“I think the most effective forms of critique are ones that establish a common ground for people to occupy, and then appeal to the best nature of people on that common ground.” Mohsin Hamid
This week my critique group met to discuss a draft of a novel written by one of our members. We typically meet monthly and review three submissions. But with longer pieces, such as a novel, we set aside an entire meeting. Our process is simple. The person who is having their work reviewed submits that work a few weeks ahead of the meeting. Members read it, jot down comments and come to the gathering prepared to discuss it. Discussions are lively and refreshingly frank.
The writer walks away with seven detailed reviews of her work. In the end, she chooses how to go forward. She is the author. That is her prerogative.
As I said, there’s nothing complicated about what we do. And yet, magic happens.
It is indescribable. It’s a feeling. Yes, that’s it. But you might ask, what kind of feeling? It’s easier to tell you what we do than to describe what I feel when I’m sitting with my critique group absorbed in dialogue. There’s solidarity. I know without a doubt, these women have my back. And they know I have theirs.
The atmosphere we create is one of trust and intimacy.
I’m often asked about the purpose of our critique group. Typically I can jabber on about this forever. But in essence, for me the critique group provides the common space where a writer can fearlessly share her work. It’s a place of incubation for the author who at times is reviewer and at other times the reviewed. Both instances provide an opportunity for learning and development.
Okay, but have any of you published anything?
This question comes often. Valid point. I suppose there should be an end game.
Yes, we’ve all published various pieces, I respond.
I hear this over and over. And yes, I suppose it is.
I don’t think this is our only goal though. Yes, it’s wonderful when someone has their work published, and yes, we all celebrate these achievements. A triumph for one is a triumph for all. This is another value at the core of our group.
More than just aspirations for publishing, I think the person who is having their work reviewed is listening intently for suggestions for improvement while making sure readers have grasped what she intended. On the other side of the table, the writers who are critiquing the work are thinking about how to provide feedback that is meaningful, insightful, and useful. This is our craft. The goal is to hone it and get better at putting in words whatever it is we need to express.
Critique group members commented this week on what they liked about the novel we reviewed. We all loved the storyline, the characters and the rich descriptions that put us smack into the middle of a foreign place doing what many of us have never attempted.
Yes, there was more work to be done on the novel and we each offered a way forward. Respectfully. Seven different voices, all dedicated to a common goal: provide whatever support needed to take an already incredible piece of work to the next level.
There were many similar comments provided around the table. But there were also contrasting observations. The divergences, an opportunity for further conversation. No right way forward, but several to consider. At the risk of sounding cliché, it was amazing to be in the room with these women.
What did it feel like? Well, as I said before it’s hard to describe. I’m still trying to do that in this blog. And I think I’m failing miserably. I’d really like to retreat now and just say you had to be there, but I’ll give it one more shot.
I’m supposed to be a writer for Pete’s sake.
Generosity. Selflessness. Commitment. Honesty. Respect. Excellence. Community. I know you’ve heard all these words before. You may see them as platitudes. I can assure you that when they are practiced, they are not. If you had been sitting in the room with us this week you would have experienced them all.
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