Our crunchy stories

I can’t decide which post I want to write – the one about perfectionism, the one about getting naked, or the one about handling criticism. All three have been on my mind lately, rumbling around in my brain, writing themselves in my head when I’m driving, or in the shower, or on the phone so I can’t stop easily to get my thoughts down on paper.

All three are on my mind now too, so rather than tease one out and shape it into a post, let’s talk about all three. I think they’re related anyway, the undercurrents of a creative life.

… On perfectionism

Last night I woke up in the middle of the night and on my way to the bathroom, I thought this: the Love Essays don’t have to be perfect, they have to be honest; they have to be true. It was a reassuring thought, but I had to let it to go because waking up in the middle of the night is a dicey proposition for me. If I let my brain get started on even the tiniest of things, there’s a good chance I won’t be able to coax it back to sleep. Thinking about all the times when my desire to write something dazzling and masterful has prevented me from writing anything at all is a sure way to be up all night.

I was able to go back to sleep by telling myself I didn’t need to write a post on the dangers of perfectionism. I could just show you Robin Black’s piece, “Writer’s Block: On The Persistence of Demons” because it’s all about the stultifying effects of wanting to write (be, live) perfect.

… On getting naked

In writing the Love Essays, I’m attempting a literary nakedness that is new to me. It’s not that I’ve never dug deep before; I have. But it’s different pouring myself into a fictional piece. Writing fiction is like dancing naked… but doing it under all my clothes so only I know. Writing openly about my own experiences… that’s more like pole dancing in a strip joint under a white-hot spotlight.

In her inspiring post for Writer Unboxed, author Robin LaFevers says:

In order to take our writing to the next level we must embrace our strange, unique, and often embarrassing selves and write about the things that really matter to us. We need to be willing to peel our own layers back until we reach that tender, raw, voiceless place—the place where our crunchiest stories come from.

I think that’s right. I spend a lot of time feeling jagged and uncertain these days, wondering as I write what to put in, what to leave out, certain I’ve nailed it one minute and then just as certain the next that I’ve fallen short. I think that’s okay. I think that’s how it feels to be in the “tender, raw, voiceless place.”

… On handling criticism

Here’s the thing about “the next level.” It’s scary. That’s why it’s called “the next level.” If it weren’t scary and challenging and occasionally nauseating, we’d call it something innocuous like, “right over there” or “just over yonder.” Let’s face it, taking your art (work, relationship, life) “just over yonder” is way less frightening than taking it to “the next level.”

The next level is scary and, by definition, unfamiliar. So when you get criticized there, told that you’re doing it wrong or that you are (as your demons have said) not good enough, it’s tempting to want to jump back to the level you know. But don’t. It’s not about your critics. It’s not about what other people think you should or shouldn’t do. It’s about you and your own unquestionable, unstoppable, dogged evolution… that especially crunchy story only you can tell.

(It’s true that I wrote that last part for me, but I’m leaving it in just in case you need to be reminded too. And if you’re feeling stung by a critic or critics, read this from Tara Sophia Mohr about the nature of feedback; it’ll make you feel better.)


  1. leah77 on April 12, 2012 at 5:09 am

    Judy my dear, have you been reading my mail? LOL!! I loved this post because it hit on three topics that, as a writer, I’m constantly struggling with.
    It amazes me how on a good day, my writing flows, it’s nice and crunchy, and criticism rolls right off my back, but on a dark day, my writing stinks, I’m convinced that I’m a fraud—and everyone knows it! LOL!! Of course I’m exaggerating, but it’s that inner dialog, the demented chatter of the perfectionist that I seem to listen to when I’m worn down.
    Thanks for laying it all out nice and clear this morning. Well done!!

