In writing an essay for an upcoming anthology, I was recently stumped. The topic seemed unwieldy and I couldn’t get the tone and feel of the piece. The content in the first draft was too personal. The content in the second, too dogmatic. I put both the first draft and the second draft to the side and started a third. In the beginning, it was a numbered list of reflections—each a paragraph long. The numbered list allowed me to limit my ideas and create tighter parameters for the information included in the essay. After completing my list, I developed a flow for the essay and finally reached a tone and degree of personal content that I felt comfortable with.
Though I had done all I could with the third draft, I knew the essay wasn’t particularly balanced and had some holes in the argument/information. Rather than send the essay to the editor, I sent it to six people who either have engaged with me in conversation about the theme of the essay or are trusted friends who regularly give me feedback on my work. I knew the conversation generated between me and the six readers would help me further clarify exactly what I wanted to address, identify extraneous sections of the essay, and create a more balanced point-of-view.
Seeking criticism from friends is like submitting my work to a think tank for discussion. Their gut reactions to my work reveal weak points in my arguments, point out sections that create confusion (sections in which I did not communicate clearly), and demonstrate the range of perceptions the public may have in reading the published piece. By repeatedly reading over the piece and fiddling with the words, I am able to find some inconsistencies on my own. But other flaws are never apparent to me. Some lapses in logic are blind spots. The writer, after spending so much time developing the work, may find herself lulled into ignoring unresolved plot lines or trains of thought. Her personal perspectives can be myopic and repeated readings can deaden objectivity. Fresh eyes can uncover lingering questions instantly.
We live so closely tied to our ideas. The work is born within a writer’s imagination. As the work is birthed, the writer knows every nuance and angle HER brain can conceive. The writer hands the work over to someone else and the critiquer says something we never considered before. The minute the new angle is presented, ahhhhhh, fresh air blows through the piece. A million more paths are suddenly open. What was stuck is freed, what was freed is suddenly floppy, shabby, needing more explication/description/direction. There is deeper to delve, more miles to travel.
On a practical level, having my work critiqued saves me time. Particularly with my essays, I can mold a mess of words into a concise essay after receiving clear, well-articulated critiques. Some writers balk at the concept of other brains contributing to their work. I don’t think other’s ideas and perspectives make my work any less mine. Once the chaos in my jumbled drafts is illuminated, I’m free to run with the material. I’m no longer encumbered, stumbling around to find my way. In reaction to other’s questions and concerns, I become certain of my direction. With the feedback behind me, I go flying towards powerful communication and expression.
Equally as important as getting your work critiqued is knowing when critiques hit the mark and when they fall off to the side. Good critiquing is expansive. A reader’s contribution should expand the sense of what your words are trying to achieve. A powerful critique immediately breaks open many new possibilities and directions for the work. When the artist knows her craft and what she’s trying to achieve, she can immediately recognize a good critique. Critiques that forward the work speak to what the artist instinctually understands about the work. A valuable critique points out elements we are blind to when we’re working, but seem relevant and essential when it’s spoken.
Although I feel that I continuously improve my ability to accept, process, and integrate critiques in my work, I don’t always recognize good feedback when I receive it. Sometimes, no matter how on point the critique is, I can’t see the wisdom of it until much later. Once the story is no longer alive in my imagination, I can go back with a more objective eye and suddenly understand the critiques that were offered. I remember one story in particular (it is always harder for me to accept suggestions for my fiction than for my nonfiction) that was critiqued as being too long. The critiquer went on to suggest shortening a particular passage. I reviewed that passage and found every word of it to be relevant and essential. One year later I received a note from a contest saying my story was wonderful, but its length works against it. I decided to return to the story to see if I could discover any extra material to cut. Ironically, I ended up cutting exactly the passage the critiquer had suggested a year back.
It is essential that we as artists be wary of false critiques. I would say a foolproof way to know a true critique from a false one is a false critique makes you feel like shit. It’s true, false critiques do rip you down low, but some honest critiques do that as well. There are those honest critiques that are so baldly or aggressively stated that they burn. As artists, we need to learn how to take a deep breath when facing this type of critique. Thank the person, as our egos rage internally. Then with a clear head, turn over the criticism, look at it from every direction, then put it to work in a way that works for you. Perhaps someone called your work “infantile” and you disagree, but when you actually open your mind to considering the critique you do see a certain naivete to your work. If we can deflect the blows to the ego and look at what’s wrapped inside critiques that hurt, we can empower ourselves to improve our craft through critiquing.
There are false critiques, however, that do real damage. They are personal attacks masquerading as honest artistic critique. We have to learn to recognize these too, so we can throw them in the mental trash where they belong. My friend once went to bring her photos to a big time magazine photo editor. From the moment she sat down with her portfolio, he ripped into her workâ€”he criticized her perspective, her use of light. “You have too much reverence for your subject,” he said. “You have no talent” is not a critique. It is a personal attack. Whether someone believes you have talent or not, those words only serve to destroy an artist’s perception of self. My friend has not shown her portfolio in that city again. She was totally demoralized.
As an editor, I sometimes get into a very stringent critique mode. I look at the work before me and start cutting and suggesting changes without considering the artist’s connection to the piece. It’s so easy for me to be “objective” and cut to the bone. At the same time, when it’s my work that’s being critiqued, I can easily feel confronted, attacked or judged. When someone is critiquing my work, I know immediately when they could have been more sensitive. Yet, when I’m critiquing, I don’t know I’m thrashing through someone’s work until I hear their soft voice say, “Hold on a second,” and hear them taking a breath to fortify themselves for what I next have to say.
In an editing class I once took, the teacher introduced concept of maintaining a positive working relationship with writer. Editors should not only point out the weaknesses in a piece of work, he said, but they should also seek the most respectful, nonconfrontational methods to do so. We were graded not only on the editorial choices we made, but also on how we directed the author to our suggestions for changes. I got high marks on my editing, and low marks on the delivery of my editorial suggestions. I would like to say I learned how to critique with grace in that class, but it would be a bold-face lie. I still trod heavily on my friends’ work, forgetting that their words are connected to their hearts. The true purpose of a critique is encouragement. Critiques encourage us to go further with our ideas and to envision the best version/draft of our work. Effective critiques nurture a piece into a higher state of development. In taking the work seriously, critiques attest to the value of the work. By bringing our work to others to be critiqued, we invest in the betterment of our craft. By generously and rigorously offering critiques, we invest in the betterment of an artist. As strange as it may seem, deconstructing a work is sometimes the most powerful way to build it up.
Be well. Be love(d).
: : : September 2002 – present : : :
I’ve received word that Black Women’s Best Erotica 2003 has come from the printers and will be in bookstores soon. My short story “Kai Does Red… Again” is included. Also, I have received word that an essay of mine has been accepted for an anthology on love and relationships. I’ll add it to acceptances once I turn in a finished draft of the essay and receive a contract.
After approximately six months, I received a brief rejection from the New Yorker. They wrote: “We’re sorry to say that this manuscript is not right for us, in spite of its evident merit.” This is my first rejection for the new year.
Rate of Acceptance/Rejection
August 2001 – August 2002
Publications: Acceptances = 6; Rejections = 6
Grants/Fellowships: Acceptances = 0; Rejections = 1
Residencies/Workshops: Acceptances = 0; Rejections = 4