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I know it’s been a long time since I put up a Fashion Friday post, and this is one I’d thought I would publish earlier this year. But I didn’t have all the pictures yet — and I’m actually still waiting on the professional shots — so it all had to wait.

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Fashion Friday: Costumed Freaks Edition

I love dressing up in costume. The school where I teach has a lot of dress-up days during the school year to celebrate various things and events and to give the community a chance to show off their school spirit, and I frequently take advantage of these days to express myself through my clothing. I may not go to football games, but I do care about the students who play on the team and who are our cheer athletes, and I care about the school, so I show my school spirit in this way.

But these themed days and Halloween and dressing as a literary character for Book Fair and things like this, while fun and wonderful, are just not enough for me.

In our twenties, my friends and I used to have costume parties at the drop of a hat. It’s New Year’s Eve? Let’s make it a costume party! Someone’s birthday falls in the same week as Bastille Day? Get a powdered wig and make a giant dress out of upholstery fabric––the birthday party will be French Revolution themed! July 4th? Let’s see who can show up in the most creative interpretation of red, white, and blue!

Then lots of us had kids and were too worn out to sew elaborate costumes for three or four occasions a year. But just because we ran out of disposable time, income, and energy doesn’t mean we completely gave up on the things we liked.

Every summer, my sister and I attend a large costume ball out in Los Angeles. It lasts two nights over the course of a weekend, and one of the requirements for attendance is a costume. And not just any plastic and polyester sack cloth you can buy at the grocery store for Halloween, either––the costumes at this event go over the top. At the very minimum, to get into the party, you need formal wear and a mask, but the vast majority of people do much, much better than that.

Sometimes I like to wear extravagant outfits that I can’t wear anywhere else. Clothes that make me feel beautiful, that put me into the spirit of the fantasy theme of the masquerade ball. As costumes go, I admit they aren’t super creative, but I like wearing them. This year I developed one that was unfortunately more difficult to dance in than I expected, but it was really lovely.

I started with a plain red, strapless, taffeta gown that I ordered on sale from Victorian Trading Co. To see what it looked like before I got ahold of it, click here to be taken to their online catalog.

Some of the attractive features of the dress included a layer of red lace in the skirts and ruching all the way across the bodice. The reviews of the gown said that it ran a little small, so I ordered a size up. Unfortunately, when it arrived, it was still about three sizes too small! So since the shipping was going to be crazy expensive anyway, I took it to a tailor and had the back zipper removed and corset lacing installed, which made the dress prettier and adjustable, as well as solving the fit problem completely.

I was trying to figure out how to bustle the very long train so that I could dance in it, but then a domestic mishap involving my husband’s cat solved that problem for me. Without getting into the grisly details, I’ll just say I had to cut off nearly all of the long train (several feet of fabric). I took several yards of black lace­­––it had a bas-relief rose pattern on it to echo the red taffeta rose at one hip of the gown––and made a new train for the gown and two shorter lace falls for the hips. I added a black lace top underneath.

waiting outside the hotel for the shuttle to pick us up to take us to the party

waiting outside the hotel for the shuttle to pick us up to take us to the party

LOJ 2014 gown from the right

I considered adding wings or an Elizabethan stand-up collar or something to the top half of the dress to balance the volume of the skirt/train situation, but those can be unwieldy, especially in a crowded ballroom or on a dance floor, so I opted for an elaborate headpiece instead. Enter this cage fascinator, made by Enchanted Dream Wear.

headcage fascinator view 2

Not too tall and extremely lightweight, it’s comfortable and easy to wear all night. The cage has several decorative bands which wrap around my head and attach to each other with elastic under my hair. On top sit various embellishments, including some brass gears and butterflies, some feathers and flowers, and a tiny animal skull.

headcage fascinator view 1

This piece incorporates both the Gothic and Steampunk flavors I wanted.

I also went for an unusual manicure treatment to go with the outfit. It’s all in the details, right? This look was created by first brushing on two coats of black, then adding white stripes and silver glitter accent stripes, and then painting a garnet-red French tip across the top.

LOJ 2014 manicure

If I were going to do this again, however, I would make the base coat white and the stripes black, so that the red would show up better.

I wore only slightly more dramatic make-up than I would for going out to dinner (though I could have done much more and been well within bounds for this outfit and event). My hairstylist (the awesome Kevin Roberts) updid my hair with pin curls and added some dark red extensions to simulate roses.

