Walking through a Mindfield: How to Show Your Work to Family

words in notebookToday I bring you a guest post from JHMae to offer her thoughts on a veritable land mine for many writers: sharing your work with loved ones. Let’s read what she has to say…

For my 31st birthday, my husband bought me classes with a local artist to learn stained glass. We collaborated on a design – a bird – picked out the colors, and he taught me how to cut, shape and solder the pieces together.

During these one-on-one classes we didn’t talk too much, but when we did, his usual choice of topic was his art, mine my writing. When he showed me his latest projects and talked about his inspiration, I listened. When I told him the news that I’d just published a flash fiction piece, he told me he’d love to read it.

A couple weeks after my class ended, I received a proof of the story as it would appear in the journal. Following through on my promise to let him read my work, I emailed it to him. I was excited to share my story with a new friend, a fellow artist and someone who expressed an interest in my work.

I never heard a word. This was in March.

Was I offended? Absolutely! Was I angry that I’d spent 12 hours with him, listened to his stories, absorbed his art with interest and compliments – and paid him $200 – and he couldn’t give me 10 minutes of his time? You bet.

You’ve probably experienced the same thing – friends, colleagues, even family promise to read your latest short story or novel and never pick it up. When you ask them about it they get a blank, frightened look and change the subject. The knee jerk reaction is to be ticked off, but that’s a mistake.

Here’s why.

Asking someone who is an active participant in your daily life is very dangerous territory, because placing something as intimate and personal as a written work between you and your friend/cousin/co-worker could damage your relationship. There is, of course, the likely possibility they won’t read it – instant offense. And the other option? What if they do? And what if they don’t like it? What if you don’t like what they have to say? What if you’re so offended by their less-than-glowing review that you don’t want to talk to that person anymore?

That’s a lot of pressure to put on someone, and perhaps they just don’t want to risk it.

There are many other motivations people have for offering to read your work – they want to be encouraging and nice to support an endeavor they may not understand. Not everyone has the impulse to be creative and therefore cannot grasp the deep connection between a writer and his writing. To them, it’s just another book, to you it’s the world.

And people are also extremely busy. It’s easy to offer your time but harder to follow through when you have domestic chores, overtime and raising of kids to do. A person’s free time is very valuable to them – a time for them to unwind, relax and recharge. You’re asking them to cut into that time – and that’s a big favor. They may intend to help but once their to do list is done, they may not have the time or energy.

So, you’ve asked someone to read your story. They’ll either pick it up and tell you what they think, or they’ll leave it to mold on their coffee table. How do you respond to either of these possibilities? Without getting offended. Here’s how:

  1. Figure out first what you want out of the arrangement. Do you want brutal honesty? A general impression? Just a thumbs up or thumbs down? Make sure to communicate your intentions when you ask so you’re both on the same page.
  2. Prime yourself for criticism. Share your work online with anonymous critiquers in an online group like Scribophile to get you prepared for negative feedback. Build up your thick skin.
  3. Remember that all art is subjective. We all have different opinions about what is entertaining, beautiful and interesting. If someone doesn’t like your book, let them not like it. That your book is terrible may not actually be the reason.
  4. Ask the right person by thinking about them. Do they even have the time? If they have a newborn or work 60 hours a week, don’t ask. If they spend a lot of time in airports, you may be able to get their attention.
  5. Don’t be pushy or put pressure on the person you ask by nagging them constantly. “Have you read it yet?” should never come out of your mouth. It may mean the world to you but be casual – let them make the choice.
  6. Move on and be cool no matter what they decide or say. If they’re lukewarm about your work, don’t finish, or don’t start it all, stay calm. You can’t let your work come between you and the people you love. Grudges will only make you unhappy – and lonely.

All of this advice isn’t to discourage you from sharing your work. Please do and generously – there is nothing quite so rewarding. But you can’t control what other people do – you can’t make them buckle down and read your five-part series. So offer your work with an open-mind, a casual and confident indifference, and hope for the best. That’s all you can do.

To read more from JHMae, check out her blog at http://jhmaeblog.wordpress.com/.

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8 thoughts on “Walking through a Mindfield: How to Show Your Work to Family

  1. This is such a great topic – every writer needs feedback, but it’s so hard to depend on your family and friends. I started a writers’ group just so I can get other writers’ opinions and we would all be accountable to read each other’s work.
    In terms of criticism, I have found that I can only share work with certain people at specific points in the writing process. My husband has a great mind for structure, so I like to share with him pretty early on. He is able to separate me from the writing and so I don’t take any of his criticism personally. I’m very sensitive to my mom’s feedback and she gets fixated on details, so no matter how much I change a story, she can’t forget the original. She’s great reader of the final draft.
    On a side note, the problem you ran into is one of the reasons why I don’t believe in self-publishing. If it’s so hard to get your friends and acquaintances to read your work when it’s free, what will change when it costs money?

    1. Great comment Tracey. I like that you identify certain strengths in people, such as your husband’s eye for structure, and turn to them when you need help in specific areas. That’s a great strategy.

      I’ve always found being in a writer’s group is helpful for getting feedback too. When you’re in a group like that, not only do they know how to talk to other writers and give criticism, but it’s already been established that that’s your relationship. The tough thing about showing our work to family is that so often we turn to them for support for emotional needs, so we’re a little more vulnerable. Support as a writer can look a little different, and a writer’s group is a great place for that.

      Thanks for reading!

    2. I guess it’s different because there’s no pressure attached when you’re selling to an impartial public. But then, there are different pressures involved.

  2. Nice list of tips, JH! I like Tip #1 especially. When I run some of the things I write about by my family, I don’t ask them if they like it because that’s too personal. I do ask them things like “Was my writing clear? Was there any spot where it got confusing, or you lost the thread?” This is easier to comment on, because it’s not about whether it was funny or touching or likeable, just whether the writing was understandable. If I want other feedback, I prefer to go to fellow writers.

  3. Great post and very true. I’ve stopped asking and giving. My closest friends and family read my work and are my greatest fans, but others less connected to me on a daily basis are a different story. I don’t ask and don’t push. A few months ago, my brother said “Did I ever tell you how much I enjoyed (a book I published two years ago)?” No, he hadn’t. My niece wrote me a note last month telling me how much she enjoyed reading my latest book. She said she’d forgotten to mention it. I’d rather receive these unsolicited comments no matter how late than begging to get them to say something.

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