Trust the (Critical) Process

Recently listening to Radio 4’s Classic Desert Island Discs episode with Author Malorie Blackman, one of anecdotes which struck me was a Creative Writing Tutor telling the then-aspiring writer:

Recently, listening to Radio 4’s Classic Desert Island Discs episode with author Malorie Blackman, one of the anecdotes which struck me was a Creative Writing Tutor telling the then-aspiring writer:

“Well then, you’re going to have to shit or get off the pot, love.”

Now a prolific and multi-award winning author who has written sixty odd novels and held the position of Children’s Laureate, did at one time, struggle to share her work with others (more specifically in a creative writing class).

This was refreshing and reassuring. It was familiar.

For many of us writers sharing work and receiving feedback is challenging, which in itself is a bit of a paradox. Surely if we are putting ideas down on paper the end goal is to share that output with others?

Sometimes it can seem an awful lot easier to share our work via a hasty email submission fired off. We have an incline of how submissions are handled and, usually, know which aspects of our work will make the judge or reviewer smile, chuckle or furrow their brow. Regardless, the gauging and judging is done in a mysterious darkened room, potentially half way across the world.

It’s a lot less personal, but it has limited value.

It pays to be brave and share your work, especially your work-in-progress.

Use the resources you have and the unique perspectives that you have access to. You might not know what it’s like to skydive; how a pompous prat of a character would react or simply why a piece isn’t working. But your friend / writing buddy / partner / colleague will have experiences and insights that they can share with you.

That new pair of eyes and fresh perspective just might find a golden needle in the haystack or share their experience of an arrogant boss who took them skydiving once…

When you have plucked up the courage to show off your newly scrawled / printed pet project, the next battle can be stimulating an exchange of constructive criticism. It’s understandable, you are apprehensive about what your confidant thinks and equally they want to be helpful without hurting you.

This is where Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process comes in. It’s a widely recognised method that nurtures the development of artistic works-in-progress through a four step facilitated dialogue between artists, peers and audiences (although you can use it one-on-one if you’re strict with yourselves!). The writers group I am a member of use this process to facilitate our monthly meetings.

The process engages participants in three roles:

  • The artist offers a work-in-progress for review and feels prepared to question that work in a dialogue with other people.
  • Responders commit to the artist’s intent to make excellent work and offer reactions to the work in a dialogue with the artist.
  • The facilitator initiates each step, keeping the process on track, and works to help the artist and responders use the process to frame useful questions and responses.

The Critical Response Process takes place after a presentation of artistic work in any discipline. Work can be short or long, large or small, and at any stage in its development.

The facilitator then leads the artist and responders through four steps:

  • Statements of Meaning: Responders state what was meaningful, evocative, interesting, exciting and/or striking in the work they have just witnessed.
  • Artist as Questioner: The artist asks questions about the work. After each question, the responders answer. Responders may express opinions if they are in direct response to the question asked and do not contain suggestions for changes.
  • Neutral Questions: Responders asks questions about the work. The artist responds. Questions are neutral when they do not have an opinion couched in them. For example, if you are discussing the use of profanity in a piece. “Why so much swearing?” is not a neutral question. “What ideas guided your choices of language?” is.
  • Opinion Time: Responders state opinions, subject to permission from the artist. The usual form is “I have an opinion about…., would you like to hear it?”. The artist has the option to decline opinions for any reason.

Trust the process. The process keeps the conversation structured, meaningful and on track without being pointed or personal.

Of course, an alternative is to independently fiddle and tweak a piece of writing and torment yourself – potentially – for ever. Forever. That seems needlessly silly and short-sighted.

We writers should write, and read, and share.