Here's my hair with most of the curls in it, before the headcage fascinator goes on and the tendril in front gets curled.

Here’s my hair with most of the curls in it, before the headcage fascinator goes on and the tendril in front gets curled.

Finish off the look with a sparkly lace fan––because dancing all night is a warm activity, yo––and we’re done.

Here's a picture of me with my sister. We did not plan to wear the same colors beforehand. We didn't even notice we were doing it until hours later when someone else who was taking our picture pointed it out.

Here’s a picture of me with my sister. We did not plan to wear the same colors beforehand. We didn’t even notice we were doing so until hours later when someone else who was taking our picture pointed it out.

Here are my friends Sarah and Adriene, waiting to get in with us outside the venue.

Here are my friends Sarah and Adriene, waiting to get in with us outside the venue.

Hey, look! Another picture of the Wonder Twins!

Hey, look! Another picture of the Wonder Twins!

The kinds of costumes that show up for this event range from extravagant…

This was so incredible I don't even know where to begin describing it.

This was so incredible I don’t even have the vocabulary to do it justice. Her skirt has a 3D light-up village embedded in it! Terraced and everything!

…to maybe a little scary…

LOJ 2014 demon

This dude had a tail.

…to hilarious.

This is one of the goblins.

This is one of the goblins.

One guy out there this year spent a couple of hours the afternoon of the event and about six dollars at Walgreen’s and made a strapless ball gown and beehive wig — think Marie Antoinette as a funny arts and crafts project — out of colored duct tape and wrapping paper.

This guy's costume made me so happy! It's the same idea but with a totally different execution from my friend Adrienne's, which she spent way more time and money on than he did for his! Yet both are FABULOUS.

This guy’s costume made me so happy! It’s the same idea but with a totally different execution from my friend Adriene’s, which she spent way more time and money on than he did for his! Yet both are FABULOUS.

Another guy had dressed as Jon Snow in an enormous fake fur greatcoat; he looked miserable on the dance floor, as if he might spontaneously combust at any moment. And then there are those who spend months and hundreds of dollars on their elaborately detailed and drool-worthy outfits, and all of us who are costume geeks take pictures of them all night. One woman out there this summer came as a fiery dragon, resplendent in a multi-layered and complicated chiffon gown and real metal-scale armor.

And here she is with another interpretation of a dragon.

And here she is with another amazing interpretation of a dragon.

To offer a comparison for how extraordinary and creative a lot of the costumes out there are, I’ll just say that my own costume was of the type to render me nearly invisible at an event like this––perfect for when you just want to blend into the ballroom’s shadows and people watch.

Talisk photobomb

I got photobombed by a Talisk. Don’t ask.

Because the people watching at an event like this? Wow.

***

If you’d like to be a guest contributor to our Fashion Friday series, click on the Fashion page and follow the guidelines to contact me with your idea.

In this (usually) twice-monthly series, I’m showcasing books written by women authors through reviews of and responses to them written by other women authors. The idea? To better highlight some of the many contributions women have made to literature in our history and now. If you’d like to contribute to this series, leave a comment below, and I’ll be in touch with the details. To see the first post in this series, click here.

Today’s book response is by, well, me. It’s about a series of books by Patricia Coombs which were really important to me when I was a child about a character named Dorrie the Little Witch. For information about this series and how to get these books, click here.

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Dorrie the Little Witch’s First Library Card

 

Certain periods in my life have been marked by things other than time. In my childhood, I divided the years by how many siblings I had, or whether my godfather was still living in Texas or my cousin Chuck was still alive. In college, I could always remember which semester something happened in by the classes I was taking or whom (if anyone) I was dating.

One constant throughout my life has been my reading habits––that I had some, and they were voracious. My young childhood was flavored by fairy tales; I think the first book I ever read on my own was Grimms’ common canon. In my early adolescence I discovered and devoured the classics by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Lewis Carroll, Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott. Then came novels from the 1950s and 1960s aimed at teenage girls and focused on solving mysteries (I preferred Trixie Belden to Nancy Drew) or dating; books like Love Is A Four-Letter Word and Johnny and Janie are still vivid in my mind. My high school and college years were all about fantasy and science fiction (but mostly fantasy). At university, I was introduced to magic realism, the more academically acceptable cousin of fantasy, and Gothic literature, and I eagerly invited those genres to join the party too.