    • j on April 12, 2012 at 8:22 am

      Thank you! I like the term “demented chatter.” It really is like that, up and down and back up again in the space of a few seconds. It felt empowering to think of it all as an evolution, a process by which I get bigger and braver in my writing (and in my life), and I can’t afford to give time or energy to the critics. “Fuck the naysayers,” as my favorite professor once told me. (That pharse is posted above my computer. I just have to remember to look at it.)

  2. kaleighsomers on April 12, 2012 at 5:58 am

    “Crunchy stories.” I like that phrase a lot. It’s been too long since I’ve read your blog and whenever I wander back, I remember how much I missed it. I love the idea of fiction being like writing naked but you have all your clothes on. It’s sort of like you told someone else they had to stand naked and watch you uncomfortably. That sounds awkward, but true. And boy did I need that little “next level” pep talk. I’m swimming around in this one, too afraid to push forward. So thank you, always, for your words and your timing.

    • j on April 12, 2012 at 8:29 am

      I needed the “next level” pep talk too. Push forward, Kaleigh. I think you’re hitting a momentum in your writing. Your piece about religion and twenty-somethings was really, really good. (And that need for a middle ground exists everywhere today. We are so, so scarily polarized.)

      • kaleighsomers on April 12, 2012 at 8:33 am

        Ah that’s quite a compliment coming from you. Is it just me, or does the writing that comes easily sometimes feel better than the writing we push push push for? Not always, but sometimes. That post you mentioned was like that for me.

    • j on April 12, 2012 at 3:31 pm

      I’ve absolutely experienced that too. And everytime it happens that a piece flows out of me as fast as I can get it typed, it feels like magic.

  3. Milli Thornton (@fearofwriting) on April 12, 2012 at 8:10 am

    I think it’s perfect that you’ve written about all three of these in one post. They go together intimately! But I didn’t see that until you were unable to separate them. Lucky us that you followed your gut instincts.

    I loved-loved-LOVED “It’s about you and your own unquestionable, unstoppable, dogged evolution.” That says it all. And so honestly and eloquently. And inspiringly. (I feel freshly inspired to continue with my own dogged evolution. :~)

    A beginner writer I know showed a piece of her writing to an experienced writer. The piece of writing was based on real life and was full of heart and evocative descriptions (of both the mundane and the sublime), plus it had an amazing twist at the end that left both hers and the reader’s interpretation open to the mysteries of the universe.

    The experienced writer missed all that and only remarked how, later, after the beginner has written a lot-lot-lot more, her word choices will be smoother.

    (There was nothing wrong with her word choices.)

    In my line of work, I’ve heard millions of stories of this nature. But it was still difficult and very painful for me to see through the deception in my own (writing) life. But eventually a pattern fell into place: I realized that the most devastating times when others had nitpicked something I’d written or told me “how I could improve it for publication” was because they were afraid of it. It was always a time when I’d written something that scoured my own depths (even in fiction). They didn’t want my “writing to the edges” to mean they needed to go to the next level themselves.

    Interestingly, the nitpicking usually turned out to be wrong. Inaccurate, even on a fact-checking level. I wrote about that here (in a post where I scoured my depths and was afraid to share it online . . . and yet it got way more traffic than other posts I’ve written):


    • j on April 12, 2012 at 8:55 am

      I love that post, Milli. Thank you for sharing it here because I missed it when it was originally posted.

      One of the best pieces I’ve ever read on how to provide feedback to a writer was written by Robin Black. (I like her, can you tell?) She said, “The first job of any reader… is to help the author be at least as excited about working on the piece after hearing your response, as she was before.”

      I love that because giving feedback is often a bit of a tightrope walk. In fiction workshops, it’s can be brutal and frequently disheartening. In writers groups it sometimes falls short of the mark, offering no suggestions at all for fear of being unsupportive. But there’s a place in between that is constructive and energizing, and in that creatively interactive space, a writer can absolutely take her work to “the next level.”

      And as far as our unquestionable, unstoppable, dogged evolution… I realized during this difficult (very crunchy) past couple of weeks how important the “dogged” part is. (I also realized that the ratio in my life of critics compared to talented, supportive, wonderful people tips heavily toward the bright side.)

