Sunday, February 08, 2009

The Art of Critique and the Problem of Ego

On Wild Poetry Forum, the poetry workshop I help moderate, we are having a discussion (actually a series of ongoing discussions) about critique and what is appropriate in response to critique.

Wild has been around for a decade (ancient history for internet venues) and is a robust workshop board with hundreds of active members. It has separate sub-forums for workshopping, light, and heavy critique, and in general, polices itself quite well. In all the years I've been a participant there, there have been relatively few incidents of overt snarkiness or ad hominem attacks.

Much of that has to do with a history of close moderation and an expectation within the community that that is not what we value. Nor do we condone vanity critique. Hearing that your work is the best thing since sliced bread is as useless to growth as a writer as a personal attack.

In the past several months, we have had an influx of new members who don't seem interested in participating in the community, rather, they react defensively to critique and spend too much time and energy justifying their work and not enough time critically examining their own process. There is a small sub group that posts, essentially, for one another's admiration and argues with anyone who thinks otherwise.

I don't understand that kind of behavior.

When I ask for feedback, it is the critical, thoughtful response I crave. What I need to know is what isn't working for the reader and what is. If there is consensus among a large number of voices, I can be more certain of my path to revision. This is not to say I write by committee or agree with every critique. BUT, I do listen. I do take it in. And without defensiveness.

If I can't hear critical feedback with an open heart, then I am denying the creative process. Even critiques I do not agree with are valuable. They tell me how a reader has interpreted a piece of writing. I write, not for my own ego, but to be received by a reader. It is an interdependent process, for the most part, separated by space and time. If I put a poem or a story out into the world, I rarely get feedback from the reader. But in a workshop model, I can bring that interaction into real time.

I am also part of a in-real-life critique group for fiction writing. At our last meeting, one of the members prefaced his comments with an apology for being so 'tough'. To my way of thinking, no apology was needed. What I received from him is what I seek: honest feedback, given in the spirit of improving the work.

In order for critique to provide that essential feedback loop, there needs to be authenticity on both sides: both the writer and the reviewer need to understand that it is not about ego, not about proving oneself smarter or better, or snarkier, but about honoring the creative process.

In that kind of environment, true artistic growth can and does happen.

And isn't that what we seek as artists?

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