A long time ago, a friend of mine was getting married in an empire waist dress with a garland of flowers in her hair. She asked me if I thought her wedding choices were silly. I told her that your wedding is like your bedroom: it only needs to feel right to you (and your spouse). So what about a short story? A memoir? An article? Who do we need to please?
Obviously, we write to communicate–even if we claim only to be communicating with ourselves. I come from a family that kept every scrap of paper I touched with crayon or pencil. As a result, there are ridiculous, inaccessible files crammed with a child’s art. I can safely say that at that age, I was more interested in exploring the media available than in reaching a broad or eternal audience.
My sons help me understand and appreciate conceptual art, because they are conceptual artists. Leo wants to stand in the middle of every manhole or grill in the sidewalk. He wants to stack things. Charlie wants to knock things down. He wants to taste things. Wrapping a bridge in toilet paper would make good sense to them, and so I’ve come to see the worth in exploring just how the world fits together, in ways that don’t line up with the relationships we are painstakingly taught–on Sesame Street or by our parents or in books. Charlie points to an orange and says, “Ball.” Whereas I point to an orange and say, “Fruit. Orange.”
Let’s face it; I am in the business of helping them learn to communicate. If Charlie retains the ability to point to an orange and say, “Ball,” he will be a conceptual artist, no thanks to me. Frankly, all of us–the boys and the moms–are excited when someone says a new word or when someone understands one. We’ve been getting along for over a year now without a lot of help from language, but the boys’ acquisition of English thrills me. Mastery of the collective meanings brings us closer to a communication I cannot help but value. Words are my medium.
Which brings us to critique. I suppose conversation is a kind of critique, perhaps the ideal critique. In a conversation, one person says something, and the other person responds, and the first person may then clarify or amplify or backtrack, and so it goes. (Of course, dialog is famous for showing how, in a conversation, each person may be absolutely on his or her own track, with little regard for what the other person is saying, but that’s another blog . . .)
Writing critiques, which is to say, critiques of fiction or non-fiction or poetry, tend rarely to follow the easy and efficient flow of a conversation. There is a simple reason for this: readers do not know how to respond to a text as readers. Because we gather, as writers, in workshop settings to discuss each other’s work, people have evolved a habit of responding to text as writers rather than as readers. We say, “Why don’t you make the man nicer?” “Why don’t you make the homeless lady and the cab driver into the same person?” “Why don’t you have it rain? Rain would add to the mood.” “And cut that scene in the garden.”
What we need to learn to do is go back to our roles as readers. I don’t know about you, but I am a reader first, before I am a writer. And even as a writer, I function best when I allow the pleasure-loving, image-hungry, story-obsessed person who loses herself in books to set the tone.
Here’s how each of the above questions and comments would translate, if asked by a reader instead of a writer.
“Why don’t you make the man nicer?” becomes “I didn’t like that man. He was so mean. Why did she like him?”
“Why don’t you make the homeless lady and the cab driver into the same person?” becomes “The homeless lady seemed a lot like the cab driver to me, and the second conversation seemed to replay the first. I got a little impatient with him for having the same conversation with everybody.”
“Why don’t you have it rain? Rain would add to the mood.” becomes “I didn’t have a sense of the mood, and I wondered about the weather. What is she noticing in this frame of mind?”
“And cut that scene in the garden.” becomes “I didn’t understand why she stayed in the garden or what happened there that was important to the story.”
What happens for the actual writer of a piece when s/he gets to hear from readers is a marvelous thing. The story opens up as something separate from the writer, something with a life of its own that inhabits the brains and hearts of those most wonderful of beings, readers. And how it feels to read something we’ve written is precisely what the writer cannot know without the help of a workshop.
There is another way to say this: readers do best to identify problems in a work rather than to offer solutions to those problems. There is always more than one solution to any story’s problems. Perhaps the writer does not want the reader to like the mean man; maybe he needs to be mean. But maybe the protagonist’s attraction to him–even to his meanness–is lacking in this version of the story. The writer thus can find his or her way to a solution that the reader may not have imagined. That is the way to encourage original work.
The ace editor learns to paint a portrait of her experience reading something, so that the writer can test that against what he or she hoped to accomplish, and then go back to the computer and try again.