Monday, March 14, 2011

Update: Toxic Critique Groups

In July 2010, I wrote a post called "Toxic Critique Groups." It was about my experience in my in-person critique group, and how nasty it had become for me. The post was somewhat viral; it got insane Twitter RTs (what Charlie Sheen might call "rinning") and remains one of my most popular posts. I can only assume this is because I was a heap of carnage on the writer highway, and lots of people rubbernecked.

The comments on that post were loving, supportive, and wonderful. I re-read them all again before writing this post, and was impressed again by the love from you fellow writers and bloggers. So first I want to say thank you for taking the time to post thoughtful comments that day.

Today's post is an update on what happened after that. One of the things I tried to focus on in the original post was my fear that a lot of writers experienced similar negative experiences, and gave up as a result--which is the most awful outcome I can imagine.

So you may find this surprising, but I remained in the group.

I wanted to make absolutely sure that I wasn't being overly sensitive, or that I wasn't missing something in the critiques--that I wasn't shutting out what I didn't want to hear because I had blinders on. After all, they were stabbing me deeply on a story that meant much to me personally. I would have hated to have failed to listen to the hard home truth--the Truth of the Unviable Novel, which is something very few people will tell you--and certainly not anyone who is nice.

So I stayed. I stayed but I didn't submit again. I'd lost the nerve. But I watched carefully, and eventually I noticed the three original harsh critiquers were nasty with other people, too. I agonized over what to do, over when or how to speak up. I decided ultimately not to, although a few people in the group did know of my predicament.

It was very important for me to consider, too, that not everyone else in my group felt the way I did. My friend Meghan Ward, for example, who was in the group, did not experience what I did. And she did and does not feel the same way I did and do about some of the members, and that was important for me to hear.

So I stayed two months. Then I submitted a short story. It was met with a different attitude. Even the nastiest critiquer gave a good review--moreover, he actually tried. (He'd absolutely stopped trying with my earlier story, just turning in pat critiques with "Characterization is good" and little else.) This was progress, of sorts. But it wasn't enough.

Once my anger had cooled, I was able to really assess what I got out of the group. I realized that I had outgrown it, and their critiques, while good, were not the kind I wanted--even when they were nice. And I remembered what Anne Allen said to me in a comment on that original post: to run, not walk, from that group before the negativity infiltrated other stories and confidence.

So I left the group (this was around October 2010). Keeping up with submissions was becoming difficult for me anyway, because of my pregnancy and because of lingering resentment. The nasty critiquers refocused their nasty on another member, who called me one day in January with a tale of horror similar to my original one. That they'd fed off her flesh in their effort to put her down. And I knew my decision had been a good one. Even if I'd calmed down, and even if I'd received decent feedback on a story, there was still that capability and underlying negativity.

The turning point for me was probably when I got critiques back from a few trusted people online (you know who you are) and they were loving, while being truthful and real. These were the kind of critiques I wanted. I wanted real suggestions, without having to resort to bites. Probably that these readers were not full of ego or a lack of understanding about writing or publishing helped, too. These readers were generous to me. I'd love to make them sign a contract in blood saying they will always be my readers and critiquers. These are agented writers, some of whom have publishing deals. These are people who know.

So the thing I want to stress here is that I left the group only after I made absolutely sure I wasn't acting out of anger or righteous indignation. I don't miss the group--except Meghan, but we haven't stopped being in touch. At this point, I have a trusted circle of readers who provide feedback with reason. I'm really happy about that. It's kind of what I want and need now, as opposed to having my toes nipped by sharks.

I think if you ever have a negative experience like this surrounding your work, it pays to make sure you're not upset before you take action. Writing is so personal, and we get our dander up so easily when it comes to criticism. But if there are negative critiques--and as in the original post let me stress that negative does not mean "reviews you do not agree with" but rather reviews that cut you down as a writer, and offer no help as to how to fix the problem, but instead just focus on what a shite writer you are, the damage these can do is huge. No one needs to be discouraged. We can all learn. That's the best part of it all.

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