The folks over at Show Me Your Lits are discussing how we approach commenting on stories. Here’s how I answered, in case it’s helpful to you (if it is, you probably do need help).
My first goal is to understand what the flash is attempting to do to my brain and heart. This is different than trying to figure out what the author was trying to do. In 90 minutes, there’s a lot of unintentional effect, I think, and rather than me trying to infer the author’s motive, it seems more prudent to gaze into the wide eyes of that bunch ‘o words on the screen and ask: Okay, what is it you want from me? How can I help you get it? Does this have to do with that incident in Indiana?
Sometimes, I can see that the story is going about its business wrong, maybe pinching my nipple when it should be massaging my neck, or it’s shouting when a whisper will do, or it’s just not paying attention to itself (which kinda makes me think maybe I shouldn’t either). I mean I know what I respond to, right?
So I try to be honest. I mean if a story looks me in the face and says, “Hey, does this make my butt look big?” I’m not doing anyone a service by telling it it has pretty eyes. I’m more likely to say, “Yeah, a little bit, but you know if you shift that around or maybe leave that bit off, it’s going to make a difference. Oh, and those eyes of yours are sure pretty.” That butt’s not going to shrink on its own is it? (well, sometimes, but not usually). So, yeah, I’m honest, but I try not to be brutal about it. I’m going to stop short of saying, “You’re a fat slob!”, mainly because that’s only going to make my own butt look bigger. Also, these stories are real bad about taking blatant negativity out on the poor authors whose fingers they used to get themselves onto my screen. They’re passive-aggressive like that.
So if something I write about that bunch ‘o words on my screen makes you wince or even hurt inside, please understand that it’s not intentional. I only meant to tell that flash that its butt looks a little big from my perspective. Maybe I need new glasses, or maybe that story’s just going a little passive aggressive on you. Tell it to behave or you won’t give it any more bones to gnaw.
If you’re serious about reaching your potential, it’s important to learn how to detach from your work (not while you’re writing it, but afterward, when you’re gauging its impact on other minds). There’s you and there’s this story that came out of you. What about that umbilical, you say? Learn to pinch that off while you reshape the prose. You’ll end up with more beautiful children.