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 One of the most important, yet least discussed, skills about attending conferences and workshops is that of evaluating the feedback one receives. Part of the problem is the way we approach the manuscripts we receive. Despite admonitions to the contrary (Squaw suggests that workshop participants imagine themselves a board of editors who has already accepted the manuscript for publication and are making suggestions to the author for improvements.) it seems to be our nature to sharpen our critical knives as we approach the task. Though we may intellectually see ourselves as analysts rather than butchers, we’re hardwired somehow to search for flaws rather than merits. As one of my Sewanee colleagues put it, “sometimes I think we, as writers, are looking at one another’s work with this mindset of “what’s wrong?” or “what’s not working?” and feel like we’ve failed if we don’t find something.” Barry Hannah calls destructive criticism a third-rate skill, but even constructive criticism is often meant (if unintentionally) to demonstrate the acuity of the commentator more than to help the writer. We all recognize some of the types–the ones who focus on sentence structure, the ones who want more character or description development, the others who delight in finding plot or descriptive contradictions, et al. (You can add your own classifications.) I’m not saying what category I belong in, partly because it changes according to what I’m working on in my own writing at the time I’m commenting. One of the most useful remarks I’ve heard from a workshop leader was Karen Joy Fowler’s that those who find themselves repeating a particular kind of comment on others’ writing had best look to their own texts and get to work on that flaw. At any rate, no matter how we attempt to be positive, the word “criticism” most often remains a negative to both sender and receiver. Is the alternative abject praise of everything? Of course not. What a boring and dishonest enterprise that would be. But we also don’t have to do the kind of thing we did in one workshop of my experience when we kicked around a story as if it were a soccer ball, returned it to its author bloody and bruised, only to find out the tale had won first prize in its state in a nationwide contest. The alternative is to delineate the work’s virtues as strongly as its flaws. Don’t rush past them by saying something like “Well, the dialogue and characters are really strong and clear, but . . .” Be as detailed about what made the dialogue and characters work as you are regarding the shortcomings of the plot or setting or whatever. That will give the writer something to keep as well as something to modify or throw aside. Both are equally valuable. Next, for the writer comes the process of figuring out what to do with the multitude of comments from a dozen people who have been intent on slicing your work to pieces. “Take the stuff you can use and discard the rest,” is the usual caution. But which is which? There’s the tendency to use some kind of voting system. if you find six comments on the protagonist’s weak character, you may conclude you have to strengthen him/her. However, what if that weakness is your point? Or if there’s a strength there that everyone missed? Art is created by artists, not democracies. There may be a flaw in the story, but there also may be flaw in the readers if you’re trying something that goes contrary to what your well-educated literary colleagues are trained to expect. I’ve learned not to go by vote. I use the internal go by what I’m trying to do. If no one catches it, it’s probably not on the page, but it doesn’t mean it’s because of what nine of twelve people said it was. It might mean that, but it’s not an automatic. I need to take a close look, stick to my intentions and my instincts. At Sewanee I found the story we workshoped didn’t work, but it wasn’t because I created an unworkable character, it was because I was working contrary to my own voice and I needed to reimagine him and it. No one in the group picked that up. They couldn’t have because they knew nothing else about me except what was on those twenty pages. I had to infer it from their comments, my conversation with Barry, and my own gut. Not only that, the reason I went contrary to my voice was that I took too much to heart some feedback I got in an earlier workshop. Will it never end? Probably not. But in the meantime, it’s both maddening and fun.

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