A few characters have stayed with me over the years. Alice in Wonderland, Batman, Sleeping Beauty, Lizzie Bennet, the vampire Lestat, the Twelve Dancing Princesses. And then, Dorrie.

Dorrie the Little Witch has been one of my favorite literary characters since I was seven years old for a lot of reasons––but most especially because it was over Dorrie that my mother performed one of the most awesome feats I’ve ever seen her do, when she came to my defense at the public library.

Turning seven was a big deal for me. Seven years old was considered the age of reason in my family’s faith (Catholicism), and so in second grade at my parochial school, we got treated to a slew of new experiences and obligations. First Penance, First Communion, really being held accountable for understanding our moral choices. And those were all fine and good, I supposed, and somewhat interesting, I guessed, but the really exciting thing I’d been looking forward to was that at seven years old, I could apply for my own library card.

My mother took me to the Walter Branch Public Library down the road from our house so I could eagerly fill out the application, but when I turned it in to the crusty librarian at the circulation desk, she told me I would have to wait for my card in the mail. My mom checked out a Harlequin novel for herself and let me pick out a couple of Dorrie books, marvelous stories by Patricia Coombs about a little witch who didn’t quite have herself all together and whose mother, Big Witch, was usually a little too busy with her job (as an important witch in their town) to be the most effective and involved single parent. But Dorrie had Cook (the somewhat surly domestic help) and Gink (her black cat) and her friends, so she was okay.

 

Dorrie, Gink, and Big Witch

 

Dorrie had messy hair and a black dress. She had elf-like black shoes and a black hat whose point was crinkled. Her room was as messy as my closet, and her long striped socks were always mismatched. She got herself into little episodes of trouble, like protagonists are wont to do, and she often had to escape it without any help from the absent or otherwise incapacitated or ineffectual grown-ups, like the protagonists in children’s books must.

 

Dorrie in her messy room

 

I wanted to be Dorrie. I pushed the couches in our den together to make a fort and stood on top of the piled cushions and blankets, intoning the spells Dorrie recited in her stories, anxious and thrilled and waiting for something to happen. Whatever befell Dorrie never happened to me, but something important was imprinting on my brain. I didn’t know yet what was happening, but I could feel my affection for literature growing and warming me in ways that little else did.

I loved Dorrie the Little Witch like I loved fairy tales; I adored her like I adored my Yorkshire terrier, Wizard; I cherished her like I cherished the activity of reading itself. Dorrie, a character unknown to most of my classmates and cousins and every babysitter who set foot in our house, was my witch.

I checked the mail daily, waiting for my library card to arrive. The mailbox, on the wall next to our front door, was too high up for me to reach when I stood on the porch, so I had to bring a dining room chair over to stand on. I leaned across the threshold each day to peer into the box, but each day was another chapter of disappointment and despair. When my card finally showed up about a week and a half after I’d made my application, I tore open the white and taupe envelope and stared at my name in beautiful dot-matrix printing and squealed. I made my mother take me to Walter Branch that day.

I marched into that library like I owned the place. I waved at the other patrons sitting on beanbags and in chairs to my right and turned my nose up at my formerly favorite section, the “audiobooks” (plastic snap-handled bags containing children’s books and the vinyl records on which their text had been recorded). I reached the stacks and then raced to the children’s fiction section, plopped myself down in front of the C’s and went to town.

 

Dorrie reading

 

I pulled out all the Dorrie books I could find. Dorrie and the Blue Witch, Dorrie and the Wizard’s Spell, Dorrie and the Haunted House, Dorrie and the Magic Elixir, Dorrie and the Witch’s Imp, Dorrie and the Halloween Plot. The list went on. I stacked up ten Dorrie books, all the ones I hadn’t read yet, and hefted the impressive collection across the library to the circulation desk, through an obstacle course of bookshelves and other children, of tables and chairs and rolling carts filled with books. I heaved my treasure onto the dark brown laminate counter and reached my little hands out to keep them from tumbling all over the place.

The librarian, looking like an extra out of some children’s movie whose underlying theme was the inability of grown-ups to relate to kids, peered down at me over, no joke, half-moon glasses. I was so short and my stack of books so tall on the counter, she had to lean over far enough to see me that her glasses slipped down to the tip of her nose and threatened to slide off.

“Where is your mother?” she asked.

I pointed across the room to my mom, browsing the adult fiction section for a murder mystery novel. I called to her, and she walked over.

“Are you all ready?” she asked me, smiling.

