13 June 2009

Different Types of Writing Groups

This month I've mulled over two different models of how writers share their work with others. Author Janni Lee Simner said this in an interview at Cynsations:

I remember wondering if I really needed a critique group, which seems hilarious now. I learned so much the two years I was with the [group] Alternate Historians--as much as any MFA program could have taught me.
And critic Louis Menand wrote in The New Yorker about the basis of such MFA programs:
The workshop is a process, an unscripted performance space, a regime for forcing people to do two things that are fundamentally contrary to human nature: actually write stuff (as opposed to planning to write stuff very, very soon), and then sit there while strangers tear it apart.
Ironically, this sort of graduate writing program often encourages people to write very personally--just the sort of material that would be most painful to hear "torn apart." Not a surprise that this format was developed by men, and overlaps a lot with psychoanalysis.

Amateur critique groups, on the other hand, often have an ethos of not being too critical out of fear of hurting a member's feelings--even if the work at hand isn't personal or autobiographical. In fact, I think amateur critique groups should guard against offering too much praise for work that needs serious rethinking and revision. We are, after all, there to learn.


mbpbooks said...

Okay, John, be prepared for me to tear your next submission to shreds.

Chaucerian said...

Sometimes "writers' groups" exist only so that people who belong to them can say that they are "writers." I dropped out of a leaderless one a few years ago because the most prolific writer did not punctuate correctly or use correct grammar. There seemed to me to be no point, under the circumstances, in discussing whether the heroine's reasoning was realistic or the settings authentic, although others did not see any problem and admired the writer's volume of output. It was a very off-putting experience.
I am delighted that you and Mitali seem to approach things differently. It gives me hope.

DiamondsandToads said...

It's pretty hard for me to overstate the obsessive delight I took in all of the Oz books. I was delighted to find your blog. I will be linking to it on my own blog, diamondsandtoads.com. It's a blog about fairy tales, their art, analysis of them, their effect on culture, you name it! It's part of a college course I teach, but it's for everyone. Many of my students are fascinated by Oz and other fairy/fantasy stories.

Mordena said...

I still believe the best approach to critique is neither too much praise nor "tearing apart" but a neutral and practical attitude of "this could be better if..."

and I'd say that's what I usually get from you, John! Many thanks for that.

J. L. Bell said...

And thank you, Mordena, for your own practical advice through the years.

I think our group usually has a good balance of emotional support for the difficult journey through publishing (and life), and incisive advice on what painful things we can do to our manuscripts to make that journey easier.