When we offer up our work or ideas for criticism what are our expectations? It’s quite a complex question for any artist to consider. Some people relish others looking at their work while some fear it. Some are able to value it objectively while others see it as a misinterpretation of what they were attempting to achieve.
A mentor is a great thing to have and I think having one works because, in the best cases, it becomes a relationship based on trust. Each opinion whether it’s hostile or constructive should fill the artists with new energy, life, zeal. What we look for, I guess is a dynamic and creative discussion between equals as both have opinions and experience to bring to the table and two heads are often better than one.
Seeking criticism is a deeply profound experience and can, I’m afraid, if handled badly, be incredibly destructive and I speak from experience. Yet a group that existed when I studied for my MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University was an extraordinary set of people and it was both challenging and exciting. It was helped very much by the fact it was chaired by one of the significant voices writing in the UK today, Simon Armitage who took his role very seriously.
The group itself was filled with passionate, intelligent and thoughtful writers who had all moved heaven and earth to attend this course and everything mattered! The group would initially read work, circulated a few days before each meeting by email. They would comment on it in their own time and bring these annotations to class. The poet would read their work aloud and then another member of the group would read it out loud. I always found that really curious and was a wonderful opportunity to listen to cadence and rhythm and step outside of the poem. I have continued to do this by recording pieces on a Dictaphone and listening back to them and it’s incredible how much you change as a consequence of really listening to what you have been writing.
Afterwards the group discussed the poem as if it was any piece found in a book. The author was not allowed to interject at any point. People wrestled with imagery and took issue with line length, subject matter, opening line and so on. At the very end of the discussion the author was allowed to comment, maybe explain or develop a point or simply thank everyone for their contribution. It demonstrated that everyone has a different opinion and we should not be afraid of such diversity. It could be painful at ties and occasionally I would throw the work into a box and refuse to look at it again. There are still poems that have never been touched since. I am not sorry because I believe there was a reason why I have not returned because the work just wasn’t good enough.
Is that a bad thing to admit? I don’t think so; our artistry is built on experience and we keep going back and trying again, making a little progress then a little more. It is incremental after all. Criticism can fan the flames it’s true, if you feel it is unjustified you may well have anger that is energy that will inspire you further. You need confidence but if your criticisms or rejection slips are all holding the same message then really it’s time for action and more honest self-appraisal.
A mentor can be a gift, you don’t even have to meet in person these days as Skype, Google docs and email can give you so many opportunities for sharing. Of course you can bite the bullet and spend time with a mentor on neutral ground, maybe book a writing retreat, but whatever way is chosen it can only lead to more steely determination to keep making improvements to our art.
Until next time!Tags: writing retreat