In workshops where there are a large number of participants, the critique from each member most likely has a time limit. At Clarion West, we had seventeen people plus an instructor critique each story. To make sure everyone was able to speak about the story, each person was allowed a maximum of 3 minutes for feedback.
As an incentive to keep within that time frame, we were each given four or so tickets at the beginning of the week. If you felt strongly about a story and wanted to keep going after the polite tap on the table (or awkward gong of a half-full aluminum water bottle), then you could rip up one of your tickets and keep going. But on Friday there were drawings for wonderful prizes, and your tickets were your chance to win.
Three minutes can feel like a long time if you’re doing a presentation in front of a class. But if you’re speaking about a story and trying to articulate what did and didn’t work for you as a reader, then three minutes is never enough time.
Our first full-story critiques happened in week two. The first day of workshop I tried to cram in as much information as I could during my 3 minutes. I had a list of bullet points and I rattled them off, not really going into detail on any one point. I also wanted to appear competent to my classmates and instructor, and I think this often happens to writers during the first critique session at any workshop.
|The critique room at Clarion West 2011|
Then it was my turn. My story was ripped apart. Not unkindly. Not without caring words for what was working in the story. And in many ways the critique I received during that first round of stories propelled me to try my hardest during each submission cycle at the workshop.
But after the crit session had ended that day I didn’t go to lunch with my classmates. I felt bombarded with feedback. I escaped to my room and stayed there for an hour in the quiet. During that time I thought about what was important to me as a writer. Which feedback had been most useful.
It wasn’t the laundry list of things to fix. It was the moments when a classmate took the time to explore an area or two of my story, to really dig in deep. Or when they responded to an idea brought up earlier in the critique session. During these types of critiques my classmates usually spoke more slowly. Without the pre-listed bullet points, the critiques were more conversational. They reached me in a way that a list of Dittos couldn’t.
These types of critiques worked for me because I felt connected to my classmates. Oddly, I was able to separate my work from my self more easily when I felt like my classmate addressed me directly. Maybe because the sense of them wanting to help me succeed came through more clearly. Or maybe the whole experience just felt less overwhelming.
So I decided to do something different with my responses. I still only had a few minutes for each critique, but each time I sacrificed a few of those precious moments to make a connection with the person whose story I was critiquing.
I think some people may have thought it was silly, but after a while it caught on and other people started doing it, too. And in the end my critiques were the better for this moment of pause, of connection.