Teenagers and Writing Critique Groups = Creativity Killers
Remember being a teenager? It seemed you had to hide any bit of individuality from the mob of your peers and their judgy-ness.
Maybe that was just me. It wasn’t weird that I quoted Shakepeare, danced to swing music and carried vocabulary flashcards in my purse. No. Not weird.
I have teenagers now and guess what? They’re still judgy! And I’m still weird. (I’m told this constantly.) But now, I like my weird. We’ve grown attached to each other. We clique off and snicker about our critics. In my head, we ARE the popular kids.
I’m all grown up now. But writing critique groups can kill creativity in much the same way as the high school mean girls can.
The first time I went to a writers critique group. I was young, not much older than a teenager, really. The group met in an adorable bohemian café that had ombre walls, sold forty different types of tea and had jam poetry sessions that packed the place. This is being a writer, I said to myself. How romantic!
I went to watch, decidedly NOT to share. I wasn’t ready for that. Honestly, I wasn’t brave enough to even say I was a writer. I would have gone with a friend, if I had been brave enough to tell my friends. Even now, I feel fraudulent half the time I claim to be an author, even though I’ve been paid to write professionally for years. But writing a book is scary and scary is ok. (I feel like if I keep repeating this, I’ll believe it)
The first part of writing critique groups that had me locating the nearest exit is the practice of reading your work aloud. This can feel like that universal nightmare. You know the one… you walk into your high school class and realize you’re naked.
As if the public speaking element weren’t painful enough, people take turns ripping your tender, fragile ideas to pieces. Yeah, sure. Sign me up.
At the Bohemian cafe writing group… I showed up five minutes early and took a seat beside an affable man in his sixties. We’ll call him Randall. Maybe it’s the love of Shakespeare or swing music but this demographic and I get along swimmingly. (Maybe it’s the fact I still use the word “swimmingly”.)
Randall was working his way through the first edit of his novel. Ok, I thought. I’m outta here! I wrote the occasional short story or essay but I was embarrassed to admit that mostly I wrote poetry. Poetry: the writer’s equivalent of photographing sunsets.
I quickly learned two things. First, Randall was a pro at critique groups. (He’d been in at least six different ones in the last two years.) And second, people in writing groups reeeeeally like to tell you about their work. Like, really.
I didn’t really mind though. That way, I didn’t have to talk about my own “work”. Some famous author once said that writing critique groups are a waste of time. Everyone just wants to talk about their own work; they love to tear apart each other’s work; and few of them are actually published and therefore no authority on good writing at all. This advice, my newbie first experience and my own fear had me avoiding writing groups for years. A good method, I told myself.
But sooner or later, you have to share your writing. The whole “tree in the forest” thing.
I know a bit more about writing groups these days because I have a really great one. So with this authority, I’d like to give some pointers on how to do a writing critique group right.
- Don’t preempt your critique
I often present a piece with a few questions in mind. Is this reaction true to this character? How obvious is this plot tool? Is this clue obvious enough? Or is it too obvious? I’ve wanted to say “Ok, I know what you’re going to say. Just let me tell you why I did it before you say it.” I can’t tell you how many times I have handed out the papers, my fingers almost unable to let them go.
But control yourself or you’ll ruin the critique. Have you ever read a book review before reading a book and then, at some point, thought “Ah ha! That’s what they were talking about.” It was probably something you wouldn’t have noticed. Maybe you would have read it totally differently. Let your readers process your work the way your reader will. Then pepper them with your questions. I have mine written down, because I’m Type A like that.
- Be an active listener
I don’t so much as chew while I am listening to someone’s work. Not because I think chewing is so noisy (which I do). And not because I consider it rude to do anything but pay attention (which I do). I don’t do anything but follow their words because, if I intend to listen well, I know I can’t multitask.
- Don’t hog the floor
There are two kinds of writers. The first category is comprised of writers who love to share their work. I don’t resent this as I consider this more passion than narcissism. Sometimes, these people are geniuses, on fire for their latest idea. But sometimes these chin-flappers just like to hear themselves talk.
- But take the floor
The second category has writers, like me, who are terrified to talk about their art. I’ve written professionally for years. But freelance pieces and business writing don’t count, in my mind, as art. And there’s the whole anonymous element. That’s nice.
I’m grateful for writing groups because they force me to raise my voice a little. Someday, when I believe my writing is good (does that ever really happen?), I’ll lay it on the table like a winning poker hand. In the meantime, I’m exercising the embarrassment muscle because the buffer I get, the less it stings.
- Agree to disagree
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen an argument sprout up because people can’t just smile and thank the person for their feedback. (Heck, sometimes I pretend to agree with my critic, knowing I’m definitely not going to take their advice.) I’m all for healthy debate. I feel it’s one of the best ways to take the temperature of your audience. But, for god sake, don’t argue your position. If you can’t change the mind of your critic, you seem like a jerk. And if you can, what good does that do you? Great, now that you’ve explained yourself, it makes sense. Just do that with every single reader and you’ll be fine.
- Encourage questions
Readers only ask questions if they’re interested. When I’m reading a book and something doesn’t fit, I do one of two things. If I am enjoying the work, I grapple with it. I ask questions of the author in my mind. Why did this character lie? What did that comment mean? Why did that character die? Where is this story going? I think confusion can be fun, especially if it really nips at my heels as I read. But if I’m not really into the story, I do the other thing. I shrug it off. Plot contradiction? Who cares. Don’t understand the dialogue? Just read over it. If it makes sense later – great. If not, oh well.
So when someone really grapples with questions in my writing, I enjoy it. Granted, there are times it just didn’t make sense because I wrote it at 2am. In those cases, I’m grateful for someone to point it out. But sometimes the things people grapple with are intentional, little teasers meant to unhinge my reader a little and it was fun to see my critique group catch that scent.
- Suggest a fix
Just because your sharp intellect can tear someone else’s idea to shreds, don’t. Instead, suggest another course of action. That’s proving your smarts! And for god sake, don’t use a red pen. That’s just rude.
- Don’t take everyone’s advice
At the end of the day, it’s your name on the work and lots of people told Hemingway he wasn’t doing it right. Lots of people still would. Follow your gut because if you really love it (and you are your audience demographic), your readers probably will too.
We all need our own weird. I believe that’s what art is. It’s that nightmare of walking into the class naked. Except this time, you laugh at yourself, do a little dance and then take a bow.