeat this dozens of times.)

Imagine me, quiet, reserved, afraid-of-the-spotlight — and suddenly with paper-bound bits of my soul up for public review everywhere.

It was terrifying.

But it was also one of the best experiences of my life, because during those semesters, I also learned to:

  • Have confidence in the style of my own poetry, while also reading and listening to my classmates’ poetry and being inspired by their ideas.
  • Gracefully accept critiques, believing that my story can always improve, but holding confidence in my own vision for what I want it to be.
  • Open myself up to discussing my ideas, even if there’s a chance others won’t “get” them.
  • Be brave in the face of judgment… and know that there really are others who support my writing and truly want to help me achieve my best with it.
  • Trust and respect my fellow writers, and seek their feedback.
  • Speak through the fear, and just keep putting my work out there (and take deep breaths!).
  • Believe that my writing can always be better, and feedback can help me figure out how.
  • View rejection as a beginning, not an end; to see it as a chance to improve and make my writing even better, as long as I don’t give up.

And probably the two biggest lessons I learned were these:

  1. can do this.
  2. My own doubts were my biggest obstacle.

Since those days, I have gone on quite the journey as a writer.  I went through a period where I stopped writing altogether, until that little nagging voice in my soul pulled me back to it and I finally dove back in wholeheartedly.   I have gotten back into teaching writing, and I have put my writing out into the world again and again and again, in a multitude of ways.   I have opened myself up to criticism and questions and judgment from a variety of people. Some of these endeavors have been disappointing, and others have been wildly successful.

Here’s the thing:  until I do it, until I put my writing out there, I’m never quite sure which one it’s going to be.  Will it succeed or fail?  I really don’t know.  But I have learned that every time I write a new story, I go through the same cycle:

First, I’m excited and I think the story idea is fantastic and it’s all going rather well. Then, I hit a wall and I question and I doubt and I consider trashing the whole thing.  BUT — I don’t let myself quit.  I stick to my plan for the story, and I just keep writing bit by bit until it’s done.  Then, I revise (generally minimally), and I PUT IT OUT THERE.   I don’t let myself hide it away anymore.   Why?

Because putting my writing out there challenges me.  It’s scary, and it’s a risk.  But it also helps me grow.  If I receive negative feedback, then I know more about how to make my story better.  If I receive positive feedback, then I have some new encouragement to keep writing.  And if I receive no feedback — if no one reads it or it just gets ignored — then I haven’t lost anything and I have an opportunity to revise it some more and try to find a way to make it a bit more attention-grabbing.   No matter what happens, there is some benefit.  Putting my writing out into the world always helps me grow.

Plus, for me, it gives me a concrete goal, some extra motivation not only to write, but to be continually improving.  If I know there is a potential for others to read it, then my writing feels more purposeful, and my drive to become better and better receives some extra fuel.

The really amazing thing is that when I started putting my writing out into the world, something truly magical happened:  I gained a community of support.   Some of those classmates I did the intense workshop with are still in touch with me years later.  One of them reached out to me a while back and asked for my feedback on a story… it has been years since that class, but I still feel a fondness for them because of the bond we formed through diving deep into helping one another with our writing.  We got in-depth looks into each other’s thoughts and creative expressions, and that is a special sort of bond.

And then last summer, when I put my writing out very publicly through Wattpad, I saw this magic multiply.  I now have a community of support that honestly grew beyond anything I expected.  I have formed friendships with other writers, I have overwhelming support and encouragement from readers, and I receive so much amazing feedback on my stories.  The feedback alone has been a game-changer!  From their feedback, I have gotten ideas to improve my stories that I doubt I’d ever have thought of on my own.

When I first began sharing my writing, I felt a little bit like I was throwing a bit of myself to the wolves:  “Here, hungry pack!  Here’s a piece of my heart!”  And then I’d hope and pray they sniffed it gently and sort of circled it thoughtfully instead of leaping right in and shredding it.   But to my surprise, that pack of wolves didn’t leap and shred at all.  They grabbed that piece of my heart and gently examined it, then gathered protectively around it and offered me their help to keep it safe and make it even stronger.   They scratched at it a bit, curiously, and yes, sometimes it hurt.  But in the end, they were not a pack of ravenous beasts waiting to shred my heart to pieces.   They were a pack ready to take me in as one of their own.  They became a force of strength behind me.   They became my pack.

I never know for certain whether something will flop or succeed when I put it out there.  But one thing I do know:  I must write.  So since I’m writing, why not share it?  Why not give it a goal and a purpose, and open the possibility for growth through feedback?

If you’re reading this and feeling an unpleasant buzz of anxiety at the thought of exposing your writing to the world, believe me, I get it.  But it does get easier the more you do it, and for me, the benefits are well worth the risk.

So, go ahead, throw your writing to the wolves.   Sure, it may get uncomfortable.  You may even get hurt a bit.  But… there’s also a good chance that you’ll wake up one day and realize, like I did, that you have a pack all your own, who will rise up around you and make you stronger.

You’ll never know until you put it out there.

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