Nathaniel Hawthorne, in his preface to The Marble Faun, directly addresses the audience—calls the reader “indulgent,” “gentle,” “kind.” I rather like wading through Hawthorne’s prose and finding myself so respectfully and hopefully described. Can you hear the plea in his choice of words? It is as if he were begging, “Go easy on me, reader. I’m about to pour my heart out.”
After you have finished writing something, you, too, will long for a gentle reader. You might confront this completed something, whatever it is (poem, story, play, essay), much in the same way that a new parent gazes upon an infant. “Why, look what I made. How remarkable. Wonderful!” And then, with consternation: “But so vulnerable.”
Alas, the world is a cold, cruel place. (Sorry, but it’s true.) You will send your precious masterpiece out into the wilderness with a basket crammed chock-full of your hopes and dreams. And though your darling might fall into the hands of a gentle, indulgent, kind grandmotherly sort, it more likely will bump into a vicious wolf (who works as a fiction editor for a literary magazine and delights in issuing speedy rejections. His den harbors whole piles of shards and rubble—the jagged remains of hapless submitters’ crushed egos.)
So do yourself a favor, and secure, in advance, a gentle reader. Find a writing buddy! After you have proofread and revised your piece, you can send it off to be read by someone who will care enough about your tender feelings to read sympathetically, celebrate your clever turns of phrase, admire your finely crafted imagery, and offer some sound constructive criticism.
And now you’re thinking, Wait a minute…constructive criticism? What the hell?!
Yes. You need that at least as much as you require the praise. An effective writing partner will help you see your work’s weaknesses—confusing passages, grammatical errors, undeveloped characters, rambling paragraphs—and thus make your good writing even better. If you only desire oohs and aahs, simply send the piece off to your grandma.
On the following week, your writing buddy should send his or her revised draft to you. And then you can play the part of the gentle reader/kindly, helpful critic.
Some people perhaps prefer a larger writing cohort. But it can take hours to read, reflect on, and edit a piece of writing. You may not have time to do that on a regular basis for more than one person. Right now, I definitely don’t. I am very happy to collaborate, one-on-one, with my friend, Amber Christopher.
Amber and I went to grad school together at the Bread Loaf School of English, but we’ve kept in touch since then. One year, she sent me a Christmas card. In the corner of it, she’d scrawled a note, something like, I’ve been writing. What are you up to? I was excited to read this. I called her to say I’d been writing, too. And then we decided: Let’s share our stuff! Thus, our buddy-writer system began.
I’m grateful for Amber. She is my wise and gentle reader.
Join your school’s script club, attend your college’s poetry readings, take a fiction-writing class, work on your school newspaper, offer to be a reader for a literary journal—in short, scope out your local writing community. Eventually, you will find your own special writing partner.
Amber read this and agrees. She also made the excellent point that our “mutually beneficial” arrangement keeps us from getting lazy and makes for some healthy pressure. The writing pieces we prepare for each other become a bit like homework—only more fun. So that’s another benefit to having a writing buddy: he or she will hold you accountable.
Raymond Harrison says
So glad to read that you and Amber are writing buddies! Bread Loaf was a writer’s dream. To have the daily companionship of writers who care deeply about their words is a gift. That gift continues long after all of the classes have ended! Congratulations on the upcoming publication of your novel! Best Wishes always, Ray
Melissa Ostrom says
How wonderful to hear from you, Ray! And you’re so right: Bread Loaf was a dream! Whenever Amber and I workshop one of our stories, I feel like I’m getting a little dose of Bread Loaf magic. Thank you for the warm wishes. I hope you’re doing well…and writing, too!
Harriet Chessman says
I am so happy to hear about this mutually beneficial writing friendship! Two wonderful writers, who are also wise and honest readers, encouraging and yet with a high bar! May every writer find just such a companion!
Melissa Ostrom says
Oh, my goodness, Harriet! I can’t tell you how often I’ve thought of you over the years. I loved having you as a professor. What a gift you were to Amber and me–and so many other students! Your wonderful writing, warmth, and intelligence really inspired me to want to become a writer, too. I hope someday I’ll get to see you again!