Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Writing Workshops & Art Critiques

When we make something creative, we all want praise, appreciation, or respect of some kind. Some critiques can be helpful, but helpful critiques seem to be rare. Why is that? First let's look at what happens in a critique.

We hold critiques in both writing and art classes which are meant to be constructive, but they have varying results because we are not mechanical production lines; we are humans with feelings. Both art and writing students often feel so personally attached to the work that they feel they are also personally being praised or attacked during a critique. Interesting how we sometimes try to soften critique days with potluck parties. Are they celebrations or consolations?

Patterns emerge in both. In art classes we have the similar ego-focused problems inherent in writing group critiques: the love-fest; the pile-on effect; the silent classroom; the unrelated storytelling; the "that reminds me of" anecdote. These discussions seem to focus on personal opinions and life experiences of the viewer rather than on the work in front of him or her. None of the comments that grow from these discussions is particularly helpful.

Frustrated with the tone of one workshop classes I was in, I wrote up a framework for critique based on the concept of mutual respect. The professor agreed with it, but it was never discussed in the class.

What is helpful? A few general questions presented at the beginning of the course are helpful. Alice LaPlante presented hers in an Advanced Short Story writing workshop, which I'm paraphrasing here: "What are the strengths?" and "What is this about?" and "What would you say if you were the editor/curator and were interested in the work, but perhaps had a few suggestions?" and "What exercises would you recommend to the maker?"

Michelle Carter, in a Plays: Reading/Viewing/Writing course, started us out with a wonderful outline for critiquing: the first formal guidelines I had seen. Carter based our assignments on two sources: methods by literary critic M.H. Abrams, and the critical response process developed by dancer/choreographer Liz Lerman. By following these processes, we were to avoid the "narcissism of opinion."
  • According to Lerman, start with the Affirmation; what is meaningful, striking, intriguing. In short, what specifically catches your eye and grabs your attention in a positive way? 
  • Abrams mentions Descriptive Mode: you determine your awareness of the piece, what are its qualities and characteristics? Does it contain a monologue or flashback, metafiction, time travel, retelling of an ancient myth? What is it? 
  • Abrams also talks about Analytic Mode where you look at the craft, the elements of the work and their functions. What is the effect of all of the elements together? 
  • A fourth part of the process goes back to Lerman: Ask neutral questions without voicing an opinion such as, "what made you choose ___?" or "what would happen if this was _____ instead of ____?"
This structure nearly always guarantees that you end up in a constructive discussion rather than in an opinion war. The goal is to get feedback to help you make the best work that you can make, not the best work tuned to someone else's style, intentions, or visions.

I would like to add a fifth item that hasn't been mentioned yet. That's trust. These guidelines provide a basis for trust, which is the real key in learning. If you can trust the leader, you are more likely to consider the comments given. If you can trust your colleagues, same deal. Taking "I like" and "I want" out of the picture helps build that trust. Knowing how you are expected to look at the work also helps build trust. You don't have to agree, you just have to be open to contemplate the issues.

No comments: