I just came home from the first gathering of a new critique group, and I feel like I’ve just come home from a first date.
Did they like me? Did I talk too much? Was I too confident in my jokes? Was my breath okay? Did I sound smart? Was my work up to snuff with that of everyone else? Were my jokes funny? Did they leave hoping we’d do this again, or did they mumble under their breath, “God, I hope she drops out of the group…”
I haven’t felt this way in a long time. Actually, I do remember the last time I felt this way: My oldest son’s first day of kindergarten. After he walked into the school with his brand new backpack and crisp, colorful new school clothes, I was left on the playground with a bunch of other kindergarten parents, just looking at one another. We’d all reassured and soothed our nervous kindergarteners as they’d lined up for their first, big, long, scary day of big-kid school, and then suddenly, we parents found ourselves left alone, together, on the playground, feeling awkward and hopeful and curious beyond words. It was an exciting, yet painful day; many of us were releasing our firstborns into the mouth of Evanston’s largest public school. We, as parents, were trying to put on brave, happy faces, but inside, we were terrified, anxious, asking ourselves over and over, “Is this the right choice? Does anyone feel the way I do? Does my child really only get 20 minutes for lunch recess? Did I explore all the educational options fully? What’s going on in everyone else’s head right now? Can they tell I’m shaking? Why do they all look so calm?” I remember thinking, “My God, my son will be inside this building for six and a half whole hours. How on EARTH will he get through it? Why don’t they let the parents in this first week of school? More importantly, how on EARTH will I get through this?”
Flash forward to today: All three of my children are in school full-time, they’re all entirely fine without me hovering, and I’ve come to find that a mere six and a half hour school day isn’t nearly enough time for ME to get all the household responsibilities taken care of so I can devote myself to my writing. In other words, my “first child going to kindergarten” worries are SO not an issue.
But tonight, at the first of — I hope — many meetings with my new critique group, I was humbled by what everyone brought to the table. There’s Meg, whose poetic picture book manuscript brought tears to my eyes. I can’t stop thinking of how lovely it will look when it’s published and read to sleepy-eyed children for generations to come. There’s John, the self-described “rational” male voice of our group, whose middle-grade chapter book establishes a much needed REAL voice of a REAL boy going through REAL issues; what a gift John’s providing to his readers. There’s Veronica, with her lilting, melodic historical fantasy novel that’s been phenomenally crafted in such a short time; her rich words and unique story are a joy to read, as is her enthusiasm for the story’s evolution. Finally, there’s Meggan, the only published author in our midst, whose modesty belies her wise and brilliant ways of crafting picture books that squeeze the heart in such a way you can’t help catching your breath. Her ability to capture the essence of childhood, its wonder and humility, is what we all, as writers of children’s books, strive for.
I left this group tonight, hoping we’ll meet again. The dynamics felt so fun, open and honest. We shared a little bit about ourselves before sharing our work — such a bold move we’re all taking, really. We’ve written our hearts out, ached over word after word in our manuscripts…and though most of us never feel they’re good enough, we somehow, together, all five of us, put our pages on the table and commented sincerely about what we liked — and didn’t — about each writer’s work. I’m proud of all of us. We’re all working toward bringing the best we can to the world of children’s literature, asking one another for help, offering the best suggestions we have.
Just like that first day my firstborn went to kindergarten, I find myself once again remembering that every new endeavor is filled with uncertainty and questions. Everything new, even a new haircut, takes some getting used to. I really liked the dynamics of our new group…I just hope they feel the same about me.