Voices in Your Head: Writing Group Issue #1 with some help from Ursula K LeGuin

At my last writers group meeting – we meet the last Sunday of every month – a disturbing trend came to light:

One of the group members said that she would not be submitting for a while because she was hearing the other members’ voices in her head.

This probably would not have raised the little hairs on the back of my neck except for the fact that this was the second person I’d heard say those exact words in the space of a few months. That may sound like a long time, but in the space of critique meetings, that’s twice in ten get-togethers. Which isn’t much.

I admit to a certain amount of Really? in my own thoughts. Because I have no real issue distinguishing which pieces of criticism I want to take (what I need to take may be a totally different thing…there I go, happily ignoring stuff that might be necessary…), I had a very hard time even understanding what these writers were talking about. I don’t hear people when I write. I barely hear them when I edit. I write down the critiques that are compatible with my vision of the piece and ignore the rest. Well, that’s just ducky for me, right?

But that kind of attitude is just not helpful for writers who are experiencing this.

So in the past week or so, I’ve tried to imagine what it is they are experiencing. And my imagination, I confess, did not help me that much.

Mostly I felt like an intolerable bully who had helped pummel these writers into blockage. I found myself angry with these writers. I found myself being irritated that these writers “couldn’t figure it out.” Harsh? Oh yes. I was not thinking nicely.

While all of this was going on in my brain – which couldn’t put itself in someone else’s shoes (an experience which added to my frustration because, dammit, aren’t writers supposed to be the ones who can go into everyone’s shoes and walk around a while?) – I picked up a book that had been on my shelf a while: Steering the Craft by Ursula K. LeGuin.

As I was flipping through the book, I noticed Appendix 1: The Peer Group Workshop. Seeing as how this subject was on my mind, I flipped to the appendix and read all the way through the section. I found some things my group does right: we’re all at about the same skill level so there’s no inequality really; we read and mark up over time (we have a month to read and work on each other’s manuscripts); we all speak up at the meetings; and we have just the right number of people.

Then I realized the other rules that LeGuin recommends in this appendix are rules designed to keep writers from ‘hearing voices.’

1. LeGuin recommends: “The author of the story under discussion is SILENT.” We are not silent. The authors can talk, ask questions, explain what they meant. LeGuin argues that silence is necessary because “It’s almost impossible for an author whose work is being criticised not to be on the defense, eager to explain, answer, point out” so instead, the writer should focus on listening. By staying silent, “You won’t be busy mentally preparing what you’re going to say in answer, because you can’t answer. All you can do is hear. You can hear what people got from your piece, what they think needs some work, what they misunderstood and understood, disliked and liked about it. And that’s what you’re there for.”

While, on the surface staying silent seems like a writer is just gonna sit there and take it while the Voices keep going – what really happens is you hear your own voice much clearer. By not being able to respond, you draw your own conclusions about what the readers are saying. You have to know what it was you wanted to say. You have to know what you wanted them to feel. And you can just listen and see if they got that or not.

However, the author gaining anything from staying silent depends very much on the standard the critiquers are held to…which brings me to:

2. LeGuin recommends:

Each critique should be:
Strictly in turn.
Without interruption from anyone else.”

Oh dear.

This is where our group totally falls apart. No lie. There’s rambling, interruptions, debates, suggestions, correction, deletions, philosophy, styles, quotes, diatribes, reading recommendations, movie recommendations, music recommendations, and on and on and on. It’s a chaotic discussion and generally there are two or three voices dominating the conversation. (Yes, one of the loudest is me.)

After I read LeGuin’s rules from critiquing, and after I thought about the suggestions, corrections, recommendations, etc. I suddenly understood where the voices were coming from.

As a group, we don’t shut up. No freakin’ wonder our compatriots are brain-fizzled.

Each group has to decide for itself how it wants to run and what ways work the best for them, while not alienating members. Not everyone works the same and, after my soul-searching this week, I’m going to think more on it and then discuss with the group whether or not we need to revise our ground rules and how we would like to it if we go forward with new rules.

I’m still sorting out my own emotional component in the matter, because a great deal of how the group currently runs is based on organic development – a lot of the way we do things were attempts to make it ‘more fair.’ And then, I still wonder, if the writers who hear the shouting and debating while they write are going to be any better if the critiques are kept under more control? Or will brief, to the point critiques be enough to set the voices off anyway?

But I do think that LeGuin’s ground rules will figure heavily in my thought process.

Anyone out there in a real-life or online workshop/group experience the hearing of voices? Any ideas on how to keep a meeting balanced?

