Don’t Be Like Me: Take the Help, Dummy

One of the dumbest things I have ever done in my career as a poet was to waste the opportunity to get feedback on my poems from two advanced-career poets who actually offered to read them. I was nearly thirty and feeling that my career had already stalled; others my age already had books out and even tenure-track jobs, while I was in a full-time lectureship and had dozens of book rejections under my belt. So misplaced pride was part of my response, I’m sure, as well as the seeds of career despair that would come to blossom over the years until I finally quit academia—still as a full-time lecturer, though at a different university.

But this isn’t a story about my big failure, but about my small one: the utter stupidity of telling these two wonderful, generous, intelligent poets that I “didn’t really revise” and “didn’t need them to give me feedback.” Oh, I’m sure I persuaded myself that I was saving them time and effort, letting them off the hook. But really I was terrified that they would hate my poems, terrified to feel like a student again, terrified of the shame if they thought I was still writing just like an MFA student, when I’d gotten my degree five years before.

The truth was, and is, that I revise my poems many times in the week or so it takes me to write them. After that, it’s usually not until I have a full manuscript I’m working on that I revise the poems again. Because when I’ve just written the poem, I feel about it like I feel about a very young puppy: it needs love and care, to be taken care of and cherished, never hurt.

That feeling doesn’t last. Soon enough—a few weeks, a few months—and the poem seems to me like a cardboard cutout of a puppy: inauthentic, inflexible, lacking in depth or life. I don’t know why this is, but I hate it. And it persuades me of two things: 1) that none of my poems are ever particularly good and 2) that I’m a terrible judge of my own poetry.

I want this to be funny, but actually it’s painful. I want to love my own work, or rather, to be as affectionate towards it as it deserves. But I guess, deep down, as many poets must, I feel unworthy. It was this unworthiness that made me terrified to have these two established poets respond to my work. It was this unworthiness that made me secretly convinced I didn’t deservea book or a tenure-track teaching job. If I admitted this unworthiness to myself, would I be admitting that I never should have dropped out of law school, that my life was all based on wrong decisions? Thus my “pride” stepped in to shield me from myself. Thus I told these two poets just enough bullshit that they returned my poems without comment.

If I had gotten their comments, would it have changed my life? Probably not. But…maybe, just a little bit, for the better. Maybe they would have reassured me about certain things in my work and sent me in new directions when it came to others. Maybe they would have worked with me so I had a handful of finished poems that would find good homes in respected literary publications. Maybe they would have shown me some of their drafts, and I could have learned from their impulses and changes. Maybe I would have felt more community as a writer, and that would have helped me in the long run.

I don’t know. I’ve never been good at having anyone tell me what to do, especially if they were right. I’ve been stubborn and prideful my whole life, I think. And because of this pride, particularly susceptible to shame when I got things wrong, or when I failed. That is not a healthy or useful attitude for a writer—neither the pride nor the shame. So I urge you, whether you’ve never published a thing or have several books under your name: don’t be like me. Take the generous offers of others to help you. Be humble and grateful. Remember that, even if you don’t take someone’s advice on this poem, the knowledge shared my affect your future poems in positive ways. And you won’t feel as stupid as I still feel, twenty years later.


Katie Riegel is the author of two full length books of poetry and a chapbook. She taught at colleges and universities for over 20 years, and now offers editing services and online writing classes. There are still spots available in her class that begins at the end of January, called Embrace Your Inner Weird. CLICK HERE to check it out and sign up to reserve your spot!

Categories: Art, Katie's Voice

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40 replies »

  1. Though it’s true that our lives’ directions can be changed by one decision or one happenstance, you’re pretty darn hard on yourself.

    You’re right that had you decided to let those poets comment on your poems, it might not have changed life that much. But I think you were absolutely right to apply yourself to the ambiguities in poetry rather than in law. It suits your spirit.


    • Thank you! And I can be much harder on myself—I was trying to take it easy on myself in this one! But also to be honest. To confess shame is to defuse it, I often find.


      • I’m ok now. But we all have things we wish we’d done differently when we were young. Writing the post helped me forgive myself and realize why I was that way. And I thought it might be helpful to other writers.


  2. This reminder for writers to swallow their pride and take help when it’s offered so resonates with me. An editor at a big literary journal once asked me, a lowly unpublished graduate student, to make edits on a short story, and my thesis advisor told me to “throw those edits in the toilet and piss on them.” Easy for him to say (I didn’t yet have my Go Girl, Ann)–he was a Lannan Literary Fellow, and on his bad advice I assumed a false pride and a foolishly uncompromising attitude that shot my career in the foot before it ever took a step.