  4. marciescudder on April 12, 2012 at 9:20 am

    Love how you’ve woven these three topics together here. Impossible to have one without the other..and mostly all and at once and all together. I can so relate to this ‘next level’ thing..the pushing beyond the famliar..the discomfort..and the fear and response to other people’s critique. That unstoppable..dogged evolution – so what I needed to hear today. Thank-you for the gift!

    • j on April 12, 2012 at 1:58 pm

      Thank YOU. I needed to write this one for me… I’m so glad it resonated for you too. xo

  5. Annie Neugebauer (@AnnieNeugebauer) on April 12, 2012 at 10:11 am

    I can just imagine one half of a couple saying, “Sweetie, I think it’s time we take this relationship just over yonder.” Hehe, that’s a good one.

    I love how you’ve woven these three topics together, because you’re right; they are relevant to each other. We can’t get naked until we’ve overcome perfectionism, and we can’t learn to handle criticism until we’ve stepped up and put ourselves out there. Very well spoken.

    • j on April 12, 2012 at 2:01 pm

      I think I’m going to coin that as my newest euphemism. “Darlin, let’s take this relationship over yonder tonight, what you say?”

      I love your analysis of the three parts of this post. My subconscious must have undertsood the links even if I didn’t fully until after I finished writing.

  6. cjpatton on April 12, 2012 at 11:52 am

    “Writing openly about my own experiences… that’s more like pole dancing in a strip joint under a white-hot spotlight.” Great description, J. I may need to use that one day. 🙂

    It’s true. It does feel like that … at least at first. But after awhile it starts to feel normal, and eventually you wonder why you didn’t do it all along. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a family with secrets, but to me, truth is addicting. And powerful. Really, really powerful. My family, however, still thinks I’m pole dancing in a strip club under a white-hot spotlight that also includes them.

    it’s entirely possible that I’ve been lucky, but I think nonfiction writers are far more gentle with their literary criticisms because they too have a piece of their real life sitting out there for all to view. I guess nakedness tends to level the playing field. Or maybe it’s just when pole-dancing, no one wants to call the other dancers fat.

    • j on April 12, 2012 at 2:10 pm

      Yes, it’s the people in the spotlight involuntarily that concern me. I know I’ll work through it.

      I love your observation about nonfiction writers. That may be true, though I’ve always tried to be gentle. I absolutely think the first goal of feedback should be to leave the author feeling at least as excited about working on the piece after hearing my response, as she was before. Oh, and yeah. I definitely don’t want to call another writer fat. Ever.

      • cjpatton on April 12, 2012 at 3:06 pm

        I meant fat metaphorically, but I think you got that. 🙂 As for my family, they think they’re in the spotlight even when I DON”T write about them. It’s the truth that scares them. So I try not to let their fear influence my work. If I did, I would never write a word.

    • j on April 12, 2012 at 3:18 pm

      I totally got that. I almost put a smiley face on my equally metaphoric comment, but decided to have faith in my stab at humor. When will I learn?

      (Insert winky-smiley-tap-dancy emoticon guy here)

  7. Nuttin' on April 12, 2012 at 11:56 am

    On perfectionism…
    I think it’s about what we believe is perfect, does that make sense? What I feel is the perfect post or poem isn’t going to be perfect for everyone. But, as a writer, my guess is you try to write for everyone. So… maybe it’s impossible to reach perfectionism anywhere except within ourselves… If you write it, they will come, and read, and it will be perfect for those that connect.
    On getting naked…
    That’s a sticky one. There’s always going to be someone who says you’re too naked or you’re not naked enough.
    I had some criticism a long time ago when I was writing from a dark abyss, a few people said I was just trying to get sympathy or attention… which, of course, made my abyss even darker and lonelier. I’d have to say, I’ve been naked on several occasions in my blog… sometimes I end up in a fetal position and sometimes I can stand up straight. Again… It’s all about what’s inside of you, of us. Get as naked as we need to be — the reader will either cover there eyes in embarrassment or they’ll learn to love being naked with you.
    On criticism…
    being able to say “fuck the naysayers” and being able to truly believe in it are far different. So, again, if you (we) are confident in your (our) writing and our living of our lives… most importantly the living of our lives then the naysayers will be wholeheartedly fucked. I think, your naysayers are few these days.

