Traffic, Kevlar, and a Critique

Yosemite_SamWhen I first started taking writing classes, my friends would ask what they were like. I would explain in a lighthearted voice that the classes were centered around the discussion of someone’s work – the good, the bad, the indifferent. Despite my attempt to sound cheerful, I’d often get a wide-eyed look and a statement along the lines of “That sounds awful” or “You pay money to get criticized?” I’d nod solemnly and shrug.

But that is what we do as writers, don’t we? We constantly put ourselves out there (despite a good number of us being introverts) open for all sorts of who knows what. If we don’t learn how to handle being criticized (or critiqued, which sounds better somehow), our writing careers will be very short. We trust that people will be kind and respectful, and for the most part, they are. But there is always that one, isn’t there? My one was a professor, and he actually did me a favor.

I’ve always been predisposed to wanting to hear the negative about my writing. Don’t get me wrong, I like finding out what is working in a story, but if I’m in a class and I’m allotted thirty minutes of discussion, I want to maximize that time by learning what needs to be fixed since that’s what I’m paying for. I guess I’ve always been a bit thick-skinned about the whole process. But that professor I mentioned? He turned that thick skin into Kevlar.

His name was Harvey, and I signed up for his fiction workshop class somewhere in the middle of the classes I needed to graduate. I’d had workshops before. I knew what to expect. It was the second class and the first workshop session, and I was up first. Harvey was 40 minutes late to class and entered the room like an overheated radiator whose gasket was about to blow. He had gotten caught in rush-hour traffic. He dispensed with formalities and took out my short story. Then his gasket blew, sending hot steam everywhere. He took out his traffic frustration on that story, sprinkling a ‘fuck’ between each statement of the horribleness that was the drivel that I had written. It was so bad that every one of my classmates apologized for him during break and commented how unfair he was being. Needless to say, despite him having won best teacher of the year award on several occasions, he never became a favorite of mine. I ignored his comments and moved on, but I was unable to hear what he said about any of my stories for the rest of the semester. It was a wasted class and wasted tuition. The way in which he conducted himself made it hard for me to respect him let alone learn from him.

In retrospect, however, he did me a huge favor. Thanks to him, there never has been, nor ever will be a critique that was or will be worse. He provided the Kevlar I needed to sit through many more critiques. Not much penetrates enough to make me upset at this point. I can pretty much take any comments about my story objectively, not emotionally, which gives me the ability to put the written critiques away for a day or two, allowing for even more objectivity. If I had taken in what Harvey had told me that day in 2010 on an emotional level, I’m pretty sure I’d still be trying to scrape up enough confidence from where it had been smashed onto the highway to pick up a pen again. (It was THAT bad).

Oddly enough, critiquing is the one thing that I am holding on to from my year in the Novel Incubator. I’ve pushed so much aside in what I call my recovery period – working on my novel, reading fiction, taking classes – but I am willingly and happily critiquing friends’ novels. I’ve done one and have two more to do by the end of August. I’m not sure why this is the one avenue that keeps me connected to the things that matter to me – writing, the writing community, words. Maybe Harvey had something to do with that. He taught me how not to critique and how not to conduct myself in a workshop. Maybe I’m just doing what I can to prevent others going through what I went through. I’m not sure, but the one thing I know for certain is that if I have to get to class during rush hour, I’ll take the T.

3 comments

  1. Rob Wilstein

    What a @#$%&*!!! essay. Just kidding, Kelly! I think I know that guy, there’s always one. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Cynthia Johnson

    You are a wonderful reviewer because your attention to detail is so spot-on. There has never been a shred of Harvey-isms in your manner and, what I like best about your notes is how you’re able to cite specific examples of what you mean.

    Kelly, I don’t know what Harvey said or did, but I think we’ve all benefitted from your clarity and straight ahead approach.

    Huge thanks!

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