Tuesday, March 03, 2015

A Contact Sport

"Writing is like a contact sport, like football. You can get hurt, but you enjoy it." - Irwin Shaw

I'm incredibly fortunate. In MFA school where critiques can be brutal, professors Aimee Liu, Diana Gould, and Victoria Nelson were gentle in their criticism of my graduate school work. Their words were sometimes difficult to hear, but they weren't mean or bitter and I knew they wanted nothing but the best for me.

Recently a former MFA advisor from the college I attended, thankfully he never advised me, wrote an essay criticizing his students after he had resigned. In reading his essay, I'm not sure why anyone wanted to study with him anyway. He had little respect for his students except for a handful he referred to as the "real deal." If I'd been assigned to him I would have asked for a different advisor as others did. And no, I'm not going to dignify him by linking his article or giving his name. If you must, sniff the interwebs for a recent essay by a jaded former MFA professor.

So be careful choosing who reads your work. Back in 2002, a close friend who had just begun to write made the mistake of giving her work to a former English teacher she met at yoga. There's nothing inherently wrong with former English teachers or yoga, but my friend realized too late that this woman was angry and blocked. There's little more effective than a blocked writer armed with the rules of grammar to kill a fledgling writer's mojo. The teacher's comments were petty and stung enough that my friend has written hardly a word since. Stories like this are endless. Some might say my friend wasn't meant to write if she couldn't withstand the criticism. I disagree. I think she subjected herself to criticism too early and trusted her work to the wrong kind of person before she'd built some resilience.

For my previous books, I hired two different editors after researching and getting references. I found their feedback genuine and helpful even though it sometimes hurt. Through the years, I've also carefully gathered a supportive net of what the youngsters like to call "beta readers." I've met these writers through classes, groups, and happy coincidences. For the manuscript of Twenty-Six Point Freaking Two, I chose both runners and non-runners. But all were writers in some stage of an active writing process. None of them were blocked and none of them struck me as angry, bitter people. I respect each of them and will gladly read each of their work in return. Much of the feedback I've received is positive and the recommended changes honest and respectful. This is the kind of criticism I can hear.

How do you find critique partners for your work? How have you built a spine to help you hear criticism? I'd love to hear about it.


Anonymous said...

This message came to me at the right time as I am getting ready again to teach English comp to college students. Thanks for the reminder!

Faith Van Horne said...

As an editor and writer, I've run across numerous other writers who have been stung by unnecessarily harsh critiques of their work. I've faced a couple of rough critiques as well. In my experience, there are a couple of points to keep in mind, both when receiving and giving a critique. On the receiving end, remember that your work is separate from your value as a human being. I find that, even with the most blistering critique, the most positive frame of mind to maintain is, this person is doing their best job to help me become a better writer. Even if the critiquer does have a personal vendetta, that doesn't affect me. I take what I can from the critique, and move on.

On the giving side of a critique, remember that it's often much easier to point out criticisms than strong points. When a section of writing is working well, it's easy to become carried away by the narrative, and not think about how well the writer is doing his/her job. It's only when we see a "clunky" point when we stop. That's often when many critiquers make a comment like, "This part doesn't work," without pointing out all the points of the story that hold together well.

I'm in the process of creating a class on constructive critiquing, so this is a great topic to explore. Thanks for bringing it up!

Karin Gall said...

Good article! I am very leery of critique groups. As you say, some folks are blocked and angry other are just writing for pleasure. I think its good to get a couple of beta readers and get feedback.

-Karin G.

Nita said...

Awesome! Have a great class.

Nita said...

@Faith - These are excellent reminders. I tend to be way too sensitive hence my reflexive response to the former MFA advisor's rant. Thanks for your reasoned response!

Nita said...

@Karin - I agree. I handpick the people. Mind you, eventually I send it to agents and editors, but I choose carefully there, too.