    • j on April 12, 2012 at 3:24 pm

      You’re right that saying “fuck the naysayers” and living it as a philosophy are different, but since I totally believe that acting how you want to feel leads to feeling it, I’m not above saying it with conviction until I feel the religion.

      Thank you for the vote of confidence. The trouble with critics and naysayers is that they do so much damage, even when their numbers are few.

    • Nuttin' on April 12, 2012 at 3:32 pm


    • Nuttin' on April 12, 2012 at 3:35 pm

      Also… thank you for not being critical when I used there instead of their. 🙂

  8. annmariegamble on April 12, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    It’s interesting how some of this gets easier (better?) when I let go of *me*: my writing (even personal stuff) is better when I don’t think as much about how it will reflect on me; critique is better when I let go of what I like, how I’d do it and focus on the piece–what is its mission, who is its audience.

    I work as a copyeditor and I volunteer at the grade school, and I’m getting depressed at the state of humanity hearing all these stories about awful critiques. The copyeditor’s Hippocratic oath is “Don’t change something unless you have to”: it’s wrong factually, it violates a rule of grammar or punctuation, it doesn’t conform to the hosue style. But the editor has to be able to justify any comments in this hierarchy.

    • j on April 12, 2012 at 3:28 pm

      Well, I will say this. Since getting out of school, I’ve met more supportive, gentle writers/critiquers than cruel ones, so don’t lose faith in humanity yet!

      You’re right about taking the *me* out. Both as the author of a piece and as the one giving the feedback, focusing on the work itself rather than on the personalities involved is important.

  9. Meg Sweeney on April 12, 2012 at 5:33 pm

    Judy – Love all the sexual innuendoes about writing…hahaha. You are right about pouring yourself into a fictional character being one kind of nakedness, and it feels like “pole dancing” about the personal memoir stuff! Hahahaha… My arms aren’t strong enough to pole dance. You have to be nearing your yoga goal to even imagine pole dancing. Anyway, you are the one that supported me with big fat generous loving comments for the duration of my first jump into fictional writing – and … I have to say it has been life-changing! Now I think, “yeah – come on’ with the criticism! What? Someone says my writing is too playful, too stupid, it stinks? I’ll tell you what stinks!” Yep – this is your creation Judy, as a universal co-conspirator. Keep diggin’ deep – your posts are better than ever!

    • j on April 13, 2012 at 7:57 am

      I have heard that pole dancing takes incredible upper body strength. And I wish I were closer to my yoga pose than I am. (Can’t get both legs up at the same time yet, damn it!)


      I adore “my creation” (though you give me too much credit). You rock, my friend!

  10. KjM on April 13, 2012 at 12:13 am

    But, J…I’ve *seen* you naked, many times. And I’m not talking about any fiction you’ve written either. But the real, raw, unmediated by mere clothing, J.

    Pole-dancing – well, that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of different horses…or something like that.

    I like your riff on “to the next level” – much truth there. I was thinking (to dignify it far beyond reason or acceptability) and the thought occurred that “the next level” for me – has always been down (probably “in). The next level is deeper. Deeper into the character, the story, the relationships, me.

    That last exonerates me from needing to get to “perfection” – for, while I can (and do) put on a good show, “perfection” is not even within reach (almost wrote “spitting distance” – but that would be rude, no? Yeah. It would. *spits*)

    Oops – cat, bag. Dog, lacking leash.

