by Bonnie Stanard
Learning how to take and give criticism has been a journey for me. In my early years of writing, I attended a workshop in the Chicago area near my home and had the good fortune to meet Eloise Fink, who was the moderator. Much of what I understand and practice today I learned from her.
She wasn’t a push-over by any means, that is to say, her regard for good poetry wouldn’t allow her to give a dishonest criticism even to personal friends. One of her workshops was attended by an editor from TriQuarterly, a literary journal published by Northwestern University. I can’t remember much of his criticism of the poem I read aloud, but what I do remember is that I began to tremble with his first words. This is not verbatim, but close to what he said: “It reads like you put every hyperbole and placebo you could find together and called it a poem.” I was humiliated and embarrassed before writers I admired. I didn’t write, much less return to the workshop, for several months. I hope I have never pronounced such a criticism on anybody’s work.
From my conversations with writers, I’ve heard of other such criticisms, most of them from professional editors, publishers, and agents. A writer I met at Nimrod Hall, a retreat in the Virginia mountains, had such a demoralizing review of her manuscript she was discouraged from seeking publication. Those of us at Nimrod loved her work. All of this to say, writers who persist in communicating with agents and editors will sooner of later meet one who has such a high opinion of his own opinion that he slices to pieces work he doesn’t understand or appreciate, and it may be yours. It is up to us to get over it.
Workshops have personalities. The ones conducted by prominent authors have glamor appeal, but they often focus on the author rather than the work of fledgling writers. I have seen workshops become so dominated by a local writer that others in the group suffer as a consequence. More common are workshops I label “fan” clubs. And there are lots of them, some I can name in Columbia. It seems that the purpose of these workshops is to pamper writers and applaud their work, irrespective of the quality. They work well for beginning writers emotionally invested in their work and lacking confidence. However, if the only feedback a workshop provides is “That’s great!” how can we improve our writing? Another type of workshop is the “social club,” and as you might guess, writing technique takes a backseat to discussions about personal experiences.
At the Columbia II Workshop, you’ll hear honest appraisals of work, usually presented in a diplomatic fashion. We’re not only capable of applauding work but quite often do. At the same time, we point out what we consider weaknesses. It’s discouraging to hear negative comments, but let’s face it, if we’re serious about writing, we write a lot and some of it is second-rate if not trite. That’s where honest criticism becomes indispensible.
Bonnie Stanard is a writer and retired editor living in Columbia, SC. In addition to the periodicals she has edited, she has written poems and stories published in journals such as Harpur Palate, Slipstream, Eclipse, and North Atlantic Review. Her four antebellum novels are available online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. For more information about her, see her website and blog, or contact her.