We were on holiday and having a drink before supper in a hotel. My friend Amphora and I were discussing our hair.
‘I should have washed mine,’ I said.
‘Stop worrying,’ said Amphora, just as her partner Schmutter joined us.
‘What’s this?’ said Schmutter, ‘What are you worrying about?’
‘Nothing,’ I said, ‘I was just saying I should have washed my hair.’
‘Yes,’ said Schmutter, ‘It is a bit dull and lifeless.’
This is the joy of the Dutch.
I think it may be a middle-European thing too. I once complained to a Czech friend that I’ d put on a few pounds.
‘Yes,’ said Gazelle ‘I was quite surprised to see you are so fat now.’
I think of Schmutter and Gazelle quite often when I’m asking for people’s opinions on my writing. Honest, informed feedback is hard to find. It’s like searching for a powerful metaphor after a tiring day.
This week I was lucky. Two new friends, and one older one, gave me some really helpful criticism. I am so grateful. They gave it to me pretty straight but kindly as well. This is not just rare. It’s Marks and Spencer’s unusual.
If you’re not a writer and you’re reading this but you have friends who are writers, please don’t take it as any kind of license to slate. Most people want their medicine sugared, at least a little bit. Encouragement is always critical, especially for people who are just picking up their pencils.
But I’ve been trying to write for a while now, on and off, and although I still roll over for praise, I can take the pill without water. I really need it too, when I’ve lost all critical distance and a deadline is looming. At these kinds of moments, ‘lovely’ or ‘nice’ are worse than useless. You can’t fix mistakes if you can’t see them.
How does this end?
I eventually washed my hair, I bought some bigger clothes and I rewrote the story.
(NB: if I don’t get a good mark for it, I’ll know who to blame.)