I nodded.

“Did you find enough books?” she teased me good-naturedly.

I giggled. “It’s a start!” I said.

The librarian wasn’t nearly as amused as we were. She half-sighed, half-snorted. “Do you have a library card?” she asked me.

I proudly produced my new card from my pocket and held it up for her to see. She reached over and took it from my fingers. I couldn’t stop grinning. She peered at the card, then at me, then at the card again.

“Is this your first time to check out any books on your own?” she asked me.

“Yes!”

“Then you may check out only two books.”

As her meaning washed over me, I thought I might cry.

“You may check out only two books the first time you use your card.” She pushed the card back at me and settled into her chair, finality in her posture.

“But I’ve picked out ten,” I said, hoping she would understand the importance of my needing to take those books home right then. I couldn’t articulate how much these books meant to me, how much reading meant to me. I couldn’t express the plain and simple truth that Dorrie the Little Witch was my friend, and in choosing to take all her books home, it was as if I’d invited her to a party at my house, and by leaving her books at the library, I was shunning her, telling her she couldn’t come play with me after all. So I just repeated, “I picked out ten.”

“You can have two,” the librarian repeated. She turned around to the other side of the desk and began shuffling papers.

I didn’t know what to do, what else to say. I’d pled my case. I looked at the lopsided stack of books on the counter and realized I wasn’t even tall enough to pull them all down without scattering them on the floor, and I sure didn’t want to make a mess now in front of this librarian, for fear she would tear up my library card and not let me check out any books, ever. I couldn’t even move.

My mother cleared her throat. “Okay, then,” she said in the stridently cheerful voice she used when making lemonade out of the disappointing lemons of circumstance. She picked up the books and held them down to me. “Go ahead and pick two.” I stared at the stack. Two? “Go ahead, Angélique, just pick your two favorites.” Her voice was clipped, efficient.

How could I possibly choose? Of course I couldn’t, so I glumly slid the top two into my hands. My mother replaced the rest on the circulation desk, just off to the side, and put my slim selection and the book she’d chosen for herself on the counter. She put her library card on top of her book and my library card on top of mine, and cleared her throat again, more forcefully. When the librarian turned around to look at my mother, she gave the woman a tight smile. “We’re ready,” she said.

Checking out the books was a quick process. The glowing enthusiasm I had expected everyone in the room would share as they congratulated me on my first library card was absent, the muffled sounds of people whispering and pages turning and books being shelved and selected echoing the silence of my muted joy.

“There now,” my mother said, trying to cheer me, “you’ve just checked out your first books! Isn’t that exciting? Good job!”

I nodded, clutching my two Dorrie books, my gaze lingering on the eight I had abandoned. She gently ushered me out the door, and as we walked back to the car, she replaced her sternly chipper voice for a more sympathetic tone.

“I know that was disappointing, honey,” she said. “I’m sorry.” I just nodded. We got to the car, and as my mother unlocked it and I climbed in, she said, “Let’s go home, and you can read your books, and when you’re done with them, we’ll come back and get the others.”

This did cheer me up some, and I started reading one book as soon as we pulled out of the parking lot. By the time we’d been home half an hour, I’d devoured both of them, and although I was sad to take them back to the library so soon, I knew I had to relinquish them to get the rest of my stack. I thought of it as a hostage negotiation.

I walked into the living room where my mother was reading. “I’ve finished them,” I said.

“So soon?” she asked. “All right then.”

And true to her word, my mother took me back to the library right then. I walked up to the circulation desk where the librarian still sat and launched the books onto the counter. The other eight were still sitting there.

“I’ve finished,” I told her. “May I please have the other books now?”

She looked skeptical. “That was fast,” she said.

“She’s a quick reader,” my mother said, all the friendliness in her voice gone. “Now let her have those other books and stop giving her a hard time, or I’m going to report you to the main branch for harassing a seven-year-old.”

The librarian looked stunned. My mother’s face was resolute. I held my breath.

No one said another word as the librarian checked out the other eight books to my now-veteran library card. She pushed them across the desk to me. I tried to pull them down and nearly dropped them, but I managed. Once I had them secure in my arms, I beamed at my mother.

“All set?” she asked me. I nodded, smiling. “Good.” She held the door open. “Now let’s get out of here.”

