Too Critical?

Ugh, I’m in a weird position.

Here’s the question I have to answer: Am I too critical?

I have been workshopping with other writers since I got my first computer, back in 1995. One of the first things that I did was join a listserv that was a poetry sharing mailing list. I could send off a poem, and several other people would read it and give me some feedback.

During that time, I became aware that most of the comments I received were not very useful to help me develop as a writer. For example, people wrote “Great poem!” or “Good job.” They were not really contributing anything. This is about the same as clicking Like on a Facebook page. It’s nice to know that people were reading my writing, but I was really seeking a chance to develop, to improve.

As for my own participation, when I read a poem that was of some worth I would try to give it good thorough feedback. I would talk about the images that really touched me, the lines I thought were that were especially well-written, the structure of the poem. If something didn’t work, I would let the person know. In short, I gave to them what I wished that they would give to me. Don’t get me wrong, there were writers who did this for my writing. In fact, I am still friends with at least three of them and am still in contact with two or three others.

How wonderful it is to have somebody take you seriously as a writer and to give you serious feedback about what you’ve written. Or at least, that’s my philosophy. I may be wrong. I think I’m right. But I may be wrong.

How much of my job – whether as a creative writing teacher or as the person you come to and say “hey-read-this” – how much of my job is to make a person feel good about himself or herself and how much my job is to show them how to make things better? That’s the problem I’m facing right now. Well, maybe it’s wrong to call it a problem: this is my current perplexity.

Cases in point:

I teach Freshman English in college, and I know each semester that a few students get their feelings hurt when I respond to their writing. These students have been nurtured and encouraged by teachers who believe their job is to make these kids write more in the hopes that they will right better. But then they come to college, where they pay hundreds of dollars for my class, and their writing is too often substandard. And occasionally, frankly, it’s notably poor. I have only 13 class sessions (26, if they take me for Freshman English II as well) to help them master skills that high school did not help them master. I am blaming neither the student nor the high school, by the way. This is just the way it is. Being a high school teacher and a college professor, I can see both sides of the issue. So do I softball this thing, make them feel good about themselves, and have to worry about them going into their other college classes and performing lower than they should because I did not teach them to raise their writing skills appropriately? That doesn’t seem right to me.

Sometimes people come to me with something that they’ve written and asked for my opinion. Piece of poetry, story, something. I am always happy to read and give some feedback, but I always ask them the same question: What sort of feedback would you like from me? Do you want me to give you a thumbs-up/thumbs-down? Do you want me look at it for the grammar and spelling and punctuation? More often than not, they just shrug their shoulders and invite me to share whatever I’d like. So that puts me back into the mindset that these people want to be better writers, so the most helpful thing is to give them serious criticism about their piece. Sometimes that’s what they wanted, but too often it isn’t. One writer – my aunt – told me in passing that she hasn’t written anything since I critiqued her piece when she asked me to a couple years ago. That devastated me. I respect her so much – as my aunt, as a person, as a writer – that I wanted to give her my best. But if my “best” stifles her creativity, then that obviously is not what I should’ve done.

I try to temper my negative comments with positive comments as well. I’m not always successful in finding something positive to say, especially to my college students unfortunately, but I try.

All I can do is think about what I would want in a position such as that. I am writing a screenplay about a School Resource Officer, and I asked the school’s deputy to read through it and give me his impressions. He took it for a few days, and then he brought it back to me and said, “Real good. I can’t wait to see what happens.” I thanked him with a big smile and told him I appreciated his input. But he really hadn’t give many input it all. In fact, based on what he said, I’m not even sure he read it. He’s asked me a couple times how it’s coming along, and I have always said that I’m stuck at a certain point (which is true), but I wish there were a way I knew that he read it.

Okay, okay, I think I’ve said what I had to say on the point. I’m going to open this up for discussion and hope that some people comment and give me some feedback. Honest feedback, now. I don’t need anybody buttering my biscuit for me. If I have read and critiqued something for you in the past – whether you’re my friend, family, or former student – I want you to tell me if my too-harsh critique has been useful to you in your development as a writer or if you feel that I should spend more time making people feel good about themselves instead. I will keep comments screened unless you type “OK to publish.” And I am sincerely interested in what you have to say- you will help me grow as a human.

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