Daily Archives: November 3, 2009

Cycle 4.1 Art of Critique


EcoArts Walk, Lake County, N. California. Reflections.

by Janet  Grace  Riehl

I once cried during a critique.

It was an MFA upper-level course in visual storytelling taught by two eminent photographers. I had petitioned to get into the course, arguing that my life experience fulfilled the lower-level entry requirement. I’d gotten in, participated, and then blown it by crying during a critique of my work. Before the next class the instructors ambushed me at the top of the stairs and strongly suggested, to the point where I felt threatened, that I drop the course.

To sit back and observe critique as a sociologist, anthropologist, or psychologist can be an entertaining pastime—as long as it’s not your own work on the table. I’m surprised there aren’t plays, comic strips, and situation comedies based on the stereotypical types that surface during critique: the Ding-Bat, the Sonorous Voice of God, the Professor, the Meanie, the Raconteur.

Unfortunately, critique—peer or professional—is rife with possibility for misuse, misunderstanding, and misery. In the very worst situations there can be a scoring of points that turns the critique into a virtual blood sport. The writer’s work takes backseat to the critiquer’s social and personal agendas. Small wonder that some writers dread the very word.

Critique. For myself, I dreaded it. I hated it. I learned from it.

Fortunately, after the disastrous experience in the photography class, I had the joy of encountering a teacher, Betsy Davids, who fully understood the meaning of critique and its purpose. She regarded critique as a form of appreciation, a time of joining with the piece and giving back to the artist who created it.

During critique she grew quiet and made the piece the object of contemplation. She then took the class on a tour of what she saw and how she responded to it. She responded to each element—texture, color, shape—and how it affected her feelings and body. Her response to our artwork was fully considered and intimate.

Betsy was there for us, not to make herself more grand. She was there to help us and to know our art and art making more fully. If there were goofs, gaps, or gaffes in our work, she knew how to point these out gently. Her responses inspired us to go back to the work and try to improve it.

Although Betsy was critiquing visual art, her process would have been equally beneficial for writing. Good critique focuses on the writing—not the writer, not the critiquer. Its purpose is to help the writer make her own work stronger. Ideally, there’s no place for chest thumping or ego massaging or denigration of the writer such as in the experience I related above.

Oh, and how did that incident turn out? I’m proud to say that I held my ground with the two professors, stayed on in the course, and earned an “A.”

In our next post (4.2) we’ll talk about how a group can best benefit individual writers.


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