Honest, Fair, Generous

The third of three parts about structured development of your writing talents.

Let’s look at three ways that a writer can respond to a section of text:

  • First person: I was confused by this section.
  • Second person: You confused me in this section.
  • Third person: This section is confusing.

There’s only one of these three statements that can be objectively true. Readers can disagree about whether a section of text is or isn’t confusing, or whether the writer’s strategy is or isn’t confusing, but no one can dispute the simple fact that I was confused. I’m not blaming anybody, I’m not attributing error, I’m just stating my experience.

The fact of criticism—of receiving it, and of delivering it—is one of the great struggles of life. It happens in our families, at work, in our civic lives. But it surprises me that in scholarly programs designed to create original work and get others’ impressions of it, we haven’t done a more rigorous job of understanding how to frame feedback for others, and how to work productively (and emotionally healthfully) with the feedback we receive.

“Be brutal,” we hear people say. “Rip it to shreds.” But nobody really wants to be brutalized, and unless you’re Banksy, nobody wants the work they’ve invested their hearts in to be shredded. We’re not coming to be judged; we’re coming to be aided. What we want is feedback that’s honest, fair, and generous.

Two years ago at Bread Loaf, the ten stories from our group were at different stages of wonderfulness—everyone was talented and dedicated, and the craft showed fully in the pages we read. But even in that packet of high skill, there was one story above the others, a story of a rural father with cancer who’d been long estranged from his well-educated urban daughter. That story just shone. It was better than anything I’d read in any professional publication for ages. It was heartbreaking, precise, brilliant. And in that workshop, in a group of well-trained and capable critics, the author heard suggestions. The suggestion that she should begin the story at the family reconciliation and work backward to the relationship’s breakdown. The suggestion that she should focus more on the neighbor boys the same age as the distant daughter, but who had themselves stayed home and taken over their own failing father’s farm. The responses were perfectly understandable. They fulfilled our responsibilities. And they missed the pure joy of just reading a wonderfully shaped story.

A member of my own writing group, himself having just come from an MFA program, talks about what he calls “fan fictioning,” when a critic takes it upon himself to make the writer’s project a different project. “You could have Dan tell this story retrospectively, recognizing that he was in this idyllic moment. Maybe he discovers that his high school teacher just died of pneumonia five years later… maybe Dan doesn’t have a sister and a mother, it’s just him and his dad at home, so we see that he’s really isolated…”

This is not helpful, but it’s what happens when writers read.

I’m Midwestern enough to have absorbed one guiding principle for human relations: “Unsolicited advice is never welcome.” My wife will correctly tell you that I haven’t fully mastered that one yet; you may have by now intuited it yourself. But when I lead writers’ workshops, I try to remember that guidance. I have one strict rule for giving peer review in my workshops: everything we say has to be in first-person construction, about our experience of reading these pages. The writer whose work is on the table doesn’t need another writer; she needs exactly and only the one thing she can never be, which is an external reader who offers their experience of reading. When a reader tells a writer how he responded to a part of the work, the writer gets to consider whether that response is widely shared or idiosyncratic, and how to repair a flaw while remaining true to the larger vision. The reader has no right to write. The reader may only read, and convey the experience of reading.

As writers receiving feedback, even this good kind of reader-focused feedback, we have to decide what to do with it. I often hear my students say “So A wants me to do this, but B wants me to do that… what do I do?” Well, you do what YOU want to do, knowing that reviewer A found something problematic, and that reviewer B didn’t. What do you know about those two people? What do you like and trust about their writing? What can you take from both of them that will help you be better at reaching your own goals for this piece? They aren’t your supervisors, they’re just smart people who’ve told you what they see. You aren’t “accepting” or “rejecting” their criticism, it isn’t a binary—you’re listening to it, to see how you can come ever closer to doing the work you want to do.

I’d love to see a broader pedagogical discussion about how critique-based creative education can be improved. I know first-hand and from both directions that architecture schools are terrible at it, that writing groups can be terrible at it. Focusing on the experience rather than the judgment is my own first foray at trying to make it better.