I exposed myself this month.
No, I didn't flash anyone in a local park or take my clothes off while driving home (I'm guessing that would just add to the slowdown of traffic on my daily commute, and frankly, I just don't have the time for that). Instead, I exposed myself in the most literary way possible: I gave my first draft to a select few people to peruse, review and critique.
I should begin by saying that this was one the hardest things I've ever done in my life (and I'm including a half marathon with a stress fracture in that). I mean, it's one thing to tell people that you're writing a book and to then receive the admiring looks and gushing praise ("fair play to you", "I could never do that", "I'm so impressed by that"). I'd be lying if I said that I didn't feel a swell of pride or a boost in my confidence when I hear the awe and respect conveyed in some peoples' responses. It genuinely does spur me on to write the book, but that admiration will only take me so far. It's a whole different experience to actually let someone climb into my head and read the words that I have put on paper.
As the phrase goes "Paper won't refuse ink" and we all know that anyone on earth can say that they are writing a book. Yes, I am painfully aware that I have been saying this for the last 6 years. But the gap between telling someone that I'm writing the book and actually letting them read it is so much bigger than I had anticipated.
After I emailed/posted/hand delivered the first 10,000 words of my manuscript to the small group of potential readers, I tried to forget about their reactions and was pleasantly surprised with my success at this. Sadly it lasted for about five seconds. And then the sense of exposure washed over me, along with the familiar feelings of embarrassment, fear and anxiety.
I remember thinking at one point "Oh my god, what if one of my readers is reading my words right now, at this very moment?" The feeling of discomfort at that thought was unbearable.
It's an interesting dilemma, because on the one hand I want, more than anything, for people to read David's story, follow his journey and feel satisfied at the end of it. I can't imagine myself feeling satisfied until I have written it. But on the other hand, the idea of other people reading my words and scrutinising my ideas is almost intolerable. I do wonder if this is essentially a rite of passage that every aspiring (and possibly published) writer has to go through, particularly for the first few drafts. I hope so.
The concept of criticism and not-altogether-positive feedback (I can't bring myself to write "negative" because I believe all criticism is positive in some way) is a tricky subject and one that I can relate to as a writer and a student. "That essay on Emily Dickinson was not up to your usual standard, Sinead", "You need to put a huge amount of work into your maths theorems, Sinead", "You have to be more assertive in work, Sinead". Etc etc etc.
The easier option (for me) has been to run away from criticism. But as Aristotle said: "To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing," And I'll be honest, that quote scared me more than the idea of receiving criticism.
So I received the criticism from my lovely reviewers (who I must thank for taking time in their personal lives to read my novel and give me feedback on it) and took it all on board. Did I enjoy it? No. Did I feel brilliant afterwards? No. Did it help? Yes. And that's the most important part of receiving any criticism. It's not personal, and if it is, I think that would be a sign that I'm too close to my novel.
They say that the hardest part of writing is the editing and giving oneself permission to "kill your babies." So since my feedback so far (it's still ongoing), I have killed some of my babies (changed some of the plot, altered a lot of sentences and reviewed my characters) and although it hasn't been easy, I know my novel has improved with the feedback and will continue to do so.
And I'm hoping that it gets a little easier to take criticism with each draft, although that may be wishful thinking!