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On The Particulars of Preliminaries

Mar 21, 2022

By Christine Carron

There I was. In a writing workshop with seven other writers. We had completed a writing prompt a moment ago. The workshop leader called on me to read and instead of reading the prompt, I launched into an . . . I don’t know what. 

Apology? Explanation? Plea to the other participants to not judge what I was going to read too harshly? My outpouring definitely included verbiage about “only having ten minutes” and “not having enough time to get to where I wanted to go.” 

The whole time the words that were not my response to the prompt were coming out of my mouth, a different set of words was pinballing around my head, “Why are you doing this? Just read what you wrote. Everybody already knows you only had ten minutes. They only had ten minutes, too, for goodness sake. Stop talking. Stop talking NOW!” 

I mentioned that moment to a few writer friends this past week. Everyone of them recognized it. They had done something similar themselves and had watched other writers do it, too. 

Aha!

So said the part of me that is on constant alert for blog post ideas. I would write about what happened. Why we do it. I would even give it a name: the Preliminary.

Yay! Blog post here we come! Until . . . .

Another part of me kicked into gear. The business analyst part. For years, I worked as a business analyst. That part of me is a bit of a sleuth, always looking for patterns and commonalities, idiosyncrasies and anomalies. And that part started wondering: Are there other kinds of Preliminaries in feedback situations? Ones that perhaps are more purposeful than the pesky one I already identified?

A Passel of Preliminaries

From the pondering that followed, I came up with four additional Preliminaries. (Perhaps not quite a passel as the section title promises, but the alliteration was worth the meaning fudge.) Which means instead of a deep dive into one Preliminary, you get a survey of five. 

The Set-up Preliminary

When we give context for an excerpt from our work-in-progress that falls somewhere other than the very beginning, e.g., a middle chapter, we are delivering a Set-up Preliminary. 

This is absolutely a purposeful Preliminary. It helps our reviewers locate themselves in the story and in the story world, which allows them to give us more useful feedback. 

The only time I see this type of Preliminary veer into pesky territory is when a writer rambles or goes too detailed. Preparation and brevity are the keys to acing the Set-up Preliminary. Rule of thumb here: Don’t wing it. Prepare your Set-up Preliminary in advance.

The Artist Statement Preliminary

I was introduced to the idea of an Artist Statement Preliminary when I read Felicia Rose Chavez’s The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop. The workshopping process she outlines includes the writer sharing a one-page artist statement that conveys their “concept, inspiration, and process.” (Chavez, p. 141)

As a process improvement consultant, Chavez’s entire process delights me. As a writer, an Artist Statement Preliminary in a feedback context feels empowering. And as a critiquer of other writers’ work, having even a few lines of clarity on what a writer wants to achieve artistically, creatively, and story-wise in a piece would fill me with relief. 

I know that I am not alone in wanting to provide useful, thoughtful feedback to fellow writers. Having a sense of where writers wanted/intended to go would so help with that goal. 

So, yes, for me, the Artist Statement preliminary, is highly purposeful. If this notion resonates with you, definitely check out Chavez’s work. It is enlightening and empowering on so many levels. Huge fan here.

The Boundaries Preliminary

This type of Preliminary is about communicating what we want in a feedback session and about what we don’t want. A traditional workshop setting (where the writer is expected to remain silent as the reviewers say whatever they want) does not empower a writer to set these boundaries. 

Writers do have the option to set boundaries and communicate what type of feedback they want when they engage first readers and/or if their critique group or workshop follows a process similar to Chavez’s (or to Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process, which Chavez used as a foundation for her approach.) But in my experience, these types of opportunities are the exception. 

Which means we don’t get a lot of practice in setting boundaries around feedback. And that means when we do have the option to do so, it might (and most likely will) feel awkward and clunky. 

We also might worry that, if we set boundaries, we could cut ourselves off from helpful feedback. In addition, we may not even feel knowledgeable enough to know what feedback boundaries would be useful to set. 

All of the above may be valid concerns but so is looking out our equilibrium on the writing adventure. 

Being able to set feedback boundaries is a skill that I am definitely in process of learning to do effectively. One that I am willing to feel awkward and clunky about as I practice. 

