Thursday, May 25, 2006

Learning to critique

This spring I'm teaching a critiquing class. The group meets once a week and we read and discuss work brought in by participants. I bring a timer to keep us on track and to ensure that discussion time is divided fairly. I also offer a writing prompt, week-to-week in case they need ideas to keep them writing. It's been a great class and has made me think a lot about the writing and workshopping process.

Learning to critique the creative work of others is a really valuable life lesson, especially if you are pursuing a creative life yourself. We learn a great deal from having our work critiqued and also from critiquing the work of others.

Here are some of the basic "rules" I have my students follow:

For the reader:

· Do not explain your work. Do not give us “background information” before you read it to us. Let the work speak for itself. The words on the page must do the work--once it is in print, you will not have the opportunity to “set it up” for your readers. After comments you can explain if you feel compelled to do so.

· Understand that a critique of your work is not a critique of you. Because we look at your work and find suggestions for improvement does not mean that you are a bad writer. Most work needs tweaking. Above all, remember that a critique is not personal. You are not being judged. You are not passing or failing. You are workshopping.

· Remember that this is your work. Ultimately it will have only your name on it. As such, it should say what you want it to say. DO NOT take every suggestion offered. This will result in a mish-mash of ideas and styles. I tell my students to think of a critique session as a buffet. Sample everything, yes, but only take seconds of whatever food appeals to you.

For the critiquer:

· Be positive. It is not easy to put creative work before a group. Find something that you like and comment on that before finding fault.

· Offer suggestions for improvement. Phrases such as “have you considered…” and “what if you tried…” go a long way toward making the critiquee receptive to your ideas.

· Do not be afraid to speak up if you disagree with what another critiquer says. You can do this politely, but it is important for the person who is being critiqued to know that what that person says is not agreed to across the board. There is no problem with having a different opinion. We are all writing different things in different styles. There is bound to be some disagreement. It is up to the writer to sort it out, and up to you to speak up if you disagree.

· Honor the author's intent. The best critiquer takes time to analyze what the author is trying to accomplish and frames his or her suggestions accordingly. Be careful not to impose your own personal writing tastes on the critiquee, especially if they run contrary to the writer's vision for his or her piece. [Even experienced workshop leaders have trouble remembering to do this.]

The most useful--and difficult--thing I've learned in more than twenty years of workshopping (ten-plus years in the fine arts and ten years in writing) is how to sort through comments. If a particular reader doesn't get anything of what I'm trying to say and would change virtually everything about my writing, that reader is NOT a good reader for my work. I then take to heart very little of what that particular reader says--he or she simply is not the reader I'm aiming for.

Conversely, if a reader likes every single thing about my piece and wants no changes whatsoever, that person may be a good reader for my ego, but not so good for helping me make the work the best it can be. I appreciate the strokes, but also, get very little that is constructive from the critique.

If, however, a reader responds positively to some things (particularly the things that I, too, like) and has suggestions for changes/adjustments that ring true as I read them, then that person IS a good reader for me and I listen to almost everything that person has to say.

The worst thing we can do to our writing voice is take to heart everything that everyone says and try to make everyone happy.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Ashamed to die?

"Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity."
-Horace Mann, educational reformer (1796-1859)

My son turned ten years old about two weeks ago. He's always been a very interesting fellow, definitely a thinker. And for most of his childhood he has said that when he grows up he wants to design video games for a living. (Big surprise, eh? It's the new fireman/racecar driver for young boys.)

But out of the blue, the other day, he said, "You know, Mom, I've been thinking. If I make video games, do you really think that helps the world?"

I had been involved in some task, cooking perhaps, half-listening until I understood what he was asking. I stopped what I was doing and turned to him. "Honestly, honey? No, I don't."

He sighed. "Me neither."

"It might be a fun job, but I doubt it would make the world a better place. You couldn't, say, solve world hunger with a game, could you?"

"No." He smiled at the thought.

"But maybe you could make a whole lot of money doing that, and then use the money to do good things for the world..."

"Yeah, I could. But I'm thinking I might do something else, instead. Like for the planet."

I love watching the seed of moral obligation sprout and grow. It's like seeing the earth being made all over again. I'm not so jaded as many of the over-forty crowd. Today's kids don't make me shake my head and predict dire things. Today's kids give me hope for the future.

Friday, May 19, 2006

One week

What a difference a week makes.

I have been reading a book about the laws of attraction. I find it fascinating. Although I'm not very good at describing it, the book is basically about consciously putting out good vibes / feelings as a way to attract them back. It makes sense to me. You feel good, good things keep happening. You feel bad, bad stuff keeps piling on. Do we attract it? I don't know, but I'm game. I'll give it a shot, I think. I read on. The author warns that after you start consciously attempting to put good feelings out, there will be trials that test your ability to sustain the good feelings even when bad things start happening. Sure, sure, trials-schmials I think, no problem.

Enter me. And Wednesday.

