The value of good, specific, feedback

Good, specific feedback on our writing is very valuable to anyone working to be a better writer.   It’s easy to become too close to something that was satisfying to write, so close you are blind to its defects.  The great Philip Roth had a small group of smart, discerning readers he sent his first draft of every new book to.   These readers would carefully read his new work and send him their notes, notes he always took seriously when sitting down to write subsequent drafts.   I believe he went so far as calling this small group of readers essential to his work.    Most of us don’t have a circle of generous critics, we make do with a thumbs up for a post here, for all the good that does us.  The best feedback pushes us to be the best we are capable of being.

Jimi Hendrix, a lovely soul and musical genius, recorded the live album Band of Gypsies at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East on New Year’s Eve, 1970.    Jimi played his ass off during the first set as the audience went wild.  He played with his teeth, behind his back, between his legs, flipped on to his back like a super-agile break dancer, never missing a note as he played his wild, electric blues with infinite nonchalance. He came off the stage beaming and asked  Bill Graham what he thought of the show.  

Graham said “well… it was very good, it’s too bad none of those acrobatics and tricks you did will be on the album…”   Jimi, Graham reported, glared daggers at him and went back to his dressing room.   He came out for the second set and played the entire set standing stock still.   Barely moved a muscle, other than his fingers, as he played his new soulful set.   That second dhow contains much of the amazing live improvization that would wind up comprising the album.  

 When he was done Jimi glowered at Graham at the side of the stage.  Graham was clearly blown away.  Jimi mouthed something to the effect of  “go fuck yourself!” and proceeded to scream and go completely insane during the encore, doing all his Chitlin Circuit tricks before humping his guitar, which sent the late show crowd into a frenzy.   That superb live album reflects the power of excellent, fearless feedback.   I’ve never heard a live recording of any guitarist as consistently brilliant as Jimi’s playing, goaded by Bill Graham’s hard, undeniable truth, on Band of Gypsies.

I recently exerted myself to write a 3,000 word abstract of a long manuscript about my father’s life and times, much of it in the form of a conversation my father would have loved to have had, but was unable to, about the nature and substance of history, what happens to idealism during savagely hard times, the curse of unexamined anger,  the great blessing of forgiveness, the overarching tragedy of deathbed regrets, which cast such terrible shadows over a life.    

The 3,000 word piece was intended as bait, an advertisement to catch the interest of an ambitious literary agent.  It originally began with an expository paragraph, describing my father, his eyes the color of a slightly sickened green-grey sea on a cloudy day, and so forth.  Not the way I usually write, not particularly well-written, but I was off and flying and in a hurry to write the other parts and I never really looked back.  

In two or three rewrites of the whole piece I tried to rescue that first unaccountably sluggish first paragraph, which seemed to drag the whole thing backwards. I never succeeded in making it flow, dance, sing, intrigue, engage, beguile, seduce, all the rest of the things a good opening paragraph should do.

I got an email from a writer friend who tentatively suggested, for the reasons mentioned above, that I might want to cut back that first graf, or lose it entirely, even.   I blocked out the whole paragraph and hit “delete”.  

The piece immediately read better, no longer dragged backwards by that false-note opening.   Addition by subtraction, a marvelous thing.  Tip of the cap to him, over there in our new enemy, Europe.

Sent the piece to another old friend, this guy also an excellent writer.  He makes fine distinctions and argues for a living, and understandably decided it wasn’t worth the job of thinking it all through and writing it all out, and being overdue for a check-in,  he  invited me to call him for his feedback.   We spoke for a long time, about many things.  In the course of a long chat he gave me a couple of excellent insights about the piece.  

He prefaced his comments by asking for my elevator pitch, a short statement of the exact nature of the product I’m proposing to sell.   It’s a hard one, because the project is quite complicated, even as I always strive for clarity.   I made a few halting attempts, probably none as concise as what I wrote above, to wit (and which I will edit now):

The book you’re holding is the story of my complicated father’s life and times, spanning much of the tumultuous twenty-first century.    The story is largely told by the skeleton of my dead father during, a chat he would have loved to have had while alive, but was unable to.   We wrangle over the nature and substance of history, what happens to idealism during savage times, the curse of unexamined anger, the great blessing of forgiveness, the overarching tragedy of deathbed regrets, which cast a terrible shadow over a life, even as the unburdening of those regrets is also a great blessing. [1]   

His first insightful, specific comment (and I cannot over-emphasize the usefulness of the specific) was that the skeleton of my father, a man he interacted with quite a few times during the early years of our friendship, (years before my father died and grew into the philosophical skeleton we know today), sounded nothing like my father.  

He reminded me that my father always had an edge, menace in one form or another always at the ready.   In marked contrast, and out of character, his skeleton in this sample is a reasonable, wise and anodyne fellow, truly, nothing like Irv Widaen at his dreaded best.

I realized almost at once that my friend was right and then immediately understood why what I’d written for the skeleton had fallen flat: the skeleton I’d imagined for the 3,000 word piece was the skeleton of my father at the very end of our long journey together in the writing of his book.   In that satisfied skeleton there is no trace of the brooding, superior, caustic, irascible eternally stewing deployer of barbed humor and spewer of threatening ad hominem throwaways.

So there is that error of voice and tone to be fixed, the skeleton needs to be much more contentious, much more like the elegantly brutal bastard my father was in life.  

And then there is the matter of the remarkable deathbed scene, that last conversation between my father and me on the very last night of his life.  My friend pointed out how rare a scene like this scene is, and how dramatic.  After a lifetime of blaming his children and being an adamant, prosecutorial adversary, my father, as he was dying, told me that I’d been right all along and that he, to his irremediable regret, had been the immature, pugnacious, flailing asshole the whole time.  

“I never said  ‘immature, pugnacious, flailing asshole’, you pugnacious, flailing asshole,” said the skeleton of my father, with the best approximation of a scowl a skeleton can muster.  He still looked manically cheerful, as skeletons always do, but his tone was unmistakably sour.  “And who, by the way, even talks like that, you writerly fuck, you?”

Fine, but the deathbed scene certainly needs to be mentioned in the opening section, it’s the dramatic centerpiece of the whole exercise.   It does the intended job, once sketched out, of interesting the reader in knowing the rest of the story.  

Leaving out the revelation about the face-whipping in this 3,000 word sampler may also be a very intelligent note.   That stunning, sickening detail really is a kind of spoiler that shouldn’t be set out so quickly, as the anodyne skeleton suggested in his reasonable, sugary remarks.

I thanked my friend for these helpful notes.   Important to know that these kinds of fundamental deficiencies are hiding in an otherwise pretty good first draft of a piece.  I thanked him and told him to go fuck himself for giving me so much more work to do on something I’d considered pretty much done.   He didn’t even bother, in the manner of the harmless version of the skeleton of my father, to say “don’t mention it.”  It went without saying, clearly.


[1] Fuck those chatty, rambling 99 words.  I need to do it in about thirty-five, I figure, but next time.  Good night.


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