    One of your commenters wrote about “good days” – and how everything flows and is nice and crunchy (by the way – I *love* the “crunchy” concept. Something to get teeth into?).

    Yet on dark days – and it struck me curious that ‘dark’ was chosen as the opposite of ‘good’. On my dark days, and they’re not strangers – I *am* Irish after all – I find I dig deeper *into the dark*. Can’t help it. I said I was Irish (which includes perverse.)

    On such days, a dark haiku may present itself. I certainly will find myself with a dark-hued playlist as soundtrack. And I find I can wring such words as would make angels weep.

    And the day becomes good.

    And this has what to do with J’s post? Darned if I know. I was just groovin’ on the image of a naked J.

    And can I be blamed? 😀

    Good night – and sleep, ‘K?

    • j on April 13, 2012 at 8:09 am

      Oh, Kevin. I want to be your pen pal. If that position ever opens up, pick me! Pick me!

      Deeper means the same thing to me, and I’ve had the same experience writing during dark (sad, stressful, confusing) times. I recently wrote a post for Fear of Writing in which I asked about this – the role of “angst” for the writer. I was the only one who felt that sometimes real life friction, and the troubled state it puts me in, benefits my work. Not always, but sometimes.

      Where can I read some dark Kevin haiku? I must go visit your site with my coffee and see what I can see.

      Thank you for the naked j praise. It means a lot to me. The criticism that inspired me to write the leveling up part of this post was all around that, someone who definitely does not think I’m doing it right. Your reassurance is HUGE.


  11. Taoist Soul on April 13, 2012 at 12:40 am

    Ok, I’m not gonna bullshit, I scrolled straight down to the ‘getting naked’ part. And, frankly, I was quite disappointed! I’m just saying. 😉

    • j on April 13, 2012 at 8:10 am

      False advertising, huh? Your gievence has been noted, sir. xo

  12. Michael on April 13, 2012 at 11:50 am

    You rock. ‘Nuff said.

    • j on April 13, 2012 at 1:23 pm

      Sweet talker. (Thanks, M.)

  13. Pam on April 13, 2012 at 5:10 pm


    I read all the links and then the comments, then ran out of time this morning. (Oh, the terror of not being able to comment right away! :p)

    It seems to me that perfectionism is a safety-seeking thing (if it’s perfect, it’s above reproach, and how lovely to be safe from reproach!) and cannot help a person get to the next level, which requires taking big risks. Then again, it’s completely possible that I don’t *get* perfectionism. We all know I don’t have it. Ha ha!

    *incorrigibly imperfect*

    • j on April 14, 2012 at 11:03 am

      Yay, you’re here! I missed you!

      You might be right about perfectionism, although I think the way it manifests is even more insidious. The fear of being less than perfect (and therefore absolutely reproachable) can stop you from taking risks or, worse, doing anything at all.

      I LOVE “incorrigibly imperfect.” I’ve got the second part of that one down pat. Now I just need to adopt the first part wholeheartedly. 🙂

    • Pam on April 14, 2012 at 7:06 pm

      I know from observing friends that perfectionism often equals paralysis. This is why I don’t understand it when people talk about it as if it’s a good trait. The perfectionists I have known didn’t end up doing their jobs well at all, because they couldn’t find the moment that would allow them to do the job perfectly.

    • Pam on April 14, 2012 at 7:11 pm

      xo Thank you for missing me, but you know you won’t have to miss me for long. (I love your posts, & I like to visit the zebra.)

    • j on April 16, 2012 at 8:43 am

      I know. That drives me crazy too, and lot of people do it. I remember being told once that when an interviewer asks you about your weaknesses, you’re supposed to say that you’re a perfetionist because it’s not really a bad thing. Only I think it is totally a bad thing. If I was considering someone for hire and they told me that, it would absolutely not be a selling a point.

      AND… the zebra likes you back. xo

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