I’ve been giving some thought to critiques. Specifically, just how helpful are they to an inexperienced writer. Do critiques really improve our writing? That is what all the experts say, the ones I’ve read anyway. The theory is that you can’t be an objective critic of your own work. There is certainly some validity in that. Most people have tendencies—some good, some bad—that they are completely unaware of. As a person with a background in physical fitness I’ve had clients who were eating much more than they thought until I had them compose a food diary. Therefore, I am aware of the value of getting another point of view.
The problem lies in finding people who are well qualified and truly objective enough to provide helpful critiques. My experience has been that finding such people is difficult. I’ve explored workshops, writer’s groups and even online in search of such help, with little success. The difficulty I’ve run across is that people bring their own biases and tendencies along when critiquing someone else’s work.
Writers who see themselves as literary seem to look down on story-based work and tend to be hypercritical. Those who prefer poetical prose may disapprove of those who execute more efficient exposition; the Faulkner’s disdain the Hemingway’s if you will, and vice versa. It’s often hard to tell when their suggestions are valid.
Part of the problem lies with me. One of my negative tendencies that I am aware of is self-criticism. I realize that this is a common problem for all writers. It prevents many from ever finishing that first draft they’ve been working on for years. In Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott devotes a whole chapter to the necessity of letting go of your inner critic so you can write shitty first drafts. I’m still working on that. The thing is though, I have a propensity to believe the negative and downplay the positive in any critique I receive. This leads to an interesting conundrum, finding a way to trust my own judgment while sifting through the opinions of others with discretion.
Maybe the problem is that I just haven’t clicked with anybody yet. Having played sports my whole life I know that the best way to improve is to practice with people who are on the same level and have the same goals as you. Someone new to a sport practicing with a professional only confuses and frustrates the newbie at the same time it distracts and constrains the pro. In the end, neither gets much out of their time together. So far I haven’t been able to find anyone that fits the criteria I’m searching for. Still, going it alone doesn’t seem like a good idea. Even professional athletes have coaches to help them refine their skills. I could use the equivalent of a really good workout buddy for my writing, but even in a gym full of dedicated exercisers, good partners are hard to find. Until I chance upon the literary equivalent, I guess I’m on my own, for better or worse.