October 18, 2010

Yes, I Say, Do Get Critiques from Your Mom

What I’m Reading Today: I keep a copy of the 1993 Best American Short Stories edited by Louise Erdrich on the twins’ bookshelf, so when I’m helping them to sleep for nap I have something to read (if they’re feeling cooperative). On Sunday, I read “The Red Moccasins” by Susan Power. What a haunting and compelling story! It’s about a woman, Anna Thunder, in 1935 on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. It’s about her relationship with her cousin/sister and with their children. Very moving. Very sad. I need to read more by Susan.

Once, I was at a dinner with a well-established writer (who shall remain nameless) who was and always has been kind of combative. She writes memoir, among other things, and does not spare her family in her work. We were talking about MFA programs and about how you should criticize new writers’ work. This person said that you shouldn’t spare them at all. If they’re going to make it in this world of writing, they have to need it so badly that they can get past harsh criticism.

But, the thing is, I know of another writer who teaches who has probably single-handedly slaughtered more young writers than anyone else I know. She has the habit of setting up one set of expectations but then slamming the writer so hard that they never write again. I can think of three people off the top of my head who never wrote again because of her, and a few more whose confidence was severely shaken.

So when this first writer said that, I objected. Yes, new writers do need honest criticism, but there are ways you can say things that are better than others, and you can also tell them what they’re doing right, what they’re doing well. Just like raising your children, it’s not your job to show them how harsh the world really is. They’ll get plenty of that. It’s your job to help them through the thickets of under- and overconfidence that we all face. Leave them their delusions of grandeur. They’re going to need it ~ if they stick with this game very long.

A lot of writerly advice also says don’t get critiques from your good friends and your family. I say go ahead and get those too, especially if you’re feeling tender. I say, yeah, you need honest constructive criticism, but you unquestioning support as well. What’s the use of someone telling you how to improve if you feel lost in the wilderness and can’t even write the next page?

(Thanks, Mom and Jean! Thanks, Steve! For all your wonderful support.)

Questions of the Day: Do you agree? Disagree? Why?


Pembroke Sinclair said...

I totally agree with what you've said! It is very important to get all kinds of feedback from all kinds of different sources. I agree that the criticism needs to be constructive and not just a way to break you down as a person and a writer. Readers are all different, and they are going to take something different from your piece. So what if that reader is your good friend or mother? Sometimes, they might have the best criticism because they know you better than anybody. Then again, they may just be there to build you up (which doesn't hurt the ego)! As the writer, you need to know what to take from even the harshest critic, but you can't do that if you don't have readers!

Tamara said...

Yes! There are some writers out there who seem hell bent to leather destroying other writers. You need a good balance.

Thanks, Pembroke!