Critiques Mentors Ursula K LeGuin writers groups

jenny maloney View All →

Jenny writes dark fiction that her mother hates. Her stories and essays have appeared in Across the Margin, Pantheon, Shimmer, Black Denim Lit, Skive, and others. When she’s not writing her own stuff, she’s reading mysteries for Criminal Element. When she’s not writing fiction or reviews, she’s writing/directing/performing/designing plays at Springs Ensemble Theatre.

6 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Thoughts that apply only to my own experience. Brief would be good. No interruptions (aka, piling on) would be great.

    I was a member of critique groups for years before I started having problems with “The Voices.” It was only in a small group with people whose opinion I respected that issues started.

    I can say that the repetition (which every group I've been part of has tried to control) can be a killer. “I agree about the talking hamster” lets the writer know that more than one person had a problem with the hamster. “Jeez, that damn hamster just threw me. I mean, come on. I hate talking animals at the best of times, but to throw in a talking hamster at this point in the story makes no sense.” If one has already heard 3 times how much people didn't like the poor little hamster, that can be where feeling beat up on happens.

    I think the critics also need to be aware of their own personal pet peeves and how often they go on about them. And really assess whether the issue is with the writing or with them as readers.

    For example, I don't usually care for present tense, and I have dismissed a story before giving it a chance based solely on that. But “The Night Circus” is my favorite book of this year. And guess what tense it's written in.

    And I think it's a combination of repetition and the pet peeves that started the trouble with individual voices in my head. Larry doesn't like a lot of dialogue. Moe can't stand first person stories. Curly wants lots of action. Shemp hates more than a sentence or two of description with regard to setting. But Joe wants every detail about what a character looks like. And these “issues” are hammered on not only with your own work but with other people's as well.

    And [completely person preference here] I find critiquing little bits of big works counter-productive (for both the reader and the writer). The reader can't see the big picture, because it's not there. Hell, the writer may not be aware of what the big picture is going to be if this is draft 1. So maybe the talking hamster in Chapter 8 makes more sense when you get to Chapter 9 and in Chapter 10 you see that it's actually the pivotal moment for everything else going forward. However, the writer has now cut it out because everyone hated it, and that's all he could think about when he tried to continue on (that's the voices). The further problem is he can't figure out how to get that pivotal moment without it. So he's stuck. And what might have been a brilliant and original work is under the bed collecting dust. Unless he can rid himself of the voices and go with his initial vision. But he's going back next month and will hear the same kinds of things said about other people's work so it doesn't stop just because he's stopped writing.

    I wish all writers (myself included) had the ability to pick and choose what they will take away from a meeting. But I have a feeling you are in the minority there.

  2. You make very good points about the 'piling on.' I've also heard the argument that critiquers don't quite stop when they should – so it comes across like they are trying to 'teach/preach' and are waiting for some kind of affirmative response from the writer, as if the critiquer wants to convert the writer to their point of view.

    I think that goes to part of your comment: “I think the critics also need to be aware of their own personal pet peeves and how often they go on about them. And really assess whether the issue is with the writing or with them as readers.” Often critiquers are very passionate about those peeves and that's some of the 'teach/preach' that goes on.

    Also, I think that in the context of a critiquer knowing and understanding their pet peeves, you have touched on the complex psychology that goes into a group:

    Not only does a critiquer need to know their pet peeves, the author of the piece under discussion must be aware of his/her own pet peeves, the pet peeves of the critiquers giving the critique, the past advice and experience of the critiquer, and whether the critiquers' interest lines up with the writer's.

    Ha! Having written all that, again I'm surprised I'm not hearing a crazed cacophony of people!

  3. Just wait . . .

    But it all goes back to “Writing's hard” and “Figuring out what you need and what works and doesn't for you as a writer is even harder.”

    Not sure how any of us gets anything done.

  4. I like having the voices. I like asking myself, “What would Ali do?” Especially for those times when I have a clear idea of what she WOULD do and I decide to do something else. It sometimes lends my decisions in writing credence if I know someone will disagree with them because then I have to demand of myself why I want to make said decision. I have to think it through and defend it. Then I know what I'm doing. It helps me from sort of blowing around in the wind, as it were–keeps the aimless whimsy to a healthy minimum.

    I like having the voices in my head. It's quicker. I can sometimes predict the opinions of minds I respect without waiting to talk to them. Although, point, I can tune them out and do my own thing, when the bodies hit the floor.

    Also, I'm not sure how much the critique group has to feel concerned about being some of the voices in people's heads. Everyone I know adds to the cacaphony of voices in my head, and a lot of people that I don't know but have either read in books and watched on TV. One of the voices in my head is Charles Baudelaire. Another is William F. Buckley Jr. Another is me mum. Maybe I'm unique, but I don't think so.

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