Too much criticism

Last night one of my friends (who is a brilliant academic) asked DP and me to critique her poem. DP and I both have MFAs, this means we came out of a workshop system. We are used to critiquing other people’s work; we are so used to it, in fact, that we do it for a living.

“You need to put more of yourself in there,” we said.

“It doesn’t have to be you personally,” I added. “It’s a poem, you can lie. You just need to make it more concrete.”

“I have no idea how you guys do this shit all the time,” my friend responded. She has a background in philosophy and sociology. For her the abstract is concrete. For me, the abstract makes me want to gouge my eyes out with a spoon.

And I’m not sure she understood what we were getting at. The abstract works best when it is intertwined with the personal. The personal is political. Explain this ten different ways. DP and I agreed on the line we liked best, but we liked it in the context of the lived experience not just the words on the page.

And by the end, I think we talked to much. We gave her too much criticism, forgot that she was a beginner in creative writing because she is so advanced in other spheres.

Do you know when to stop?


8 responses to “Too much criticism

  1. I recently did this in my new writing group. A guy has been working on a novel for years, and he read a middle chapter and I reamed the female love interest for being completely undesirable, pretentious and self-centered. Then the rest of the group kind of piled on.

    On the way home later, I told my carpool buddy I was probably too harsh because the writer went so quiet. And he said, “You know his novel is autobiographical right? And that the protagonist is his wife?”

    Oh. Boy.

  2. When I was in grad school, I was a total asshole in creative writing classes. I found the flaws and hammered on them. I didn’t mean to be an asshole, but I was in love with my own potential and thought that I was very clever. As I got older, I didn’t do much writing, and I began to realize that potential doesn’t count for much. I gained a lot more respect for those people who *actually write*. As a result of this respect (and my resulting sense of humility and perspective), I became a better critic. I still have good ideas about what’s working and what isn’t, but I’m much more constructive, more minimalist.

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