A core mission of the Loft Literary Center, where I teach, is to foster a writing community. A tangible sign of this mission at work is the independent writing groups that students form after a course is finished. Some last for years; others dissipate due to busy lives, mismatched skills, or issues with group dynamics that arise when there is no teacher to maintain balance.
In recent weeks, two students have come to me with concerns about faltering writing groups. In both cases, the problem was one endemic to groups engaging in mutual critique* of personal non-fiction, such as memoir and personal essay. I fight it weekly in the classroom. It is the tendency of commentary on writing to drift into discussion of the personal experience the writing is meant to convey. Sometimes the writer feels safer talking about difficult experiences, especially, than exposing them on the page. In this case, discussion that ought to be about craft gives way to bad amateur therapy. Sometimes a reader feels compelled to offer condolences rather than critique, especially if the writing seems raw and the writer, fragile. Sometimes readers pass judgment on experiences that trouble them or urge the writer to tone down revelations that upset their image of the writer-as-person.
The solution is to set clear boundaries: Discussion should focus on the effectiveness of the writing about personal experience and not stray into the living of it. Given that memoir can range over a lifetime, it’s important to remember that the narrator on the page is not exactly equivalent to the writer asking for comments or to the person the group has come to know. Yes, members of writing groups can become friends or even adversaries, but when they have a piece of writing in front of them, they are writers and readers first and need to focus on the literary quality of what’s on the page. It is not rude to suggest that a more precise word choice or simpler syntax would improve a piece about the tragic death of a loved one. It is rude to presume that the writer would rather have sympathy or advice about how to handle grief than honest comments on her/his writing.
Here is a set of rules I have developed for use in writing groups:
- Set up a rotation schedule that assures fairness and balance and also functions as a deadline.
- When you hand out work, include a list of questions or problems you have been contending with and would like your peers to help resolve.
- Offer written as well as spoken commentary on your peers’ work.
- Set up a schedule to trade off responsibility for facilitation. One person might prepare to make the opening comments on a piece, while another might watch the clock and make sure time is allotted equally. One of them, or another, might call the discussion back into focus if it strays from the work at hand.
- If you can’t help but be absent, read the work distributed and send your comments in promptly.
- Draw clear boundaries between useful commentary and distracting or discouraging commentary. For example, commentary should support the author’s own intention and not ask for material that simply satisfies the reader’s curiosity or tastes. Commentary should aid the development of craft and not take issue with content or views expressed. Commentary should focus on the work at hand and not divert attention to the commenter’s personal stories, viewpoints, or writing struggles—unless they are truly relevant and helpful.
- Take responsibility for keeping the discussion balanced by pausing between comments to allow others to make theirs.
- Use discussion time efficiently by nodding or saying “me, too” rather than repeating comments that others have already made.
- Remember that even if the work at hand is tragic, disturbing, controversial, or distasteful, you show the greatest respect for one another’s efforts by offering comments that help improve the quality of the writing.
*I refuse to use “workshop” as a verb or “workshopping” as its gerund noun. My choices are either “mutual commentary” or “mutual critique” and “comment” or “offer critique.” “Critique” as a verb is awkward, and “criticize” has a connotation of finding fault. Also, I never offer “feedback” on written work. I don’t believe any work-in-progress deserves that awful screechy noise produced by malfunctioning microphones.