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Room for improvement

Food for Thought

I belong to three organizations that are made up of some very talented and creative people. In all three instances, I feel flattered to be accepted as an equal and I have great respect for the opinions they share about the things we create, both individually and as a group. One group (the one with the broadest scope) consists of professional women writers, artists and composers of music. As a writer and artist, I feel pretty much at home among the others, even though their talents often seem unattainable compared to the things that I am able to come up with. Members have to produce things that meet professional standards and show that they are paid for their work. Writing this column qualifies me for membership.
Another group, the one I have belonged to for the longest time, embraces writers of every genre; novelists, poets, biographers, playwrights, writers of children’s stories, textbooks, trade publications, history, mystery, romances, future fiction, memoirs, cookbooks and letters to the editor. Not surprisingly, many of them are also involved with art, music and other creative undertakings. A good many are, or have been, teachers. The only qualifications for membership in this group are an interest in writing and being a member of the University Club of Iowa City. Since this is also a women’s organization, membership excludes men, and it is not necessary to be associated with the University or even to live in Iowa City.
The third and newest group is called the Poetry Gang and includes only poets, both men and women, though membership is limited because of time limitations for our meetings. I appreciate the extra viewpoints contributed by the male members and wish the other two organizations welcomed them as members as well. All three groups offer valuable advice and support for all members, and we share concerns and problems we encounter in our writing and other endeavors, as well as seriously critiquing each other’s work. Each of the three groups has its own approach to these critiques, and the poetry group has the most rigid of the rules in that it is conducted as a workshop where the writer is not allowed to comment on the criticisms or to defend his or her work until the other members have finished their comments and recommendations.
Because of this arrangement, there is often a wide gap between what the poet was trying to express and what the other members think the poem is about. Metaphor abounds in poetry and is open to many interpretations. Thus, comments frequently astonish the writers when they learn how their poems are interpreted by others. I like to remind writers that, once their work is printed and out there for people to read, they have lost control over its meaning and must accept the idea that the reader doesn’t always see things the same as the writer intended.
Following a recent critique of one of my poems, I was flabbergasted by the severity with which one of the members cut and rearranged what I considered a straightforward narrative poem. I didn’t like the idea that someone else thought they could write my poem better than I could– how could they presume to know what I wanted to express? What nerve. Which led to the following:
Painting a picture or writing a poem is comparable to giving birth and raising a child. This is true of any creative undertaking. It involves a lot of joy and pain and everything in between– frustration, anxiety, problems, pride and uncertainties. But, in the end, you’ve created something that exists because of you. It’s yours. Good or bad or mediocre, it is what it is and it’s new to this world; a product of your mind. It is unique.
As an art teacher, I learned early on that you keep your mitts off a student’s work. The temptation to adjust, redraw, change a color, eliminate something that doesn’t belong is almost irresistible. But, the minute you give in and put your hand to someone else’s creation, you take it away from them, reduce its value, redefine it. It is acceptable to offer suggestions, point out errors or discrepancies, suggest solutions to problems, but you must leave it to the student to accept or reject your suggestions and to make any changes according to his own interpretation of those suggestions and to carry them out in his own way.
Recently, while formatting a book of poems for a friend, I came across a short poem that set my teeth ajar. The syntax was awkward, I thought, and a half-hearted attempt at rhyming “share a fate” with “unappreciated” left me positively itching to make a couple adjustments in the rhythm and to change “share a fate” to “similarly fated.” I didn’t even suggest my changes to my friend, but I did calm my itch by writing a poem of my own that, while entirely different, made use of what I considered to be changes for the better.
As for whether or not my ideas were an improvement; my friend’s poem has been published– mine has not.