Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Critique

Feedback can be difficult to both give and receive. Finding a response to a piece of work --be it in stone, on canvas, crafted from wood or words on a page is a juggle between what I think the writer is trying to say and how it's coming across. Is it clear? Do I understand? Is this the right word? Does it wander? Is it spot-on? How can I help the writer forge the words so the meaning is deftly put forth?

I'm careful when someone hands me their work. I know all too well their hidden feelings of dread as they hand their manuscript to me. It's something like this:

Writer: "Do these jeans make my butt look big?"
Critic: "Yeah, so big and so wide you could land a 757 on it."

I was introduced to the critique when I was an art student in college. After a long night's work, everyone would come into the studio and put a drawing, painting, sculpture, ceramic up for review. Then we'd go piece by piece, talking about what we liked, what worked, how something could be a bit better. It was always with a bit of dread when you saw the progression.
5...4...3....oh shit, mine's coming up ....2.... crap...
mine's next
.... and finally 1 ...okay, can we get this over with?

Lessons learned: You can learn from other people.
Since you have to work with them, learn to give constructive criticism. There's no reason to thoroughly trash someone.

In formal writing workshops, most of the feedback is civilized. But there is always someone desperate to show that they're so much smarter --they've read more, written more. Their tirade ends up giving license to others to do the same, often to the point where all the writers are repeating clichés. Even the term "brutally honest" can be a laughable cliché.

I don't know why writers felt so much freer with lip service than in art classes..... perhaps it's because in the studio arts, the students spend a lot of time working in the same room at the same time. Everyone sees the struggle. But writers work in seclusion. And often they come bearing every shred of the same self doubt we all have, only the words that pour out (or worse, what they've written for posterity on your pages) manage to combine banality and snarkiness.

And so it was after going through workshop after workshop, that I developed a thick hide and put my ego aside. In class, it was easy. But when it came to giving them twenty pages to take home for a week and mark up, it was harder. This is what can happen.

Every shred of self doubt comes bubbling to the surface.
Night 1 --After killing a forest of trees with rewrites and reprints, you give your work out. It will be turned back to you in a week.
Nights 2 - 3 --you compensate by eating chocolate. You try not look at the clerk when you go back to buy your fourth bar.
Night 4 --you go to yoga, but when you emerge, you're sure readers will hate it.
Night 5 --you look up airfares on Travelocity. Destination: it doesn't matter.
Night 6 -- you loathe every person in the class. You are sure they never brush their teeth, that they have body odor and drive shitty cars. If they don't, then they deserve all three.
Night 7 --Tonight, you will get your papers back. You think about getting sick --Dengue fever, but no, it's not possible. So you glide in, you smile, and everyone hands them back to you. They say nothing. For the rest of the evening you are sure you were an utter failure.

Later.... and I do recommend waiting go through their feedback.
Some is utter garbage. It's pointless, mean, and sarcastic... you learn to put those aside. And then there are those that never give you your work back. Those are the ones who are either indifferent or lazy, and not worth worrying about on your part.

But then there are those precious reviewers with the insight that helps you learn. They take you to task, but they point out things that you didn't see. They help you understand how to make your work stronger. They come through with examples, literary references, even. They ask you questions. They're the ones you want to listen to, they understand the struggle.

After reading, you put aside your cup of coffee. You turn off your phones, your modem and you flip on the computer to write again.