MANCHESTER, N.H., Dec. 13, 2013 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- How did Sy Montgomery—the famously gentle author of the New York Times best-seller "The Good, Good Pig"—get her start as a writer? Of course—by biting a child.
Craig Childs is the author of "Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Everending Earth," which won the 2013 Orion Book Award. And Childs' advice for responding to negative reviews and criticism? "First of all, get defensive," Childs recommended. "Get pissed."
Both have more to say on their respective subjects, but those are the starting points in provocative essays in a new blog whose contributors are made up of the faculty of Southern New Hampshire University's low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction program.
"This is our gift back to the community," said Diane Les Becquets, director of the Southern New Hampshire program, a prize-winning novelist, and a future contributor to the blog. "We have a faculty made up of people who are not only brilliant artists—they're accomplished teachers, as well, with insight into the craft of writing, and broad experience in the industry, and in the life of writing. So this is a blog for people who want to learn to write, and acquire the tools, and for people already skilled, but who want to get better, more knowledgable."
Sy Montgomery's column is about the genesis of a writer who has built a career around encounters with animals, and as an advocate for them. That child she bit was a fellow kindergartener whom she saw tearing the limbs off a daddy long-legs.
"My parents were mortified," she admitted, "but I was unrepentant." Much later, a stint as a volunteer with Earthwatch—assisting in the study of hairy-nosed wombats in Australia—opened a door for Montgomery into the stories she wanted to tell. In researching her books, she has tracked tigers in India, swum with piranhas and electric eels in the Amazon, descended into a snake pit in Canada, and we could go on.
"Today, at age 55, I no longer bite children," Montgomery wrote, "but with every article, book, and script I write, I engage in that same battle: to attempt to persuade other human beings to treat our fellow creatures with gentleness and respect."
Craig Childs, meanwhile, is the author of eight books that have racked up awards and bulletin boards full of admiring reviews. He has found, nonetheless, that all is not gentleness and respect among writers, reviewers, and readers. Inevitably, noted Childs in his column, "if you're worth your salt as a writer, someone is going to rip you apart in print."
Childs is brave enough to quote from some of his own rip-ups: "disappointingly dull"; "a lack of scientific rigor"; "the whole book exudes an air of self-importance"; and we could go on into the nasty ones.
It may be saintly to ignore such arrows, but Childs's advice is for those of us who aren't saints. So get defensive: "Write an angry letter back if you really have to, Deny everything you are being criticized of. Get it out of your system."
But then comes the second step, which is "to look back at the review and consider what is right about it. I don't mean second guess yourself, but study it."
This part entails a certain sense of balance. You don't want to "overcompensate and kill what is unique and wonderful about your own voice," wrote Childs. But you should find what rings true, "even if it rings faintly."
For his own part, Childs concluded that in fact he "could have done a tighter, even more thoughtful job" on "Apocalyptic Planet," that there were "bits and pieces of sloppiness that I could have avoided in the editing process with my own finer-tooth comb."
The last step is to forget it all. "I shrug my shoulders, say, 'Yeah, they've got a point, but not a great one,' and I keep writing."
Whether they're intended to be or not, the negative reviews are like coaching tips tossed out from the bleachers, and some are worth listening to. Maybe all, suggested Childs: "In every critique is something you can use. No matter how ghastly or hurtful, you can turn it into better writing."
So a small act of cruelty prepared the way for the writer Sy Montgomery was to become. The occasional cruelties of the literary marketplace are helping Craig Childs to further refine his craft.
And there's more to come, several times each week, on a blog that may be found at www.mfawriting.org.
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