The week started out great. I had an out-of-the-blue phone call from a good friend who called just to tell me what a great person he thinks I am. Nice. I had lunch with my co-author who said he just wanted to honor my role in writing his book--he picked up the tab and the food was great. Thank you good vibes. I taught class that night and everything gelled--the students, the work, the lecture. All good. I began to think, "Maybe this stuff really works." I have more good feelings.

Then something happens. I open my email early Wednesday morning to find that in my day job I have been verbally attacked by someone I have spent a lot of time and effort trying to help. I attempt to mollify the individual. It seems to make things worse. I have to run because later that morning, I have two back-to-back doctor's appointments scheduled for my daughters. The first appointment reveals that a case of scoliosis that we had been "observing" has progressed rapidly in the eight months since our last appointment. When the x-ray is pulled up, my daughter and I both gasp. The change is obvious. It needs immediate treatment. That first appointment runs late and we have to dash across town to appointment number two, where daughter number one is found to have a damaged knee that needs x-rays and physical therapy. Every time I speak, people look at me as if I have two heads and am speaking in flaming tongues of fire. I feel like I am trudging through pea soup. I can't get to the work and writing things that are piling up because I am so busy putting out my hair, which is on fire. My son needs his little league pictures and has to be on the field in five minutes, and oh, by the way, he says when we are halfway there, I need that form and a check. Form? Check? By late-night email I get a rejection for said co-authored book after there had been a great deal of interest from an agent I respect very much and had hoped to work with. (The rejection was very classy, I should say, and I appreciated receiving the truth, which allows me to move on.) I'm sure there were many more, smaller things, too, but really, does it matter? I seem to be absolutely following that book's prediction that like attracts like.

Obviously, I need to turn this energy back around, and quick.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Hat of Many Goldfinches

Susan Meyers' excellent poem (perfect for today's lovely spring attitude) can be read at Verse Daily today.


We either make ourselves happy or miserable. The amount of work is the same.

--Carlos Castenada, mystic and author (1925-1998)

Friday, May 05, 2006

Thursday, May 04, 2006

A few words about forgiveness and culpability

And I'm speaking of the Viswanathan publishing scandal, which I am finding especially troubling.

I know she did wrong, no question. But can't we (meaning the people in the business of publishing) examine this a little more closely? Can't we take a minute to wonder if maybe we bear some responsibility for this happening in the first place?


1) Ms Viswanathan was 17 years old when a big publisher dangled that $500,000 advance (and some probability of fame) in front of her.

2) In an interview (prior to the scandal) she said she didn't even want to be a writer, she had no plans to pursue it as a career. (Anyone else see a red flag?)

3) The book was bought on the basis of a few chapters. A few chapters!

4) Suddenly, sale complete, she found herself faced with finishing the whole book...this for a young woman who has never written a novel before.

Having written two novels myself, I can testify that about halfway through the process, fear, despair, and a certainty that it will never, ever get finished sets in. Even when I know I've made it to the end of a book once before, and that I can, I still panic, and I'm 40 years old, with an MFA under my belt and no big contract contingent upon my finishing the manuscript.

Did no one involved in this sale think that this was a possibility? Did no one pause to wonder if they were doing the right thing giving a huge advance to an unpublished author who is also only 17 years old?? Was there such a rush to get a piece of The Next Big Thing that they all lost their heads and put a huge load of pressure on a high school student? Sure sounds like it to me.

She can't even go into a bar and order a drink. She's a kid. A kid who screwed up royally, but I challenge you to show me a kid who doesn't have at least one major screw up during his or her teen years.

Did Viswanathan exploit the business, lie and steal? Yes, she did. She panicked and she plagiarized. By all means cancel her book, take it off the shelves, make her pay back her advance.

But an equally valid question is, Did the corporate publishing machine exploit her as a pretty young ambitious female with a foreign name?

I think perhaps they did.

Freak Magnet

Myfanwy Collins' interview about her short story collection, Freak Magnet, can be read here,

Other Voices Blog

I've known about OV for quite some time, but I just found this link via a friend's blog. Clickety. Thanks, Kat!

Monday, May 01, 2006

Finally, some national press...

Last summer, the Caribbean experienced a major bleaching event of its stony corals believed to be a direct result of warming water temperatures. Colonies of Elkhorn corals were some of the worst hit, but all stony corals suffered. In some places, 40% of the corals died. Since this occurs underwater, many people never see or hear about this, but if you want an analogous situation, imagine 40% of the trees in Yellowstone National Forest--especially those that are a hundred years old or more (as many of the dead and dying corals are)--dying in one summer. The people would take note, no?

Researchers have been clamoring over this major bleaching event since it was first discovered last summer, but the mainstream press has said very little about it, due in part to the fact that the Caribbean is a major tourist spot and the island governments don't want toursits to think anything has changed. But not only has it changed, this summer (if current water temperatures are any indication) looks to be just as bad.

You can read about it here.