I’m teaching the critique workshop at Fourth Street later this month–it’s June oh good gracious it is June–and there are all sorts of things that we are just not going to have the chance to talk about, since we’re only doing a little bit of panel discussion and a lot of critiquing. I watched a movie about an improv group, Don’t Think Twice, that made me think of a topic that is certainly outside the scope of that panel discussion, so here we are! I really liked the movie, and I recommend it to people who are in creative pursuits, especially people who are in creative relationships.
The thing that they can’t really fit into a well-composed movie of about 90 minutes–and oh gosh I am glad they kept it to that rather than letting it sprawl–was…well. I feel like, especially early on, especially the first time you get a well-functioning creative group, whether it’s improv or a band or a writing critique group or what. Even if it’s a group of two. I feel like there is a certain sense that you will never have something like this again. That it must be preserved at, if not all costs, certainly very, very substantial costs, because it is your only chance at such a creative synergy.
And…it is. And also it’s not.
A well-functioning creative relationship is worth working at. It’s worth preserving. Definitely not to be thrown away at a whim. And when you look back at someone’s life as a whole, there are clearly creative partnerships, working relationships, in which they functioned like no other time. People and dynamics that were better for their work than any others, that turned out to be irreplaceable.
You can’t tell in advance which ones those will be, necessarily, and which ones will just be really intense for the person in them and kind of useless for the work. You can’t tell which will be lead-ups to something even better, even more fulfilling and interesting.
Which is not an excuse to treat other humans badly. I mention this because of the opposite: it is a reason not to be treated badly yourself, not to stand by and watch while someone is treated badly, on the theory that the creative relationship is indispensable. It’s even a reason to pay attention to whether the work that was wondrous and irreplaceable a few years ago is still going that way. Because “this isn’t working well for me” is enough reason not to keep critiquing together, not to keep performing together, whatever it is you’re doing. It’s not trivial to find people to work with. Sometimes it’s not even possible. But that doesn’t mean that the person or people you’re working badly with now have to be clung to and endured no matter the cost to yourself or others.
So how do you evaluate? Well, I don’t honestly know for other creative relationships. But for writing critiques, there are several things: Do you still want to work with the person/people? Are you looking forward to their feedback, do you think it will be interesting? If you had to choose someone to work with now, would you choose this person/group? Do you think you know in advance what they’re going to say about everything you do, and if you think that, are you right? Do you find yourself unproductively annoyed or frustrated by more of their feedback than not? (Sometimes useful feedback can be annoying on the way in, and it’s up to you how much of that you’re up for. But unproductive annoyance is another matter.)
One of the tricky ones: if these things are true, how enmeshed in a group situation is the person? How possibly would it be to get yourself out, and how worthwhile? Sitting through “I think you should describe the living room in excruciating detail on the first page” is annoying; being in a crit group with someone you know to be a bigot is far worse. Disagreeing with someone persistently about what a story should do is bad; being in a group where someone is allowed to treat you with contempt while the rest of the group doesn’t seem to mind it is in a different category of bad. Sometimes it’s worth enduring a group where the fit has gone slightly awry if it’s mostly still a good group. But there have to be limits, and some part of you will know where they are.
“This isn’t working for me” needs to be a fine thing to say in critique relationships. “I just don’t have the time to dedicate to this group that I used to/that I feel it deserves/etc.”: an entirely valid reason not to do it. A lot of times writing groups just quietly reach a natural end date even if they’re working well when they do meet, because the rhythm of people’s work isn’t conducive to the rhythm of the group. But if you don’t want to get feedback from people on your work, you do not have to. Even if it’s otherwise working fine. Even if “everyone else” seems happy with the status quo.
Especially if you went for long stretches of your life without anybody caring about your creative work, it can be really hard to let go of the people who first do that. And sometimes you get really lucky and meet someone in high school or college or in your first workshop–even if your first workshop is in your middle age–whose feedback you’ll value for the rest of your lives. Sometimes someone who was awesome when you were both twenty will still be awesome when you’re both sixty. It’s sad when this turns out not to be the case, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect on you. Sometimes it doesn’t reflect on either of you and you’re both still awesome, you’re just not the right people to critique each other’s work any more.
Sometimes this means taking a leap. It means striking out without a new crit buddy, a new group, a new situation that you understand. Sometimes it’s really useful to identify why something isn’t working (wrong genre? wrong category? wrong life assumptions? wrong schedule?) in order to get at something else that might. It’s worth iterating. But always, it’s worth knowing that there is no last chance for as long as we’re alive. Be kind, be thoughtful, but also be clear that there are many forms and types of critique relationship available, and you don’t have to endure indefinitely in one that isn’t working for you.