[A note before I begin: This is not about you. Don’t think you’re seeing yourself here.]

In an old play I always loved, Phillip Barry’s The Animal Kingdom, one of the characters, an artist, says to another in critique of a third character’s new art, “It’s too bad our friends don’t make shirts. It would be easy to say ‘that is not a good shirt.’”

So goes it with writing. And reading.

Invariably, as a writer, one is asked by others for critiques of their work. One is invariably asked for the truth, by people who, invariably, don’t want it.

How do you tell someone you like that “this is not a good shirt”?

These are opinions, after all, visited by the same prejudices of taste, professional experience, and emotional inclination as any reader brings to the page.

And yet. Sometimes the stuff is just bad. Cringingly so. And, just as often, the writer doesn’t seem to know it.

Which brings us to me.

How do we know that the shirt is not good? And do we really want to hear that? From anybody?

With The Spiritkeeper, I started doing something I had never done in a lifetime of writing: I shared my work with friends. A scary thing, that. That the response has been overwhelmingly positive—hell, more than positive—is gratifying. But can one trust it?

I mentioned this to a young colleague, whose opinion I cherish. I think I’ve made clear that I want to hear the real reactions, not the prettied-up ones. But then, too, I told her “It’s hard to look someone in the eye and tell them the less-than-pleasant truth.”

The truth is like telling somebody they’ve got an ugly baby. It may be apparent, but there ain’t much use in saying it. Yet, how does one improve if one doesn’t know? And whose opinion is good enough to accept as gospel?

I want the good shirt. For myself and for others. The shirt you can wear for years. The shirt that makes me and you both look good. The one that doesn’t get stuck in the bottom of a drawer somewhere, a good idea that doesn’t seem quite as good in daylight.

Help me, somebody.

(And BTW, if you’d like to read, and perhaps even comment, go visit the work where some of it lives: the-spiritkeeper.com. Cheers.)