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.”
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?
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.