Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Greatest Gift

As others have said recently, submitting your work and receiving criticism can feel like watching your darlings as they wait on death row--that fearful anticipation of shoving your luscious and inspiring prose into the broiling oven of a critique group that's preheated to char your creations into oblivion.  Sounds horrible, doesn't it?  Letting others jab and poke and prod at your well thesaurused words, your lovely sentences, your brilliant paragraphs, your perfect story.  Who in their right mind would submit themselves to such, lying on the carpet like a frightened puppy, legs akimbo, belly exposed, and tail wagging as you wait to see if the hulk standing over you will pet or kick.

And yet.

And yet, we realize the real writing is in the revision, as Mike said recently, and no writer can be their own best editor.  Okay, maybe if you're Henry James and just walk around your studio dictating a single perfect draft of your really, really long and incredibly complex novel to a typist.  Maybe.  But for most of us, getting feedback from readers we come to trust is the surest way to the most productive revision.  Even though it may sometimes sting, a thorough critique is the greatest gift a writer can receive--or give.  Remember what we tell our kids when we smear the iodine on their cuts...

So, what makes for a good critique group and what's the process?

When I first started writing, I discovered a critique group and sat in for a year or so, finding it helpful and motivational, if a bit scattered in its approach.  I also attended a few weekend or week long workshops and attended some one off sessions.  Then I joined the MFA program at Spalding University in Louisville, and got to workshop every day for a week during the residencies, and really discovered some insight into making the most of workshopping time and effort.

I remember our first workshop in my first semester, where Sena Naslund, the program director, and Brad Watson led the session.  Sena laid out the program's guidelines that first day, and I wondered if they were a bit too stringent.

One of the most startling guidelines was that the writer being critiqued was instructed to remain silent as the group, one at a time, going around the table, made their comments.  No argument, no "you didn't get it," no "but I really meant...."  I'd seen all of those--and worse--in my other workshop experiences, and had even taken part in far ranging and frankly petty arguments that took the entire group far from the topic of a writer's work.  Sena's point was to foster an open listening on the part of the writer, an openness to not resist, no matter how off base or silly a comment might seem, and a willingness to let the comments distill over some time so the writer could fully taste them.

And once the group had finished commenting on a writer's piece, that writer had to go first in commenting on the next one.  Brilliant!  No grousing over someone's pick of your favorite nit, no cursing at the group's utter banality, just boom, close the door, shift gears, and think about the next writer's work.  Wow!

So, now in our workshop group at the Indiana Writers Center, we follow those guidelines, for the most part, and find they truly encourage our comments into the most productive use of our time and efforts--and our willingness to open that oven door and check our darlings on the tray.

And, yes, every session feels like Christmas!  Okay, maybe right after we doctor up the booboo on our knee.

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