How We Critique at a Retreat

About Our Evening Readings

Generally, each night after dinner, we get together as a group to share our writing. It’s informal, warm and positive. We gather in a circle, writers of varied experience, and take turns reading recent work. The experience stays positive because we respect the reading circle as a sacred space.

A reading is a mutual contribution. The author shares their work, which for a time guides the reader’s attention along a path created by language. The readers give the author their care and attention.

Typically, the author speaks for a bit before reading their piece to give an introduction to what they’ve written. Then they read, and after the reading, the author is attentive to the discussion, neither affirming nor defending their work. This is the time for everyone who has been listening to offer their contribution, sharing with the author and the group how the reading affected them, what they were particularly struck by, giving an overall sense of how they received it.

Listening to the author share their work, we offer our considerate and open response. It’s OK when reader feedback isn’t flawlessly articulate—often what is lost in the self-conscious search for articulation is the stuff the writer really benefits from. Sometimes it can be helpful simply to hear your audience express the sound that expresses how the work affects them (sigh, giggle, groan, etc.). As long as these contributions aren’t intrusive, they can be really helpful.

The focus at our evening readings is on raw, unedited work. You don’t necessarily need to offer your own personal experience as a reader or critic. Instead, it’s best to draw out the positive aspects of the work-in-progress. The author would like to know where to go in future writing.

Instead of seeing the readings as a heady intellectual workshop, we invite you to respond to how the shared work resonated with you. Specifically, what sticks with you about what the author shared?  And let’s draw the line there. Rather than talking about what’s shared as a finished product, expecting it to be polished, how does it move you? What’s your felt-level response to this work, read for you personally by a living, breathing person?

It’s also meaningful to make the distinction between the author reading their piece and the speaker/characters within the piece. The person who wrote the piece is not necessarily looking to represent him or herself. The work has been written, and now it stands separate from the author. As the author, this is good to remember—it’s not you that we’re talking about. Rather, we are discussing something that you made.

Everybody like being read to, both because it gives us the expression of a person, and because there’s something inherently enjoyable about being guided through an experience of language—whether that is a story, a poem, or something else.

I’ve participated in a lot of workshops. A trend that I’ve noticed is that workshops can be helpful for discussions of craft and technique, yet what workshop can offer is complicated by way of its very structure: there’s an abundance of voices. It’s hard to get a straight answer. A story might succeed in workshop because it is polished to such an extent that it’s difficult for the audience to enter and discuss. A story might fail in workshop because it’s just not the right piece for all readers. No story is perfectly suited for everyone.

In our readings, we’re trying to avoid these pitfalls and instead honor the creative piece in a way that exceeds our editor/critic abilities. We, as listeners, strive be open-minded (and therefore more able to discriminate) and unrehearsed, offering our gut-level response to fellow writers. Even the best writers have successes and failures. It serves us to be patient and curious about ways to improve and it also serves us to celebrate a success.

You can choose to invite critique of your piece or you can simply read for the sake of sharing, where no response from the circle is called for.

As the writer in one of our evening readings, you are welcome to simply begin and conclude with your reading of the written work. Or, if you like, you can share something of the experience you had doing the writing. Maybe it was a transformation for you. Maybe it was very challenging, and you’re tentative to read it. Be aware that what you mention does color the experience for the listener, and so if you have doubts about a particular part, maybe you are drawing attention to something that the reader may not find to be a problem. But by all means, if there’s something you would love to have answered by the readers, let us know what we should listen for, and that way the comments you receive will be most helpful for you.

The piece that you read doesn’t need to be long, and for the sake of the experience, you won’t want it to be too long. Just give us enough writing that we can be helpful for you.