I just wrote the ending to another novel on Sunday night — mainly because it had to go out to my critique group. I write bad endings. Really horrible endings. The first ending to everything I’ve ever written has been shite. I only manage to create something satisfying in the end because I have a Truly Ferocious Critique Group. I send them my bad ending and they rip me a new one.
I kid you not, they spent four hours lambasting me about the last novel’s ending. I was afraid to even look at their written comments. But the next month, I had a good rewrite in hand and all was sweetness and light.
With this long history in a Truly Ferocious critique group, you’d think I would have insight into how students feel when receiving critique and how to make it most effectively. I can’t say I do, though. My students often get dismayed and discouraged when they receive substantive critique, even when I think I’ve larded it with compliments.
I’m beginning to think I should stop worrying about it so much. Part of learning, especially at the graduate level, is developing the ability to get the best out of critique. I can well remember the first serious critique I got in my PhD program. It literally made my blood run cold. I had thought the work was so good, and the critique made it obvious that the prof was not only disappointed but appalled — the world as I knew it fell apart, for a while. I no longer trusted my own judgment, and until I could reconcile my perceptions with my critic’s, I was all at sea. It took a hard weekend of thinking, crying, and then pulling myself together to win back a feeling of control and independence as I made the required changes. Perhaps all my prof could do for me at that time was keep out of my way and let me work through it.
Eventually I became known for my constructive response to critiques, and I was proud when an editor told me he didn’t have to rephrase or soft-pedal any criticism sent my way. But maybe there is no way to reach this blessed state without passing through the slough of despond. I can’t help wishing that all my students could have a Truly Ferocious critique group, though, and develop their thick skins gradually, in repeated doses of candid discussion among friends.