Thursday, May 29, 2008

Work in Progress: "Don't Listen to Them"

Now that I’ve had some time to breathe after teaching throughout the semester while also going through my own massive collection of critiques and applying the wise suggestions and comments to my work-in-progress, I’ve had the chance to think a bit about the process of critiquing.

I’m sure this thought process is a work-in-progress in itself, so there’s a good chance that I will disavow these comments at some point, as I continue to ponder from the perspective of a critiquer and critiquee how to be most effective at guiding writers to improving their work.

First, let me note that in general, I think the standard workshop critique process works very well. (By standard, I mean: everyone reads a copy of the manuscript, writes notes on the margins, types up a 1-2 page commentary that covers what’s working in the piece and what’s not, and discusses these points in a constructive, well-managed situation; the author listens, takes notes, and at the end asks questions. Perhaps the writer goes home and downs some scotch to help take the edge off, but the class only gets the de rigueur, “Thanks. You’ve all been so helpful. I really appreciate all your comments.”)

Sometimes I’m the teacher, running the show—and one of my challenges there is reminding everyone that no single opinion is more important than the others. There’s a tendency for the voice of the “teacher” to rise above the others. While I recognize that I have more experience, we’re all a room of readers, and when your book is out there, that’s what you’re going to get: not a room of teachers (who wouldn’t agree on anything, anyway). Deep breath…art is subjective! (One of the great skills of attending a workshop is learning how to sort through the fifteen critiques to find what you need, what will actually help your book. More on that another day.)

In fact, I often find it interesting when people in the workshop disagree with my “teacherly” assessments. Actually, what challenges me the most is when I think something is great and others don’t see it the way I do; I want to take aside the writer and whisper, “Don’t listen to them.” But I’m sure that’s how they feel when I say that something isn’t working for me, and others feel they’re reading the best thing since sliced bread. What I enjoy most about the interplay in a good workshop is how generous and genuinely excited people are when we read something we like: I don’t know if I’m lucky, or if my “frosty look of death” quells the whiners, or maybe I teach at places that encourage exploration and the humility of learning, but I haven’t suffered through the workshop (or student) who complains about everything, tears stuff apart, and never has anything nice to say. (Note: If you’re ever in that situation, get out yourself out ASAP…or, if you can’t do that, really, don’t listen to them! I’ve met people who have stopped writing because of bad workshops.)

And sometimes I’m the one sitting in my fabulous writing group, listening to the critiques, taking home the stack of comments to wade through—after I’ve had my scotch to recover from the being-critiqued experience.

All this brings me to the question I’ve been pondering lately. For me, the best critiques tend to share these characteristics (and I recognize that others would have a different list):

--corrects anything that is factually wrong (even the most minor detail…I was told that the Rehoboth Beach restaurant is Grotto Pizza, not Grotto’s Pizza as I had written, and I was sincerely grateful to learn that).

--points out areas of confusion

--offers light suggestions for how to fix things. Ultimately, I may ignore that particular suggestion, but seeing how someone else would approach the problem of throwing the sisters together without being too coincidental is helpful for me; these solutions often lead me to my own.

--asks questions of any magnitude. I find this especially helpful in a novel-in-progress, where the writer is still shaping the story: How many years was the father with Barbara? Why is Nora so bitter?…whoops! Nora wasn’t supposed to seem bitter, which brings us to the following--

--and here’s the biggie: I need a good critique to help me see that I’m viewing things from an odd or skewed perspective…basically, from my own point of view. Obviously, always I’m seeing things from my point of view; we all are. But when several people tell me, “I think the father would be more frantic because his daughter is missing,” I listen, because I am NOT a father with a missing daughter, and because I don’t have children, I am very alert to clues that I may be missing some sort of "standard" parental behavior. This is assuming I want this father to be “normal”: in other cases, when people say, “The father should be more frantic here,” I note to myself that the exact point I’m making here is that the father ISN’T frantic when perhaps he should be, and so I, as the writer, need to work harder to show WHY the father is not following this “expected” behavior.

--Which brings me to an even bigger question I’ve been pondering about critiques, both the ones I write and the ones I get: In cases like that (“the father isn’t frantic enough”) are we responding to the work as ourselves? Or do we try to imagine how THIS CHARACTER—as drawn, as we’ve been experiencing him through the work—should respond? Which approach is more helpful to the writer? I often find it confusing when someone suggests a character act a certain way: in real life, yes, I know a “good” person would act that way. But would my character? Isn’t the point that he’s flawed and not “good” right now?

For me, this often comes up because I write about flawed parents, so yes, a mother “shouldn’t” kill herself and leave behind her two children (as in my novel A Year and a Day). So, I need the critiquers to understand that they have to accept that premise and move forward from there: She shouldn’t, but she did…so how would THAT WOMAN then respond in or react to or handle various situations? Not, What would you do? And, of course, not, What would I the writer do?

As you sort through that stack of critiques—or listen to the comments carom about in a lively workshop—try to remember that distinction. You are you, and your character is your character. (Sorry, Flaubert: you are NOT Madame Bovary!) Are the people offering advice and suggestions thinking as themselves…or thinking as your character? What would Jesus do?

No answers, only questions. I’m sure I’ll explore this topic further down the road, and I’m interested in any thoughts you might have. You can email me here.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.