In my estimation, the Boundaries Preliminary is absolutely a purposeful one. Even if you are in a situation where communicating feedback boundaries is not possible (due the the process norms of whatever group or workshop you are in), simply taking the time to think through what you would communicate if you could state your boundaries is highly useful and empowering. 

It allows you to prioritize feedback that fits within your boundaries and deprioritize feedback that is outside of them. Such clear prioritization will help you maintain both your equilibrium and your agency in the feedback process. Very good things to maintain for sure.

The Disclaimer Preliminary

And now we are back to the pesky Preliminary that launched this whole analysis. The previous three Preliminaries applied in situations where a writer had brought prepared work to be critiqued. The Disclaimer Preliminary applies both to prepared work and to in-the-moment (i.e., raw) work, like a prompt response. 

Disclaimer Preliminaries range from mild qualifiers to discomfiting monologues that convey please forgive me for wasting your time with this pitiful attempt at writing. Be they mild or extreme, I assert that Disclaimer Preliminaries are the work of our Inner Critics. 

Last week, I presented the concept that our Inner Critics are actually trying to protect us. The Disclaimer Preliminary is a perfect expression of that idea. Our Inner Critics hope that if they tell people in advance how bad (they think) the work is, then we will be inoculated against the sting of any feedback that confirms their worst fears. 

I have not found Disclaimer Preliminaries effective in protecting me, or any writer, from stings that come. They just feel discombobulating. Definitely more pesky than purposeful.

Whenever I hear myself or another writer delivering a Disclaimer Preliminary, I want to say, Head high, my friend. Be proud of your work. You are here. Learning. Putting yourself out there. Please, don’t apologize for that. Ever.

The Preliminary in Absentia

I came up with this fifth and final preliminary to capture what it feels like when we are first learning to not deliver Disclaimer Preliminaries. Hear me out on this one. 

When we keep ourselves from not doing something we are used to doing (or feel compelled to do as is often the case with Disclaiming Preliminaries), the absence does not feel empty or easy. 

It feels potent. Not doing something is actually a pretty big something. 

You might be white-knuckling it to avoid blurting out a Disclaimer Preliminary. Or you might be working to build a more positive relationship with your Inner Critic in order to dial down the panic it feels in feedback situations. 

Bottom line: Any way you stop yourself from giving a Disclaimer Preliminary is absolutely a big deal. You are changing your behavior. Stepping into the space of a writer at peace with where they are on the adventure. No apologies. No disclaimers. 

I suspect no writer ever achieves that ideal all the time. But I do believe we writers can move ourselves closer to it, every time we consciously replace a pesky Disclaiming Preliminary with purposeful Preliminary in Absentia. 

Patience with the Preliminaries

Five preliminaries. Four purposeful. One pesky. All requiring patience and compassion to either integrate or release. Confidence, too.

Confidence to believe in our work. To set-it up effectively. To communicate what we are trying to achieve. To set boundaries to the best of our ability about what feedback will be useful to us. And to let our work stand without apology or qualification. 

Why are you doing this? 

That was the lead question pinballing through my mind when I gave that Disclaiming Preliminary before I read my prompt. The answer of course is because I care. Just like you do. 

We want our work to be valued and understood. We want to make a difference. But perhaps a key step in making a difference for others through our writing is first to make a difference for our writing by being more purposeful in the way we present it. 


The Goodjelly Prompts of the Week

  • Post-in-Action Prompt: Next time you share your work, play with these different preliminaries. Would it be useful to include a Set-up, Artist Statement, or Boundaries Preliminary, or some combination of those three? If you have a tendency to give Disclaimer Preliminaries, how might you replace them with a Preliminaries in Absentia?
  • Scene Prompt: Write a scene where your character gives a Disclaimer Preliminary about something they are about to do or share. Let it be an extreme disclaimer. Let them recognize what they are doing in the moment, but be unable to stop themselves. Let them clock the reactions of the folks around them. 
  • Journaling Prompt: Do you recognize the types of Preliminaries presented in this post? Did anything in the post cause a reaction inside you? Have you ever tried to replace a Disclaimer Preliminary with a Preliminary in Absentia? Was it hard? Easy?
  • Connection Prompt: Connect with your writerly peeps about the five Preliminaries in this post. Do you agree they are all legit? Would you add others to the list?
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Just one more step . . .