Sunday, 28 November 2010

Critiquing & feedback

Hello! Back to the blog after a wonderful travelling holiday.

On my mind: giving people feedback that supports their creativity and motivation. On my mind because I am getting RSVPs for my Creative Open House. It is a celebratory party, a weekend afternoon open house, and for fun, the invitation asks people to

bring something small(ish) that you have made
or written or photographed or otherwise created, or,
if you deem yourself not creative,
a postcard, shell, stone, feather, flower
or other pretty/handsome/fun thing
for each other to love, remark, admire,
not to judge, just to share...
or just come and enjoy a temporary gallery

I've invited lots of my long-time students, my papier mache group, my novel-writing group, haiku friends, creative-writing-teaching friends, psychoanalytic fellow students, and local friends and neighbors. In other words, my kind of people.

It is fascinating to see the way people respond. I didn't mean the whole thing as a terrific challenge, just a bit of fun and mutual 'gosh! gee! wow! how interesting! I love that too!' OR 'You did that! I never knew...' OR 'That's so pretty (astonishing/interesting)'

As I expected, the writer-types and art-makers are intrigued and all for it. But a surprising (to me) number of others seem to feel put-on-the-spot. When they express this to me I jolly them along and remind them it can be something they like, not something they made. Of course some may have RSVPd NO out of sheer stage-fright.

The instant reaction I'm most chuffed about is by hearsay from the younger generation (early 20s) who glimpse the invitation and say: 'What a great idea for a party!'

So what does this have to do with teaching creative writing? It's a reminder that so many people are so 'tongue-tied' and shy about revealing themselves, about feeling confident in liking and sharing something, about the very notion of their own natural creativity.

Gentle, consistent, encouraging feedback is ESSENTIAL if writing students are to grow in their writing. This does not mean not to criticise (more on that another time), but is a reminder to me and all of us that confidence and pleasure in writing/making/seeing/being comes before any progress is possible. Usually? Agree? Disagree?

Also, re teaching, this could be an idea for your class's end-of-term party. See how they react to the invitation!

Saturday, 6 November 2010


Lucky me -- two weeks of fascinating travel. Will be back to blogging about teaching creative writing in late November. Meanwhile, use the Labels list to search through for exercises, teaching tips or a host of other things.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Sour-puss students

I mentioned the possibility of a querulously querying student last week, and Helen, for one, wanted to know if I have run across this situation much and how I handle it. See her comment on last week's blog where she describes witnessing such an incident.

The situation she describes -- a student actually stomping or storming or flouncing out of a course -- I have witnessed too. In fact, I've seen it happen at three residential writing events I have attended! It got so that I took it as routine and decided to re-assure myself: every residential WILL have a super-tender or super-ego participant. Seems to be a law, so if I ever lead one I should not blame myself for the outbreak/flounce/storm.

The question is what to do about it? If the person does leave, I say: breathe a sigh of relief and soothe your ruffled feathers and go on... you will probably have to soothe the bruises or worries of the other students too. DO remember NOT to feel guilty or act defensive. Writing courses, especially residentials, seem to attract some vulnerable people; they come loaded, primed to go off.

If the person doesn't leave, or if you are, like the example mentioned, attempting to smooth things with the student, try to stay clear of 'counselling' -- unless you are trained and qualified. I think you have to keep the talk to the writing and behaviour and the needs of others in the group. Good luck!

How about in regular weekly classes? I've never had a storm-out (that I know of, though of course some people cease attending without saying why -- private storms maybe). But I have indeed had the Questioner, the Doubter, the Success Maven, the Cynic, the Party Pooper... you can name some more. Usually one per year, not, thank goodness one per course.

Sometimes I pre-empt, especially with the more strange of my exercises (as last week; and the ones straying into psychological territory), and tell the class: 'this exercise does not work for about 1 out of 10 people. I have found that it does bear wonderful fruit for most people, but it's pefectly fine if it does not work for you... please put up with it, we'll soon be on to something else today. You might want to write to yourself about what you don't like about this exercise -- could be useful!'

When I get those 'what's the point' queries: sometimes there IS a point (to explore the character, to try other styles, to let go of perfection -- whatever). Sometimes I just ask them to trust me, they'll see why... or get something from it at the end.

Well I could go on and on... I have had two classes where somehow among the students a lot of bad feeling stirred; seemed to be one particular person who knocked or gossiped about others in the class. I only gradually became aware of this; then avoided it as long as I could, not wanting to get sucked into it. Seems to come from the student who is writing least, actually, and simmering with hostility -- all to do with being blocked. I did finally take aside this one I suspected of being the ringleader/meanie and ask her to be gentler in her criticisms (to readings out), suggested she did not realise how powerful an effect she had. And told her she wrote very well (which she did, WHEN she did) and had high standards. I stayed out of the 'bullying' problem as I only knew of it from hearsay, which in itself might have been poisoned. Don't know if it worked; things settled down; she did not join the class for term 2...

The joy of it is that most of our students most of the time are bright, warm, fun, eager to cooperate, supportive of each other and of the tutor. And several times I have had the reward, at the end of the course, of the Gadfly praising the course and my teaching -- sweet indeed!