I’m with my critique group in someone’s back yard. They’ve read a draft of my latest short story this week, and it’s time for critiques. They won’t be cruel. They’ll praise what they like but pull no punches. I need them not pulling punches. We’re trying to become better writers.
Tonight, though, maybe I need to feel safe more than I need to improve. What they don’t know, and I won’t tell them, is that this story isn’t purely fiction. It’s about a part of my past I don’t talk about.
Coincidentally, I also have fresh messages to call both my parents. The timing is troubling. We weren’t due to speak again for another two months, on my birthday.
In our group Peter (historical thrillers) is the sensitive one. He goes first, from across the table. Tonight I’d rather he went last. He’s our Balm of Gilead.
“Jeri, this is fiction, right? And the female MC isn’t you?”
By rule, authors just listen to the critiques, but we’re not strict. “It’s fiction,” I say. “She’s not me.”
“I ask because there’s authentic pain here, and if it’s yours, I want to respect that and not increase it. Even if we all love pain.”
The others titter. Being critiqued is pain. We do it to each other for our own good, but it’s hard to be completely comfortable giving or receiving.
It’s true that I’m not the main character. You never see me. I have no lines. But it’s my story, turned to short fiction.
Peter gets down to business. “Good job evoking raw emotion instead of just describing it. I like that you didn’t smooth the rough edges in the dialogue. It feels real. But when I finished, I wasn’t sure what it’s about. It’s good to be caught up in the emotion, but I’d like to understand too.”
Amanda (Regency romance) asks, “What did you feel, Peter?”
“Sadness for her,” he says. “Anger at him for hurting her.”
“Same here,” says Lars (personal memoir in verse).
“Me too,” says Amanda.
Rita (YA fantasy) shakes her head. “Did we read the same story? That’s not what I got.”
We all look at her.
“She infuriates me. He’s not perfect, but he loves her. He tries to make her happy. She sees every flaw and every mistake as proof he never loved her. She ignores every good thing he says or does, or thinks it’s insincere, because she’s already decided it can’t be real, because he doesn’t love her.”
Peter grins. “I didn’t get that at all. How long have you been married?”
“Half a lifetime,” Rita says. She looks about 45. “First time, 583 days. This time, twenty years in July.”
“Mags and I just hit fourteen,” Peter says. “Years.”
Amanda, who cheerfully told us before the meeting about her plans for a “me weekend, which might get raunchy, I hope,” says, “I think it’s about a woman finally asserting her identity and escaping a negative situation. I cheered for her – aloud, I think.”
Lars, who is gay and recently separated, disagrees. “I think it’s about two people who finally acknowledge what they’ve known for years: falling in love isn’t enough. You have to be deeply compatible, or you can’t be happy.”
“Fair point,” says Rita. “But I still think it’s about a wife not facing her own flaws and not forgiving her husband for his, so she’s miserable, and she pushes him away, and he’s miserable too.”
The discussion drags on. I struggle to focus.
Amanda likes that I didn’t give the couple names, just pronouns. Makes it more universal, she says.
Peter would prefer names.
I don’t tell them the names are Mom and Dad.
I do love my parents. And hate them. I’ve tried to get over both feelings.
“We need to move on,” says our leader, Rupe (middle grade comic horror). “But Jeri, may we ask you what it’s about?”
The wall clock behind him says we’re nineteen minutes into my story. That’s unusually long. What it means about my life, I don’t know.
I pause to collect myself, and he prompts me. “A woman coming to herself? People finally realizing they’re incompatible, after creating lots of avoidable wreckage? A wife blaming her husband and pushing him away?”
I have a hard copy, not my laptop. I turn to the last page. “Listen to the ending. Maybe it doesn’t work yet.”
“That’s it?” he asked. “Twelve years? We’re done?” There were tears in his voice, but not on his cheeks.
“We were done years ago, and you know it,” she said, with tears on her cheeks but none in her voice. “It’s time for you to go. Doesn’t have to be this minute. Tomorrow. Next week. Soon.”
He sat with his head in his hands.
She stood. “It’s cooling off outside. I’ll close Hannah’s window later. If you’re too cool on the couch overnight, close this one.”
A faint sound flew in the open window. Their nine-year-old was always making odd noises in her sleep. This one sounded like a long sniff, then two shorter ones.
He looked up, and their eyes met. They heard nothing more.
She went to get ready for bed.
I blink back tears. It’s usually good, when your own writing makes you laugh or cry. But it needs work, if my readers don’t understand it.
I look up, and my voice shakes. “It’s about the little girl, awake and listening from her bedroom.”
“Holy crap,” says Rupe. “You titled it ‘Open Windows,’ and I wondered about symbolism. But it’s about her listening through the open windows, when they think she’s asleep?”
“She’ll blame them both,” Amanda says. “Probably hate them both.”
I nod. It’s safer than talking.
“She also loves them both,” says Peter, “and maybe she’ll hate herself.”
“And blame herself,” says Rita.
“Which isn’t fair,” says Lars.
I nod again. “Thanks for the critiques. That’s what I think my story’s about.”
From the Author
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