Four Steps to Critical Response for a World That Can’t Afford to be Further Narrowed


Because it’s abundantly clear that the world doesn’t need competitive workshop methodology. It’s already had too much of “the ending did not work for me,” of “have you considered cutting the last paragraph?” of “this is what objective correlative is, and you’re not doing it,” or “yeah, I’m not getting it,” or “I hate this thing,” or “haikus must have 18 syllabi.”

Because these last weeks, I have been sadly soul-searching, looking back at all the times my own imagination failed, where I raised an eyebrow, where I was afraid or confused and denied a possibility, where I sat back and allowed existing power structures to continue. I am ashamed that some of these moments happened in workshop, while I thought I was trying to help the favorite and most loved people in my life – my writing family.

Because sometimes I don’t know how to react to a piece of art. It’s new to me. It’s frightening. I want to say something, but I don’t know what to say, so what comes out is what I think I know, and what I think I know is almost always limiting, almost always something I have “been taught.” Sentences should have verbs. Characters should have wants. No one should have two slices of cake. This is how the world is.

This is one way to narrow the possibilities of a world.

Walls Closing In

But that’s not what a workshop should be. A workshop should be a place where imagination is limitless, where the world is large enough to hold a story in development- a potentially infinite object; where a story can grow and develop along its own lines.

I’m thinking of what Junot Diaz wrote in MFA vs POC.

“When I think on it now what’s most clear to me is how easily ours could have been a dope workshop…if we’d all felt safe and accounted for in the workshop, if we’d all been each other’s witnesses. What might have been.”

So this week, this question. What makes for an expansive workshop? Here are four steps some of my teachers have tried to teach me. What are yours?

ONE: Look. Without saying anything. Put the red pen down. Put the blue pen down. Put the weapons down. Put down the tendency to find the problems and solve them. Put down what you think. Forget everything you think you know. Observe.

  1. Consider: What do you see?
  2. Consider: What’s on the page? What’s there? What’s happening?
  3. Example: in this scene, there are two people kissing.

TWO: Notice. Connections, patterns, songs, images, colors, details, relationships, symbols, feelings, themes.

  1. Consider: How do things work together?
  2. Consider: What elements came together to create this moment?
  3. Example: There are flashing lights, there is music, there is the smell of bodies dancing.

THREE: Ask expansive questions. Ask until you find a question you don’t know the answer to – and then give the artist that question. Ask questions that enlarge instead of constricting. If you don’t know how to do this, try this: instead of asking why, ask how.

  1. How does it feel to dance?
  2. Instead of: why is there a dragon? Try: How does the dragon move? Instead of why this ending, try: how did we get here? How do we continue?

FOUR: Find something that moves you. Find something in the text that made the world bigger than you thought it was. It’s ok if it’s messy. Just point to it and shut up. Let it flop around there for a while. Use I statements. Say thank you.

  1. Try: It really surprised me when… It really moved me when… I really loved it when… I was bothered when…

“I don’t trust people until I know what they love. If they cannot admit to what they love, or in fact love nothing, I cannot take even their smartest criticisms seriously.”—Stephen Dunn, quoted here.

Thank you to the writers who continue to crowbar the world bigger. Thank you to my teachers for trying to teach me to workshop with more imagination.

If you’re looking for a place to come write quietly without critique, we’ve got free drop ins in San Francisco and Oakland.



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