What merits come from critique?

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A little while back I offered up an opinion about whether a Master’s degree in writing will produce that book a writer pursues. It will not, and I have two comments to that post which concur.

But the second post from anonymous (we’d love to know who our readers are, by the way) says that

I fail to understand why a writer would develop better critique habits outside of an MFA program than inside one. I’ve taken many workshops with non-MFA writers, and plenty of them have no idea how to critique work. And there are enough MFA programs out there to conclude that there is diversity to the workshop experience and no monolithic approach to critiquing.

The ideal of developing “critique habits” is at the heart of this failure to understand. In fact, developing better critique habits is just the opposite of what my workshops do — and any workshops based on the Amherst Writers & Artists methods. (That’s what Cary Tennis of Salon uses to lead, as do I.) The practices state that our workshops handle revised, second-draft work offered as a manuscript this way:

A thorough critique is offered only when a writer asks for it — after the work has been distributed in manuscript form. Critique is balanced; there is as much affirmation as suggestion for change.

Many MFA graduates share stories of the painful sessions when “my writing was up.” Just as many, perhaps, as writers in critique groups which meet with no clear process for how to suggest changes to writing. Balance in these sometimes-grim classrooms proves to be a scant commodity. In “Narrative Design,” Madison Smart Bell tells the story of being a visiting teacher for two semesters in the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, known as the bellwether of critique-based workshops.

Within the limits of law and propriety, we were free to do what we pleased… However, there were enormous, crushing pressures to conform in those Iowa fiction workshops. The pressure came not from any teacher but from the students themselves. It was a largely unconscious exercise in groupthink, and in many aspects it really was quite frightening… Fiction workshops are inherently almost incapable of recognizing success.

We always ask in our workshops, “What was working well in that writing?” And we ask it before we move on to suggestions for change.

Bell’s comments that will not hearten many an MFA applicant. Only one point of view, yes, but maybe being driven by critique is the highway to revision hell. Bell goes on to say that when he was a student in such a program, he considered 90 percent of the critique he received on his writing to be worthless. He would still be noodling a first draft if he considered matters of detail. Now, he tells his students in workshops to consider themselves fortunate if just one workshop member understands what the writer intends. “Your job,” he says, “is to become the best judge of your own work.”

Our anonymous commenter reports they are aiming at an exclusive MFA program, adding that “I have to produce that work, and it will be much easier for me to do so with mentors and peers, the resources of a large university, and fellowship money that will free me from the household drudgery and round-the-clock childcare that take up most of my time now.”

That’s a good course for the 2 percent of applicants who can clear the walls of these elite programs. For the rest of the world’s hopeful writers, including some MFA aspirants, we offer practice toward publication, dedication, and community without an emphasis on the need to polish critique habits. We suggest, based on our individual reading of the writing. Our goal is to recognize the best in a writer’s authentic voice, and then suggest how they might follow their own practiced voice when they succeed.

Elimination of household time and childcare can be an option for some, but the line for these fellowships is long and filled with talented writers. Yes, apply to win such money. Send your best work. Hope for the best — but remember in the meantime that art does not spring from critique, but in your expression of voice, mentored by suggestions for change. I believe everyone can write, and together we can be better.

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