Dorrie the Little Witch, like so many little witches, has been relegated, when remembered at all, to the season of October, but she’s always there in my subconscious, drinking tea with the Mad Hatter and wondering when Big Witch will come home. Hallowe’en always brings out that childlike spirit in me, and I channel my inner Dorrie. Part of me wants to return to the Hallowe’ens of my youth, before my cousin died, when we and all the kids we were friends with in our neighborhood went on trick-or-treating hayrides. When dressing up in costume was normal and fun and exciting and didn’t have to be confined to something other people did. When a holiday couldn’t be ruined for everybody in the parish because one ignorant and uptight family decided the holiday was all about devil worship.

I can’t bring back the past. But what I can do is share Dorrie with everyone else. Her books are coming back into print; you can find them here. And when you do, you might find something of yourself––a charming independence, a domestic flexibility¾in them as well.

Even after so many years, I still do.

***

All images obtained from a search for free images of the character.

Want to read more reviews of books by female authors? Try blogs by Melanie Page (www.grabthelapels.weebly.com) and by Lynn Kanter (www.lynnkanter.com).

I’m not gonna lie, it’s been a challenging week. Between intense home improvements and an intense workload at school and some intense upcoming deadlines for my novel revisions, I’m spread a little thin. But then today Misty Urban at Femmeliterate posted a thoughtful, intelligent, critical review of Finis. that pretty much refilled my emotional bank account back way up. You can read it here. And if you want to check out Finis. yourself, here’s the link to it on Amazon.

 

You might have noticed the hoopla over the last year or so about women writers getting short shrift in many arenas of the publishing world. It’s been going on for longer than a year, of course, but the Sturm und Drang reached a more intense level of outrage then. Or maybe it’s just that people were starting to be more vocal about it, or that people were starting to take notice. No wonder, with so much discussion of rape culture (or whatever else you want to call it) and the general cancer of death and rape threats outspoken women tend to get de rigeur nowadays.

I’m not going to get all preachy here, not today. Instead I’ve decided that what might make a nice reminder to people about women’s valuable contributions to literature is to feature a series of book reviews and book responses written by women writers about books by women writers.

If you are a woman writer and would like to guest post about a book by another woman, please let me know. I’m soliciting new contributions to this series all the time. At the end of this post, you can find links to other blogs featuring reviews of works by women authors.

Our first guest blogger is Elizabeth Marro, presenting Magical Journey by Katrina Kenison.

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A Journey to Now

In May I was feeling the loss of an old friend very deeply. It was his birthday month and a year since the last time I’d seen him. May was the time he’d normally be wrapping up his training for the Mount Washington Road Race in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range. Unable to run last year, he and I made breakfast for his fellow runners after their training run. He died of cancer last November.

His absence was palpable, like a deep bruise that throbbed every day. I was conscious that my grief was not only for my friend but for myself. This appalled me. Here I was, surrounded by more love than I ever thought would be mine, a family that is large, multi-faceted and very much alive, and a chance to do what I’ve always dreamed of doing. I was, and remain, grateful for all of it.

But struggle and confusion persisted. How is it possible to hold loss and grief and joy and gratitude in one heart all at the same time?

Around this time, I started to read Katrina Kenison’s memoir, Magical Journeyone of two books I’d given myself for Mother’s Day.

Magical Journey cover

Within, I found a fellow traveler grieving for her own old friend. “She’s been gone three months and I’m still not used to the world without Marie in it.” A few pages later I realized I had tears in my eyes as I read about Katrina’s loss as if I were reading about my own.

“The stark, absolute absence of her— of her life, her face, her hello on the other end of the phone, her name popping up in my e-mail box, her presence here on earth— has begun to grow, as Sylvia Plath put it, “beside me like a tree.” I live in the dark shadow of that loss, the shape and color of my own life changed by the too-early end of hers. And I know now, in a way I never quite did before, that time is contingent and that anything can happen.”

I lost myself for a few days in the story of Katrina’s journey. It was triggered by a convergence of events that unfold for all of us in one form or another: the unexpectedly premature flight of her youngest son from the nest, the loss of her friend, the end of a job she had loved, the approach of menopause, and the impending arrival of her 50th birthday. Among other things.

When these events are listed like this, it is perhaps tempting to say, “that’s life isn’t it?” Children grow, friends die or leave, our bodies change, and we get older. I’ve said this to myself, usually when I am feeling anxious or worried or unbearably sad. I see it now as an attempt to sidestep the emotions that come with loss and the unrelenting reminders that nothing, absolutely nothing, is permanent. I am learning the long, slow, hard way that the key to growth and peace lies in how I respond to that single, incontrovertible fact.

In Magical Journey, Kenison is a pilgrim in the land of impermanence. As I read her book, I felt as though I were taking each step with her, sometimes forward, sometimes back, and sometimes into familiar territory. When she described finding herself suddenly untethered to the daily routines of childcare, I remembered the first year after my son went away to school. when coming home from work meant coming home to a lonely silence and a strange, unsettling feeling that I often tried to ignore by throwing myself into work or hitting the gym. Like Katrina, I came to understand that the crack in what she calls the container we’ve built for ourselves represents both an ending and the beginning of whatever is next.

“Sitting here alone in my slowly brightening kitchen, I wonder if my early-morning restlessness could be preparing me for an awakening of my own. And if perhaps what has felt so much like an ending might also be a beginning.”

What I came to appreciate most about Magical Journey, however, is that  there were no discussions of “bucket lists” or developing action plans and strategies for the second half of life. In fact, Katrina spends a lot of time being still and grappling with not knowing exactly what is coming.

“Instead of continually wondering, “What’s next?” we can bring a spirit of inquiry into the present moment. We can be still, and more considerate toward ourselves. When it is too dark to see, we can listen instead. We can ask, “What is my experience of this moment?”

In the stark new silence of dawn in her once-noisy home, she writes her way to understanding and starts to pay attention to her inner guide. Her journey takes her from that kitchen, to immersing herself in yoga and learning to teach it, to a marriage counselor with her husband, to old friends, new friends, and then to helping others through healing practices and leading memoir workshops. Those are the stops that are easy to describe and are, indeed, rich and very powerful experiences but she didn’t get to them though by following her old expectations or the expectations of others.

“It seems that an honest answer to “What now?” isn’t going to have much to do with my youthful aspirations or definitions of success. It will rise from deep within, … My real task is not to try to reinvent myself or to transcend my life after all, but to inhabit it more fully, to appreciate it, and to thoughtfully tend what’s already here.”

We learn from each other’s stories. This is one of the oldest ways that humans have helped each other navigate the years between birth and death. Mothers, sisters, fathers, brothers, friends, perfect strangers – they can come along at exactly the right moment with the right words or just the simple companionship that makes you realize you while you must make your own journey through life, you are not alone.

In writing about this stage of her life, Katrina touches on the changes that come to all of us. Loss. Love. Children. Letting Go. Hanging on. Not knowing. Learning to trust and live in a world where nothing is permanent and time seems short. Reading Magical Journey helped me to remember that ultimately the place we’ve been headed all our lives, the place we must truly learn to inhabit, is now.

One final note. As I sat down to write this, I visited Katrina Kenison’s blog only to find that she has encountered yet another reminder of life’s fragility and the need to let the current moment guide our actions. She had been planning to write many blog posts and asked that readers consider buying a hard copy in the books stores while they remained. The death of a young friend has led to a period of silence and I would like, because I feel so strongly about this book and know many of you will find it a beautiful piece of writing, to ask you to consider buying a copy. And thank you.

***

Elizabeth Marro is a novelist and freelance writer living in San Diego. Her essays and other nonfiction can be found in LiteraryMama.com, The San Diego Reader, and her blog, http://elizabethmarroblog.com. She is represented by Allison Hunter of Inkwell Management. This post first appeared on her blog here.

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Want to read more reviews of books by female authors? Try blogs by Melanie Page (www.grabthelapels.weebly.com) and by Lynn Kanter (www.lynnkanter.com).

A critique group should be one of the most valuable tools at a writer’s disposal.

Three members of the Crack of Dawn Writing Group getting together to produce those mss our respective critique groups will lovingly rip to shreds later...
Three members of the Crack of Dawn Writing Group getting together to produce those mss our respective critique groups will lovingly and appropriately rip to glorious shreds later…

Your rough drafts may be totes gorgeous and amazeballs, but believe me, if you haven’t had anyone else who’s knowledgeable about writing and/or your genre take a look at it and give you some honest feedback, your manuscript probably isn’t done. A critique group of writers supporting each other through constructive discussion about what works, and what doesn’t so much work, is worth one’s tender ego being a little bruised now and then after finding out one’s first draft is not the burnished gold one thought it was.

That said, sometimes you might find yourself in a critique group that’s not a good match for you. Sometimes the personal chemistry doesn’t work so well. Sometimes you need to move along and find other writers to work with, and that’s okay, too.

