Where is the line between critique of the writer and critique of the work? During my time as an MFA student, I learned how that line can be nearly invisible. In our small room surrounded by dry erase boards and a large window overlooking the campus below, we had discussed many personal subjects; our jobs, race, substance abuse, sexual orientation, and politics. The eight of us would pass our work to each other, reading a page or two aloud and critiquing our abilities to engage one another.
One of our assignments was to write a piece of nonfiction. The subject matter was open, so I decided to present my essay, “What Happened, Happened,” in which I explore an incident of a near-date rape. I was prompted to approach this subject matter because I saw a call for submissions for Not That Bad, an anthology co-edited by Roxane Gay and Ashley C. Ford. At least you weren’t raped, the call for essays said. This world effectively silences those who have been violated by demanding their first reaction be gratitude for what did not happen. I was struck by this description, because I had a story of my own. I figured, what better time to write and workshop my piece—we had talked about nearly everything else, right?
After the teacher asked if there were any thoughts on my piece, the class was quiet for a long time. It was an uncomfortable silence. In that quiet, I thought about how hard it was for me just to write it and print it out. I thought about how I chose to present it in an alternating structure of past and present. I wanted to showcase the difference in the man I knew years prior and the present-day acquaintance who led to the apex of the story, the attempted rape. I hoped it worked—it went through numerous revisions and had a male and female reader before it reached the class. I spoke with those two readers at length about what I was trying to say.
The class had nothing for me. The class that I was spending over two thousand dollars on to have an intellectual discussion on craft had no words for me. When one of my male classmates finally spoke, he said he didn’t feel there was a “lesson” or something learned by the retelling of the situation. He wanted a redemptive ending.
The guy sitting right next to me wiped his glasses on the edge of his t-shirt and asked, “Did you really think you wouldn’t have sex?” This from a guy who just got finished sharing that he was only with his girlfriend so he could afford an apartment.
“What did you expect?” asked the guy that sat by the door, leaning back on the two hind legs of his chair.
I did as I was supposed to. I sat and took notes. I tried not to contort my face into a look of disgust as my female professor told me that it was ridiculous for me to expect to go somewhere with a guy and not have anything happen—even if we had gone out for months prior to the incident with nary a kiss. Later I learned that she proudly identified as a feminist.
At no point did anyone ask about the man in the essay. It was open season on my judgement and I had to sit and take it. According to them, I – not my narrator – was wrong to assume that two people in their mid-thirties could have a conversation about what would and would not take place over the course of a weekend. The guy at the far end of the table just about laughed when he quipped, “Yeah right, a girl can say she doesn’t want to have sex, but I’ve already forgotten that in five minutes.” I immediately imagined the number of women he had coerced into something unwanted. According to the roundtable, my actions were tantamount to consent, regardless of what was agreed upon. I felt like I was minutes away from being called some dumb girl that almost got herself raped.
Mind you, this was at least three years before #MeToo. But I realized I had touched a nerve. By the comments of the four men in my class, I may have reminded them of something they may have done as early as high school, when things went too far and they thought nothing of it. It wasn’t my work they were critiquing—it was themselves.
I remember walking out to my car that night, muttering dim-witted motherfuckers under my breath. I had a traumatic experience and I wrote about it, to show the subtle nuances in an escalating situation where things went too far. If they had offered me suggestions on how to create a stronger piece, I would have welcomed that. But all of their questions were laced with judgement. Where was the critique of the work – the characterization, the structure, the scenes, the dialogue?
I sat on the story for a while and worked on my thesis. I would open it up every once and again, revising it here and there, knowing that it was important for me to finish.
Near the end of the semester, it was published in The ‘F’ Word, as “What Didn’t Happen That Summer.” To this day, I receive messages from women saying they had similar experiences.
Although that situation in my MFA class was abhorrent, it showed me that there needs to be a little more finesse when critiquing personal essays. Because of that experience, I approach the creative nonfiction writing workshops I teach differently.
I ask my students to read nonfiction work like fiction. When we are with a group of people unpacking delicate subjects, the writer can focus on craft, not the personal judgment of the narrative. While critiquing, the class is free to talk about the way the story is being told and how what we are reading makes us feel. When referring to the writer, I encourage students to say, “the main character,” instead of pointing to the writer and saying “you.” This allows the writer to come outside of themselves and see the work as a story, so they can hear critiques and distance themselves enough to work on their non-fiction objectively.
So where is the line between critique of the writer and critique of the work? In this age of over-sharing and intensely personal essays and memoirs, perhaps it’s easy to miss. But when in workshop, it’s essential to find it and respect it – no matter how difficult.