Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Guest Post: Cara Chow

Today I have the honor of having Cara Chow, author or Bitter Melon, stopping by and talking about her most challenging experiences as a writer.

Website | Bitter Melon


One of the most challenging and interesting experiences for me as awriter has been hearing others’ reactions to my work. 

I wish I could say that I have a thick skin, but I’ve never beena good liar.  One of my earliest memories of receiving criticism ismailing a rough draft of a story to my best friend when I was a teenager. I expected her to read it and tell me how great it was.  Instead, she sentback my manuscript riddled with line edits.  My friend is a very nice,very smart, and very generous person.  She was trying to help me, not hurtmy feelings.  But instead of reading her comments, I tossed the manuscriptinto the trash. 

Over twenty years later, I look back on this moment and wonder why Idid that. 

I must have had this notion that a writer, like any artist, had to be agenius in order to be good.  As a teen, one of my favorite movies was Amadeus.  In the movie, Salieri waspathologically envious of Mozart because Mozart was a genius, whereas Salieriwas just mediocre.  When Mozart composed his music, the notes just pouredonto the page perfectly the first time around.  There was no need forrevision.  I believed that I should write the way Mozart composed. Therefore, if someone told me that I needed to revise my manuscript, then Imust not be a genius like Mozart.  I must be like Salieri, hopelesslymediocre and destined for the insane asylum.

No wonder I got depressed a lot during the early drafts of my book.

Another reason I was resistant to hearing feedback was because I haddifficulty separating myself from my work.  This was especially the casewith Bitter Melon because thefictional story was inspired by something that happened in my life.  (Iwrite more about this in my guest blog post on Galleysmith.com.)  WheneverI was told that I had an overly complicated plot, I dismissed that person ashaving too short an attention span to follow complex work.  If someonesaid that my antagonist needed to be portrayed in a more sympathetic manner, Iwould accuse him or her of not appreciating edgy characters. 

If I had clung to these beliefs, I don’t think I would be apublished author today.  So what helped me to change? 

Well, the first step to recovery is admitting that you have aproblem.  After a particularly harsh (or so it seemed at the time)critique in a writing workshop, I emailed my teacher to inform her that I wasthinking about leaving the class.  Within minutes of my hitting the“send” button, my teacher called me.  Instead of ridiculing mefor being over-sensitive, she admitted that she too got her feelings hurt fromtime to time during critiques.  My writing teacher is an accomplished poet,fiction writer, essayist, and performer.  She is also a gifted teacher anda wise person.  If even she was susceptible to getting her feelings hurt,then maybe I could forgive myself for being so sensitive.  Once I overcamethe shame of being thin-skinned, I was able to forgive my classmates and moveon.

I also learned to separate myself from my work.  As I made peacewith my own past, I no longer needed to process it through my writing, so myprotagonist was able to become her own person with a story that was separatefrom mine.  As I became less identified with my book, I was able to hearothers’ feedback for what it was, feedback on my work, not criticism ofme.  Because many students in my writing workshop were writing memoirs, mywriting teacher facilitated this process by encouraging us to use terms like“your protagonist” instead of “you” when discussingothers’ work. 

I also benefited from the process of having to give as well as receivefeedback.  Many times I was blind to a flaw in my own work until I saw itin someone else’s.  As I read my classmates’ revisions, Istarted to learn about how their lives informed their writing, what theirstrengths and weaknesses were, where they were at in terms of skill level andcompletion of the work, what motivated or discouraged them, and how they triedto integrate feedback into their revisions.  The more I learned aboutothers’ processes, the more I understood my own. 

As the years passed and as my drafts accumulated, I also learned how tofilter the feedback I received.  I figured out who “got” mybook and who didn’t, so I no longer got bent out of shape if someone madean unhelpful comment.  If many readers made the same kind of comment, Iknew to pay attention, especially if they had different sensibilities. Finally, I learned how to reconcile conflicting advice.  I used to getfrustrated by this, until I learned to understand not only what people weresaying but why they were saying it.  A lot of times, they were reacting tothe same issue or problem but were framing it differently.  Once Iunderstood this, the problems in my book became easier to fix.

The more I revised, the more I learned to respect revision.  Ibegan to shed the Mozart Myth.  When I was a high school student, I oftengot labeled as smart.  This annoyed me.  I didn’t think I wasthat smart.  In fact, I viewed myself as rather slow, so I compensated byworking harder.  The net result was that I tended to do well.  Ilearned to view myself this way in terms of my writing.  I didn’thave to be a genius.  I  just needed to show up and not quit.  Ialso gave up viewing myself as a Writerand instead began viewing myself as a mother/wife/daughter/friend/Pilatesteacher/cook/traveler/gardener who happened to write.  For me, thisidentity was healthier because I was diversifying my ego portfolio instead ofinvesting my whole ego into just one form of success.  As I became lessinvested in becoming a successful writer, I became more patient.  So whenmy agent read my eighth draft and asked me if I was interested in doing anotherrevision, I said, “Sure, why not?  I’ve been working on thisfor nine years.  What’s another year?”  My newfoundpatience stayed with me as I wrote the ninth and tenth drafts for my agent, andagain when I wrote the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth drafts for my editorat Egmont USA.

My thicker skin served me well when I was querying agents, especiallywhen one agent sent me a form letter that read “This isn’t forme,” not on a sheet of paper but a skinny strip of paper cut with scissorsfrom a page.  (Was he being green or cheap?)  It continued to serveme as my book went to auction, when my agent forwarded to me editors’comments, which ranged from positive to negative, tactful to blunt. 

Now that my book has been published, I continue to get interestingfeedback, though it is now quite different in nature.  So far, no one tomy knowledge has criticized the quality of the writing, but I have receivedsome interesting reactions to the subject matter.  Many readers love thebook because they identify with Frances, either because of the mother-daughtertheme and/or the theme of success and failure.  Ironically, a few havefound the book hard to like for the very same reason, that is, it cut too closeto home and made them feel uncomfortable.  One reviewer complained thatthe book was too stereotypical because my Asian American protagonist is astellar student and has a Tiger mother.  (As we all know, such a story hasno basis in reality!)  Also ironic, many of the readers who identify with Francesare not of Asian descent.  To this, I can only say,“Hurrah!”  That is exactly what I intended.

When people ask me how long it took to finish my book, I don’tknow whether to feel embarrassed or proud.  To my surprise, the unanimousreaction I get is always one of respect.

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