Ask the Unicorns: Touchstones on the Yellow Brick Road
by Minal Hajratwala
I’m interested in writing (unsure about specifically what genre) because I feel as though I have so much to say that others need to hear. What are some ways to improve my writing? How do I distinguish between good feedback and bad feedback?
—Joshua Thurman, University of Michigan
In 1880, the critic Matthew Arnold introduced the idea of “touchstones” to the Western literary world.
In his time, most critics relied on their own personal inclinations, often tinged with an argument about historical significance, to discuss new works of literature.
His essay “The Study of Poetry” was the first to make the radical suggestion that we should create a list of “truly excellent” examples and measure all others against these. He called these examples “touchstones,” after the black stone that metallurgists and smiths of the nineteenth century used to test the purity of silver and gold.
For writers sorting through a lot of feedback—including our often-clamorous chorus of internal critics—I suggest putting this idea to use.
Start a “Touchstones” document or a small notebook. In it, write down the lines that represent, for you, the height of style, emotional expression, sheer ambitiousness, or any other quality you desire and envy and hope to achieve in your writing. Copy out the sentences and paragraphs of your heroes, or even lines that are your own best work. Keep them short. Read them from time to time. Absorb the rhythms and cadences of your touchstones. Feel their heartbeats.
Let your touchstones become your compass and inner guide—not to criticize yourself or watch yourself fall short, but to study. Find the writers you love and learn from them on the page if not in the flesh.
Meanwhile, write with the utmost freedom.
Write as much as you can, and keep doing it no matter what anyone says. Don’t let your touchstones inhibit or narrow you. Learn as much as you can, from any source possible.
You have to write enough, and consistently enough, to tune in to the inner voice.
Easier said than done? Then practice free-writing as taught by “Natalie Goldberg: set a timer, keep the pen moving, get specific, lose control.
The goal is to create a sense of absolute freedom on the page; an intimacy between you and your page that is unshakeable.
You will edit, shape, and craft your words later, and that’s where you can learn the most from other people and their feedback.
But real freedom on the page, liberation of the mind? That’s something you can only fight for yourself. And the inner voice you develop through that good fight will tell you all you need to know about good and bad feedback.
You probably already know the difference in your gut, and if not, you will with practice.
Good feedback resonates with something inside that you know to be true and niggles at you until you solve the question with more (not less) writing. It’s like a string of fairy lights leading you on the path toward your touchstones.
Bad feedback creates a sense of dissonance and disempowerment and threatens to shut down your process.
The same is true of other people’s writing strategies and advice (even from unicorns). Learn everything you can about writing, but listen to it the same way: gut check.
At the same time, it’s important to distinguish petty preferences from true gut wisdom. Try, as best you can, to separate the qualities of the person from the quality of the feedback. Sometimes fools, political enemies, and people with bad breath will also hit upon a helpful truth.
Like many writers, you may find it helpful to find the tribe—whether a big community, or just one close writing buddy or two—who will support your work. Invest in quality time that will feed your work: workshops, conferences, private mentorships. Save up when you can. Don’t be shy about applying for scholarships when they’re available, suggesting barter arrangements, and offering research or administrative assistance to the writers from whom you want to learn. Be a joiner or a leader; there are writers’ groups and organizations for almost every subgenre and subdemographic out there, and if it doesn’t exist, you can create it. Many writers of color find there’s nothing like our own literary communities for feedback we can trust.
Don’t forget that while you’re doing all this work in community to protect your solitude: the core time between you and your page.
I’m afraid that, like so much writing advice, we are now in danger of entering the territory of platitudes. That may be because, as the Tao Te Ching says, “The Way that can be spoken of is not the true Way.”
What you’re really doing when you write is approaching the mystery. You’re like Dorothy approaching—despite wicked witches and flying monkeys—the Wizard. In the end what you’re looking for is home: the home you’ll make out of words, to share your truth with the world that needs it.
In Oz, the Wizard was a fraud. But luckily for us, there is a true Wizard here, one who has all the answers that you need.
Guess what his name is.
Ask the Unicorns is an advice column about living the creative life, written by Jaggery Contributing Editor Minal Hajratwala and channeled directly from the ancient unicorns of the Indus Valley. Got a question about writing, reading, relating, creating, or being desi? The unicorns know. Write to AskTheUnicorns@gmail.com. Please indicate whether you would like us to publish your name or keep your question anonymous. All questions will be considered for publication; they will NOT be answered individually.
Minal Hajratwala is a writing coach, co-founder of The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, author of the award-winning nonfiction epic Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents (2009), and editor of Out! Stories from the New Queer India (2013).