  3. Love love love this post. It is so very true. As a longtime writer, I’ve observed hundreds of young writers who, even when they ask for advice, are really only looking for affirmation. One mark of a true writer is the ability — the eagerness — to seek out good honest critiques and to learn from them. Writing is never mastered, only continually improved.


  4. Bravo for being honest! Your story sounds so familiar. I think your realization is one all writers must come to at some point–it’s excellent advice, but advice we must reckon with on our own time and stage on our journeys. I hope you’ll have some compassion on yourself as you pursue your high standards. You might consider your (lifelong) journey as a poet in parallel with the process through which you create and revise a poem. The negative feelings like shame are like erasers, and useful in limited circumstances. They help curb and reform bad habits, but if used too frequently they hinder any useful progress. Don’t be afraid to set them aside. They’ll always be in your toolbox (trust me).

    PS: Don’t forget to treat yourself like the very young puppy. 🙂


    • I love it—yes, we must nurture and care for ourselves too. I finally released my shame over turning down this help when I thought of how young I was. This was 20 years ago—and I have grown since then. Thanks for your thoughtful comment!


  5. I sure can relate to this! Especially: “I’ve never been good at having anyone tell me what to do, especially if they were right.” 🙂 It seems to me that experienced writers have to be discerning about following advice; it can be hard to strike a balance between keeping faith with one’s own instincts and opening to another writer’s. But at least considering the feedback of people whose work you admire seems wise indeed, if they are gracious enough to offer.


  6. Reading this makes me want to reach out and give you a hug. We are at different stages of life, but you’ve accomplished so much more than you give yourself credit for. Lecturing positions are nothing to sneeze at, and I certainly don’t think all elements of writing are destined to follow an upwards trajectory. I do agree with you on taking help. Nothing is created in a vacuum, and I’m sure your poetry would have been influenced by any feedback received. Thanks for the reminder to continuously step out of our comfort zones 🙂


  7. I was part of a writer’s organization in college. I was scared of me having to show my short story, and to hear critique. I did hear a lot of feedback – both good and bad – and it hurt, because it made me feel like I shouldn’t even be writing. Thanks for sharing this.


    • I’m so sorry. That’s the worst possible outcome of getting feedback. As a teacher I believe in descriptive feedback and positive feedback rather than criticism because I’d never want to discourage someone from writing. We writers are sensitive souls.


  8. Love love love this post. It is so very true. As a longtime writer, I’ve observed hundreds of young writers who, even when they ask for advice, are really only looking for affirmation. One mark of a true writer is the ability — the
    Wallet for men eagerness — to seek out good honest critiques and to learn from them. Writing is never mastered, only continually improved.


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  10. This advice is not just for writers, poets, but for life in general. Become aware of your own blocks and critics, your own qualities too and own them, let others reflect things back to you. We judge ourselves more than anyone else does. It is all about learning and sharing wisdom.


  11. Thank you for sharing this advice and reflection of perspective. These as good words to read as a young, prideful, and constantly self doubting writer.


  12. my father used to say, “there is no such thing as coincidence”. if something happens even if it’s bad, there’s always good afterwards. Thank you for sharing your story about yourself, keep up the spirit!


  13. Thank you for sharing! I have only just started to share my poems, and it is probably the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done….I can completely understand the reluctance to accept criticism, even if it is well-meaning and constructive. I’d love to give your younger self a virtual hug and say how talented she is, and at the same time it’s really reassuring to hear that other writers go through the same thing :).


  14. Thank you for sharing that , my first read as I begin this new journey of sharing my word doodles. I love feedback , its the sharing my writings thats scary. On another note, please do give yourself a pat on the back for where you are now…..for you just took another route on the journey of learning…right looking forward to exploring the gloria sirens further….keep up your amazing work


  15. This is such a great post and great advice. As writers, we should always be open to critiques/criticism. It’s what makes us better writers! As for you, we live and we learn. You were much younger then. So don’t beat yourself up! Everything happens for a reason.


  16. I’ve always found that relaxing and accepting are by far the best ways to overcome the dreaded “writers’ block”, just as this article describes. Relaxing is key though; usually when we are tense, we are worrying far too much to be creative. Let the ideas flow when they will, and don’t try to force them.


  17. “Deep down, as many poets do, I feel unworthy”

    This so resonated with me! (Though I am a writer, not a poet.) Allowing yourself to be creative and share it with the world is both terrifying and liberating. Thank you for sharing ❤️


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