So I’ve decided, after being asked questions about all of this in several interviews over the last year, and after realizing I’ve spent the last twenty years either participating in or leading critique groups, to write a blog post about the dos and don’ts of being in a writers’ group.

In preparing for this post, I asked a lot of other writers, those in my current group and some not, for their ideas about good critique group etiquette and professionalism: what you can do, and what you can avoid, to make your––and everyone else’s––experience more positive and productive. There were a lot of common threads, and many of the items you’ll read on these lists were echoed by several of the contributors.

I’d like to thank Casey Fleming, Christa Forster, David Jón Fuller, Adam Holt, Brenda Leibling-Goldberg, Tyson Morgan, Meredith Moore, Shirley Redwine, Lucie Scott Smith, and LiAnn Yim for their input. And if you, dear reader, have some further suggestions on what a critique group participant should or shouldn’t do, please contribute to the conversation in the comments section below!

***

DO…

When it’s your turn to present to the workshop, assuming your group reads the manuscripts ahead of time, DO SEND YOUR WORK OUT TO THE GROUP EARLY so they all have enough time to read it carefully, rather than rushing––or not reading it at all until the night before the meeting. Each group will determine what kind of prep time they need, based on the number of pages each person presents and how many people are sharing their work at each meeting.

Again assuming your group reads manuscripts ahead of time, DO READ EACH MANUSCRIPT BEFORE THE MEETING, more than once if you can. (If you have time, reading it through once and then making notes on your second pass works well.) Have specific notes to give the person. Commit to the time and effort to make a good try. Give it your best effort, even if you don’t love the manuscript.

WILLINGLY ENTER THE CONE OF SILENCE. It’s a hard skill to learn, but it’s so important to keep one’s mouth shut while others talk about your work. LISTEN FIRST and don’t argue with the critics. Wait until they’ve finished, and only then ask questions about the issues they raised. If there is a significant misunderstanding on anyone’s part, it’s better to clear that up before getting into a protracted debate, but there’s also tremendous value in just listening to the effect your writing has on a reader, rather than interjecting partway through and curtailing discussion. Remember that when your work is published and available for a wide audience to read, you won’t be standing over every reader’s shoulder explaining stuff, and you need to see whether your manuscript can stand on its own, whether what you intended to get across on the page actually comes through. Keep quiet until the Redirect, or until the very end.

Alex Haley said, “Find the good and praise it.” DO GIVE NOTES ON WHAT WORKS in the manuscript. People learn better from praise than they do from criticism. Cheering on a great line, a plot twist, or character insight­­––and being able to say why it works––is so meaningful. It’s too easy for writers to feel like our work––particularly our rough drafts––just plain sucks. Getting notes on the parts that don’t work helps, but so does hearing when we’re on the right track. It really helps, in fact, to start your commentary with the praise; if you can start by looking for the good in another writer’s work, it builds trust and helps the writer find a voice and a path. Just picking apart someone’s work mercilessly is counter-productive.

DO STAY ON TOPIC. Keep focused on the writing and feedback. It’s completely normal and acceptable for a writers’ group that’s been working together for a while and that’s built up a solid rapport of mutually respectful, trusting, cordial relationships to be social when they get together, but if you do, keep this part of the meeting confined to the very beginning or very end of the meeting. In my current group, for example, we always eat dinner together when we meet, and we socialize or catch up or chat about writing in general or writing opportunities we’ve come across that we want to share over dinner, and when we’re about done eating, we know it’s time to get down to manuscript business.

BE RESPECTFUL. Keep the writer’s goals in mind, rather than trying to rewrite the manuscript in your own style. Your comments should be about the writer’s goals and about the craft, not about your own tastes or preferences. Focus more on the reaction the manuscript provoked in you, rather than on how you would rewrite it or what the author should have done. Some good advice is to help “make the story more of itself,” which reminds us to examine what the writer wanted to do with the piece—and make recommendations accordingly. (Another way of looking at this is the adage, “It’s not all about you.”)

GO INTO WORKSHOP READY TO HEAR COMMON PLACES OF CONFUSION. Make a list beforehand of what you think could be improved in your draft. Nine times out of ten, good writers already know what’s wrong and just need that list confirmed by other people and re-articulated so they can start to fix it. That process makes the critique feel less personal. In other words, “They’re not tearing my piece apart, they’re helping me see clearly what I already know but am too immersed in the work to approach with clarity.” If you have specific questions you want the group to address, you can do so in Redirect or (if your group allows this) include a short list of questions with your manuscript (if your group reads them ahead of time).

