The Gray: A Case Study

In my last post, I talked about the "gray": that point in the writing process where I know a story needs something, but I can't put my finger on what. Well, that got me thinking about a particularly revelatory moment I had, courtesy of my writer-friend Jacob Schraer (who blogs about books for the Portland Mercury — check him out). I was in the midst of torturing a rough draft of a story that eventually came to be called "White Paint" (online now at The Summerset Review). This story is very dear to me because it's a loose, fictionalized account of a true experience. It's set in a psychiatric hospital in the aftermath of a suicide attempt (not mine). The dialogue and scenarios are fabricated, but the characterizations are rooted in real people, and the emotional heart is very much the truth. I really wanted the story to be good, but I felt very raw about the whole thing, and was much too close and too emotionally wrapped-up. I had a rough draft, but couldn't analyze it with the objective distance I needed to create a revised draft.

Enter: Jacob.

He read the story, and though I'm sure he said many insightful things, as he is prone to do, the one I remember most went a little something like this:

"Sheila, it's just that the husband character is so sad, he's like a pathetic puppy."

A pathetic puppy?! This was news to me. Of course, I don't see the man, "Kiet," as a pathetic puppy at all. Kiet is as complex and multifaceted a person as you could hope to find. He's funny, silly, musical, intelligent, hardworking, etc, etc. But somehow, his complexity did not find its way onto the page. I was so intent on conveying the profound sadness of the situation, I got tunnel vision. It wasn’t until Jacob told me what was there that I could see how dramatically at odds it was with my intention.

That one piece of feedback made all the difference, and I ended up changing the story quite drastically (for the better) because of it.

Thanks, Jacob!

Writer-types, what's the best piece of feedback you've gotten?