29 June 2013

Will You Take a Look?

This week in Writer's Circle, I submitted my blog post "The Tender Heart" for review. Two of the Circle had nothing to submit this week; the other three submitted short poems. Only my piece and one of the poems were "new" work, i.e., written within the last year.

After observing that feedback and critique offered in the first meetings of the group were mostly of the "I really liked that" variety, I decided it would serve the mission of the Circle -- to become better writers-- and the writing practices of its members to spend some time learning  how to give constructive feedback.

Toward this end, I drafted a set of guidelines, including suggestions like 

                "Criticism does not rest upon subjectivity alone. 'I liked it' is a valid response to a piece but the author needs to know why you like it (or why you didn't like it)" 


"Speak from your own perspective. Let the writer know how you responded as you read (or listened to) the piece."

I didn't realize until yesterday that these two guidelines could be viewed as contradictory. Taken together, they seem to instruct us to both move away from subjectivity AND to stand squarely in subjective experience. 

While I would have liked to notice this apparent paradox before distributing the Guidelines, it was the experience of sitting with the writers and watching them attempt to integrate both ideas and put them into practice that revealed it to me. Some glitches aren't visible until you take a test drive.

Each of the guidelines mentioned presents particular challenges. With the first one mentioned, people find it difficult to move from subjective to objective. In fact, they aren't always able to even discern that they are speaking subjectively. They think that what they perceive must be the way everyone else perceives it, that their "blue" is everyone else's "blue" and anyone who calls it "gray" is either making a joke or suffering a visual impairment.

The difficulty with the second guideline noted, the encouragement to "speak from your own perspective", arises from its implied requirement to plumb the depths of a subjective first-take. So you "liked" my piece (ah, Facebook....); why did you like it? what specifically did you like about it? Responses to these questions give both the writer and the critic something to work with: something to support the writer's ongoing efforts at becoming a better writer and the critic's ongoing journey toward self-awareness.

An obstacle to reaching awareness of subjectivity as well as moving deeper into a subjective response is resistance to vulnerability. "Visibility" and "vulnerability", sister concepts in my opinion, are at issue here. Owning the subjectivity of one's perspective involves seeing yourself. Sharing with others the beliefs, motivations and fears that underlie our perspectives involves letting ourselves be seen. Seeing and being seen leave us immensely vulnerable.

The feedback one of the writers in the Circle offered in response to "The Tender Heart" supports my theory. "I really didn't like this piece" was the language used. When I pushed for more specificity, i.e., give me more than "I don't like it", the writer responded. "It was too specific and personal. It was about the very place where we meet tonight. I would have like it if you'd been more abstract or hypothetical. Too much information about real life."

I think the response has a lot to do with resistance to vulnerability. It suggests the writer's distaste for unobstructed access to another writer's vulnerable human heart. The speaker's unwillingness to consider there might value for his/her own work in taking a closer look at their aversion to "close looks" suggests a related distaste for access to his/her own vulnerable human heart.

I asked those who had nothing to submit this week and those who submitted "old" writing to think about this: Am I submitting old work because finally letting someone else see it helps me grow as a writer or because I'm stuck right now, unable to create new work (perhaps afraid to see what's stirring in me now or afraid to let anyone else see what's stirring in me now)?

Central to these considerations is the question of whether (or to what degree) conscious intention leads us to avoid seeing and being seen. Do we know that we don't like "up close" and choose to keep our distance or is it something more like instinct that directs us to avoid seeing things too clearly and avoid being seen too clearly? 

We are a writer's group. Our mission is not expressly psycho-therapeutic. My interest in these questions, in the context of the Circle, is based on desires to become a better writer and to support others in becoming better writers. I know that inquiries about visibility and vulnerability smack of psychotherapy. There is a chance I am less resistant to exploring the questions and more convinced of the value to our writing craft than my colleagues in the Circle. There's a chance that "pushing" this agenda will feel like therapy to some and they will be turned off.

I proceed, seeking a balance between an awareness of my own subjectivity and my convictions about the value of exploring the nature of seeing and being seen

within the surrounding context of a writer's group...in 21st century Western culture...in a small Southern town.