The Harshest Critique: Finding a Writing Group

Feedback. I have to laugh when people talk about being stressed about workshops and critiques and feedback. Because I have received the mother of all feedback—no, sorry, the grandmother of all feedback—and I’ve lived to tell the tell.

The stereotype of Jewish grandmothers is pretty well known. They are warm. Motherly. Perhaps they pile on the guilt a little heavily, but they mean well. They think you’re too skinny. “Eat a little more!” they say.

Yeah, not my grandmother. My grandmother was a spitfire. She didn’t pull any punches. She always thought I could lose a few pounds. Told me to stand up straighter and suck in my stomach. My grandmother was free with her “suggestions” for me because as she liked to say, “I’m your grandmother! If I can’t tell you, who can?”

Remember those early novels I wrote that I never showed anyone? I lied. I showed one. To my grandmother. My grandmother was an avid reader—if there was a new novel, she had read it and had an opinion on it. So I gave her one of my earlier NaNoWriMo novels to read. She devoured it. Then she called me immediately to give me her thoughts. Her first comments? Very supportive. “I’m so impressed that you wrote an entire novel! I can’t imagine! What an accomplishment! And with two children? What a remarkable achievement. I’m so proud that you did this!” So sweet!

And then she got to the critique. “The plot doesn’t have a real structure. You need more of a story. The main character is two dimensional. I mean, you have this woman, and all she ever does is get drunk and have sex. That’s it! Get drunk, have sex!” Then my grandmother said… wait for it…, “She’s based on you, right?”

Uh…

I’m happy to say that, critiques from grandmothers aside, I actually do well with criticism. Perhaps because I’ve been getting it for so long, starting out first in film school and then going on to earn an MFA in creative writing. And I learned two really important things that have helped me deal with criticism:

  1. I find my people. In every group there are plenty of voices I ignore. As an undergraduate in film school, where as a female I was in the minority, I immediately discounted any male who said, “Maybe your main character should show more skin?” But I listened to those who challenged my use of lighting or word choice in dialogue or a thematic decision (that didn’t have to do with how much of my actress’s skin we could see).
  2. I separate myself from the critique. People aren’t critiquing me; they’re critiquing the work. And while I produce the work, I am not the work. In those first college critiques, I received feedback on my screenplays, my animations, my short films, my video productions, my editing skills. Every class was people passing judgment on my work. But that didn’t mean they were passing judgment on me.
A critique page
A page of critique page from one of my fellow grad school students whose opinion I valued greatly.

Then came grad school. Oy, is there anything that creates a thick-skin more than an MFA workshop? Let me tell you, your fellow classmates can be cruel! But while it was sometimes disappointing, the same rules still applied. All those who were trying to demonstrate their Hemingway toughness or who wanted to push my work in a more experimental direction, I simply ignored. I found a few people whose opinions I really trusted and I listened to them. It didn’t mean I always took their suggestions. But it did mean I always took their suggestions seriously and gave it careful evaluation before choosing to follow it or discard it.

When I left the psychotic nurturing world of grad school, I was on my own. Writing is easy on your own. Revising is not. I craved those people I trusted to give me concrete suggestions on how to improve my work, but most of my grad school buddies scattered. And finding a new group is not easy. I tried on a number of groups over the years. Some were groups that were highly competitive, everyone trying to outdo one another. I didn’t last in those for long because I love being with fellow writers who nurture each other; I have no desire to try to one up anyone or be one upped. Other groups were more like support groups, people encouraging each other to write. These kinds of groups are great for those starting out, but I didn’t need anyone to give me permission to write. I needed someone to make me better.

It took years, but I finally found my people. A mom I knew from the elementary school playground told me she belonged to a writing group and I was welcome to join. I put it off for a few years; I couldn’t imagine the moms in this group being the harsh yet loving critics I needed, plus I had to wait for my daughter to start elementary school because they met right after drop-off and there is no critiquing with a screaming toddler on hand. The group had a fantasy author, a middle grade author, a YA author, and a women’s fiction author. I had deep suspicions: With the exception of the women’s fiction author, what the hell could I offer these writers and what could they offer me? But finally, my daughter finished preschool and I joined the group with trepidation.

Thank goodness I joined this group! I can honestly say I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for this group of women, who at this point include Sarah E., Sarah M., Jen, Sheryl, Kris, and Mary. This was the group that was willing to give me the harsh words I needed while still being encouraging. Turns out that even though I don’t normally read those other genres, I loved the authors’ writings, and plot is plot and character is character and it doesn’t matter who the audience is, a good story transcends all. It turns out that no matter what they wrote, they all had an amazing eye for language, for structure, for pacing. It turns out that it’s really fun for me to read out of genre and that I can come up with intelligent(ish) things to say.

Those writers in my group can be tough on me. And when they are, I always listen. I started a novel recently and when I sent the beginning to my writing group, Jen said straight out, “I hate your main character.” And looking more closely at the character, I decided Jen was right. So I moved on to a new piece, with a main character we all love. These women have given me the most insightful, spot-on, tear-inducing, always-for-the-better feedback, and they help shape my writing and make it so much better than it would be without them. I don’t follow them blindly; but when they speak, I listen.

So remember those two rules:

  • Find the people you can trust.
  • The critique is about the work. It’s not about you.

Unless, of course, it’s a critique from your grandmother. Then, I’m afraid, it’s absolutely about you.


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Jennifer S. Brown is the author of MODERN GIRLS (NAL/Penguin). The novel, set in 1935 in the Lower East Side of New York, is about a Russian-born Jewish mother and her American-born unmarried daughter. Each discovers that she is expecting, although the pregnancies are unplanned and unwanted, in this story about women’s roles, standards, and choices, set against the backdrop of the impending war. Learn more at www.jennifersbrown.com.

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This article has 5 Comments

  1. “It turns out that no matter what they wrote, they all had an amazing eye for language, for structure, for pacing. It turns out that it’s really fun for me to read out of genre and that I can come up with intelligent(ish) things to say.”

    Yeah! It is a wonderfully honest, supportive, and smart group of women. That makes all the difference. And like your post here–your words are honest and insightful. Thanks, Jenny!

  2. Jen! Congratulations! (Please excuse the overuse of exclamation points; my critique group would take them out.) I read your post because Robin S. shared it on Facebook, and Robin is one of those people I trust. I am so impressed that you have a book coming out and will make a point of pre-ordering it asap.

    As for the message of your post, I agree with you completely, but I still haven’t mastered the ability to accept critique dispassionately. I have, however, learned to put aside the suggestions until I’m ready to read them with an open mind. I find that helps tremendously.

    And I do have a great group. Two of my co-members debut next year, one middle grade and one picture book. Can mine be far behind?

    Mazel Tov,
    Judy Mintz – your crit partner from many years ago…

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