Michelle Wittle On Deconstructing Criticism

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I’m not proud of what I am about to tell you, but I think it’s important.

Once upon a time, I was in a workshop. It was a genre I wasn’t really comfortable writing in. I had to critique a person who was seen around town as a master.

I thought the poem was horrific and didn’t make sense. I went line by line and destroyed the poem. I picked apart every word and every transition. I picked apart the timing in the poem. Hell, I think I even picked apart the punctuation.

Why did I do this?

Simply because I was scared. I thought I was being helpful.

This line of critiquing happens a lot in workshops and it is nothing but detrimental to the writer.

When one comes to a workshop; it isn’t because one thinks he or she has crafted the best piece of work ever. Okay, some do think that way, but the marjority of people don’t. Most people come to a workshop with a piece they are unsure about. Something isn’t working in the piece and the person needs a new set of eyes looking at the piece. They don’t need someone tearing apart the piece and saying basically what the author wrote is shit.

Yet, this continues to happen.

I’ve had it happen to me many times.

One person told me my story was shit. I needed to have my male friends read it because I couldn’t write a male character. The events would never happen.

That story was also the one that got me into grad school, so….

Then in another workshop, a person told me and I quote, “I am bored by this story.”

That was the whole critique.

Needless to say, that critique went into the trash. When I got that person’s story to critique, I won’t lie, I was tempted to return the favor. But then I remembered my earlier display of taking a person’s work and destroying it, so I stopped. I looked at the way the story was written. I asked questions. I looked at the characters and how they were created. Basically, I took my personal feelings for the person out of my critique and focused on what was really important and helpful.

I was rewared when the person wrote me an email thanking me for such a great critique and also that person never wrote another critique for my story again. Either way, I never would have read the critique because, by this point, I didn’t value the writer’s opinion.

Sad, isn’t it?

This whole idea that writers have to go after other writer is horrific. There are plenty of other people out there ready and willing to rip us apart. Why must we do this to each other? Why can’t we have a safe place to take our newly hatched work and get some honest critiques?

A workshop is simply a place for a writer to explore his or her own craft. It is a place for the writer to try new things and hear honest reactions to the craft represented in the piece. The workshop should be a place of sharpening craft, not tongues.

Maybe if we all start subscribing to this theory, maybe workshops will start to improve. Therefore, our writing and our egos will benefit as well.

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2 thoughts on “Michelle Wittle On Deconstructing Criticism

  1. I think that what you have written is important Michelle because , I think, people come from a workshop to learn, and throwaway comments like, “That’s trash” or, just as frequently “That’s good” aren’t helpful at all. At the same time, writers coming to workshops need to be receptive to the fact that maybe what they have written isn’t going to win a Nobel Prize in Literature just yet. I’ve seen a number of writers who take any suggestions or even questions about their work as a threat. Personally, if what I take to be a brilliant simile in a poem I’m writing strikes everyone else in the group as hackneyed, I’d want to know.

    Mike Northen

    1. Hey Mike:
      I agree. All those, “hey, this is great” comments do not help either. It’s nice someone likes what is written but it doesn’t help the writer’s progress. It’s like what I call the American Idol syndrome. Everyone tells you you’re great, then you get in front of professionals in the field and you find out you may not be as great as everyone told you you were.
      And yes, I have seen writer’s take comments too personally. I’ve been one of them. However, as I learned more about myself as a writer I find it easier to hear comments. I can filter out the things I don’t need because I believe in my writing and I know what I’m asking from the group. It didn’t happen over night, but I did get to that place.
      Thanks again for your comments. I really appreciate your insight.

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