KEEP YOUR OWN COUNSEL. Ignore overly prescriptive advice. Not everyone follows these rules, and it’s important to remember that you’re the one writing this manuscript, not anyone else. If you’re feeling squeamish or discomfited by the critique you’ve received¾either because it’s unproductive or because it’s pulling you in numerous different directions¾it’s helpful to remember this is your work. Sometimes you need to go with your gut.

***

DON’T…

DON’T MONOPOLIZE THE DISCUSSION. Speak your piece concisely and make your point, and then let someone else speak. If you’re in a group where the critics take turns giving their commentary, and you have more to say after everyone else has had a turn, ask if you can add something. If you’re in a group where the conversation flows more like a dialogue, an open discussion, then pay attention to your involvement so that everyone gets a chance to contribute.

DON’T DISPARAGE THE WRITER’S WORK OR GENRE. Use your imagination and allow the author’s work to grow; don’t try to kill it before it blooms. Even if the manuscript isn’t in your genre, don’t treat it like it’s covered in snot. Everyone has different tastes, and if you’re going to work together, you need to respect each other and each other’s work. It may not be to your taste. That’s okay. Rise above your personal preferences and be a professional. Ron Carlson said the workshop participant’s job is to help the writer understand what her piece is trying to do or be and then give some thoughtful encouragement about how to get it there, rather than trying to bend it to the critic’s tastes. To that end, consider Andre Dubus’ essay “Letter to a Writer’s Workshop.” In short, honesty is good—but negativity, just destructive.

DON’T COMPETE. You’re not there to be the best in the group; you’re there to learn from each other. Be open to the idea that you will all learn from each other. If you were the most competent writer in the room, it would be really tough for you to ever get any better at your craft. Plus, competition really inhibits the kind of trusting rapport a group needs to function well.

DON’T SHOVEL ON THE B.S. As one of our contributors said, “I’d rather have someone be brute than dance around the subject.” There’s a difference between honest praise and kissing up, and anyone whose ego is smaller than Texas can recognize it. “Be encouraging at all times” is very important and worthwhile advice, but this doesn’t mean insincere flattery will be helpful in any way. Be diplomatic and kind, but respect your fellow writers enough to be genuine, too.

As one of our contributors advised, “DON’T USE THE F-WORD.” Be diplomatic and respectful in your choice of language. No personal attacks. And if you’re in a situation where someone is launching them at a member of the group, DON’T TOLERATE IT.

DON’T MAKE THE MISTAKE OF THINKING YOUR WRITING IS YOU. It’s something you produce. It’s not personal, nor is it a reflection of your worth as a human being. Keep this in mind because no one is there to judge you. They’re there to improve their work and yours, so don’t be overly offended by criticism or overly enamored with praise of your ramblings. Just listen, learn, improve, and enjoy. Don’t get defensive, or the people critiquing your manuscript will be less likely to give you worthwhile, honest feedback. The important corollary to this, of course, is simple: DON’T MAKE THE MISTAKE OF EQUATING THE WRTER WITH THE MANUSCRIPT. That’s just uncool.

***

I (and the other contributors to this piece) hope you find these guidelines useful. As with any set of rules, of course, you and your group will settle into a dynamic that works for you all. But establishing your rules of engagement early on can save a lot of heartbreak and stress later. Writing and critiquing and becoming better at your craft can (and should) be a fun, productive, valuable process.

May you find an excellent critique group, and when you do find it, may you stick with them. It’s one of the best ways to avoid having too solitary a life, too narrow an echo chamber. It’s one of the best ways to make your work better.

Every year in October, poetry is celebrated in style at the weekend-long Houston Poetry Fest. Next weekend is this year’s festival.

I’m pleased to announce that my poem “At the El Felix” is being published in their anthology this year. I’ll also be reading some of my poetry at the opening night soirée. Here are the details in case you’re in town and want to join us:

Friday, October 10, 2014
7:30 pm.
Willow Street Pump Station (downtown)
811 North San Jacinto Street

For more information about the festival and to see lists of the other readers over the weekend, please click the HPFest link here.

I hope to see you there!

Early Autumn Haiku

Dead rosehips caught on

a spider’s silk — lo! nature’s

dark dangly earring.

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