Constructive Feedback for Writing and Maybe Living

Writing well requires attention to style and execution, but it also requires interaction. John Gardner’s works on writing explains his views on temperament and talent. In On Becoming A Novelist he also addresses training and education. What he says about writers workshops applies for classrooms, conferences, and more:

In a bad workshop, the teacher allows or even encourages attack. … In a good workshop, the teacher establishes a general atmosphere of helpfulness rather than competitiveness or viciousness. Classmates of the writer of the writer whose work has been read do not begin, if the workshop is well run, by stating how they would have written the story, or by expressing their blind prejudices on what is or is not seemly; in other words, they do not begin by making up some different story or demanding a different style. They try to understand and appreciate the story as it has been written. They assume, even if they secretly doubt it, that the story was carefully and intelligently constructed and that its oddities have some justification. If they cannot understand why the story is as it is, they ask questions. … It takes confidence and good will to say, “I didn’t understand so-and-so,” rather than belligerently, “So-and-so makes no sense.” It is in the nature of stupid people to hide their perplexity and attack what they cannot grasp. The wise admit their puzzlement (no prizes are given in heaven for fake infallibility)… John Gardner, On Becoming A Novelist, p. 81

This attitude reminds me of my introduction to rhetoric class. We had to re-state what the author said for our first essay. We lost points for doing anything more. Saying “I think…” was not allowed. We were not ready to have an opinion. As Philippe Nonet used to say, “That you think it does not matter. Only what you show matters.” Tough advice. But good. He also said we have to let the idea present itself. We have to let it be.

A good workshop is a place where we let the writing be. Take it at face value and root around to see what is being said. Some will be good, some bad, some confusing. We will not agree with all that is said. But as Garder says, if we admit our puzzlement and share well, the writer may see how to improve or explain what was missed. Then all will have learned and constructed a new way forward. I think this approach applies to much more than writing, but leave that for another time.