The first act of The Recruiter is solid at last, at last, thanks in no small part to my stalwart friend Rebecca, who not only read several drafts cheerfully and thoroughly, but commented on the lines in red font, cheering me on when I had hit the right tone, and chiding me when I fell asleep at the wheel.
If it takes a village to raise a child--which I believe it does--and it takes a city to assist a disabled and/or dying person, which I know from being with my mother and with Carla, it takes, I don't know, at least a soccer team to see a work of art through to completion. You need several kinds of friendly readers. At least one person should fall into the cheerleader rah-rah you go girl, I love every word that falls from your pen category. This is because writing is fucking hard and it also requires the writer to become solitary and occasionally delusional. A friend like this comes in at that delicate moment right after the birth, looks at the butt-ugly screeching hairless newborn covered with blood and mucus, and declares it the most gorgeous infant the world has ever seen. You can't put a price-tag on that kind of support.
But then--later--you also need critical-but-kind readers, people who are discerning and care about literature, and perhaps work in its minefields themselves, so they can be clear about what works and doesn't work without being catty or cruel. they are the ones who point out that your baby's arms are on backwards, or that it hasn't got a nose, and they manage to do this without shaming you. When after multiple drafts, you actually get the thing breathing--at least a little, at least through one nostril, they are as happy as if it were their own child who was going to make it.
I got lucky in my choice of family, as most of us are bookworms. My dad and stepmother are cheerleaders--they love almost everything (although Dad doesn't like things that are too dark or too overtly sexual, big surprise. Still, if he doesn't like something much he'll just mildly say, "It's not as good as your last one.") In general though, if I sneezed and sent him the Kleenex full of snot, he would forward it to all his friends with a proud note: Look what my daughter did!
My sister and my sister-in-law who are both raising young children and don't have time to sit around writing thesis-length emails are very supportive but not afraid to say when something doesn't work for them. I usually don't get lengthy critical analysis from either of them, but "This worked for me," or "Not so much. I didn't get it." A few non-writer friends also fall into this category: concise pithy feedback, supportive but honest so I know I can trust it.
Then there are the doubting Thomases, the devil's advocates, the supporters who make you work your fanny off. They might be called the sparring partners who make you better, the Tough lovers, the Worthy Opponents. Not to make too many sweeping generalizations about gender here, but in my life, these tend to be male. Gay, straight, it doesn't matter. I think this is how men have often been socialized to relate to each other, and so when they do it to you--to me--it's kind of a compliment, like "See, I'm treating you like one of the boys."
They don't do the soften-the-criticism-with-a-compliment-sandwich thing that women do; you know, "I really liked x and y, but z seemed problematic to me. overall though, I think you have a great piece!" We women have had that rubric so ingrained in us that it can be a bit shocking when the critic-friend just circles in on z. But I think guys--and women who are socialized like them--assume that you already know the stuff that's working and they don't--shouldn't--have to hold your hand about it.
I've learned over time, not to take this personally, and just to be grateful for any response. We're all busy and distracted and if anyone gives some of his or her valuable time and attention to my piece, that's a huge gift. And I am a social creature--I can't work in isolation. I don't produce without some kind of feedback.
I warned a new writer-friend that I suffer from premature ejaculation when it comes to hitting the send button on drafts that are upon reflection, still rough--but that's how I am. I don't mind people seeing my dirty laundry or my ragged line breaks or mushy plots. Some of my friends have said that this approach of mine gives them courage in their own creative process, to be imperfect and to allow others to see them that way. other people have candidly told me that they wish I could contain myself more, send out fewer drafts, learn to edit myself more on my own.
Which is kind of a metaphor for how I am in life, of course--I'm the driver who will pull up next to a pedestrian and ask for directions instead of consulting a map, which drives Christopher crazy. But--sue me--my eyes are weak and I like talking to people. I don't trust maps or GPS or any of that half as much as I trust living breathing humans and their wisdom which comes from all kinds of interesting places inside them. Basically I'm writing in order to be in relationship. So there.