Monday, May 14, 2012

Critique groups: getting personal with memoir

I was talking with a friend who worried that the critique of her memoir by her group was verging on the personal. Where is the line between critiquing the work, and critiquing the person?  She wondered if perhaps people were wanting to know a bit too much about her, rather than sticking to the work.  This is an interesting quandary because when you're in a critique group presenting your work, you want the criticism to be focused on the work, and not on you.  But in memoir, the work and you are pretty much one.  Where is the line? Good question!  If a friend in a group says, "Why did you react that way? We want to know more about how you really felt," that may seem to be a personal question, yet, it's relevant to the work because maybe it's just not on the page, how you felt when your mother said that horrible thing to you. When you're presenting fiction and a workshop member says, "How did she really react?  It's not on the page," we don't feel personally attacked, because the criticism is about a character, not you.  This is especially on my mind because I'm also writing a memoir and find it interesting, parsing what someone is saying about my work and what parts of what they're saying I need to pay attention to.

What do you think? Should memoir and fiction be critiqued in different ways? Where's the line between focusing on the work (in memoir) and focusing on the writer?


Aimee Wing said...

I think we can help people discover themselves so they can more authentically write their memoir but we cannot tell them how they should have or might have felt. That is the difference of the critique.

Stephsco said...

I think you need to trust the group. I was part of a group where a senior citizen aged man shared his memoir in chapters. His life was really interesting but he tended to hold back on some of the emotional details which was probably due to his generation. So we usually pressed him for more of what he hinted at, and over time he grew more comfortable with the group to add in and share those details.

I can see how the opposite might not go over well; if a memoir included very personal issues like sexual molestation or something. I think a trust should be built up enough to share those chapters, or possibly choose one or two people from the group to share specifically difficult chapters.

Dianne said...

I find it difficult to critique memoirs in a workshop. Sometimes the revelations are intimate, making it almost impossible to separate the work from the author. It’s easier for me to create some distance and be more objective by thinking of the narrator as a character in the story and not the person sitting across the room.

So in that way, I suppose I critique both memoirs and fiction in the same way (or try to), by focusing on the writing. I’m not sure they should be critiqued differently (or where the line should be), however, it might be less personal and more helpful by referring to the author as “she” (the narrator) and not “you.” Tough question. I’d be interested to hear what other memoir writers have to say about this.

Kelly von Hemert said...

With fiction, even though the work was likely based on many real events, you can still talk about the character, but with memoir, you know that you are addressing the author personally and it can have boundry issues. If the writer suffered trauma, you really feel for your comrade and yet want to critique the work. You want to offer solace for past events because you are human, first aid for the work because you are skilled and you can see where it could be better, and praise and encouragement for such bravery and honesty in telling the truth. There is no way in my mind to separate this triage of sorts. It is both awkward and OK if you do it with respect and dignity for the writer. If you are human, you cannot listen to these events and remain mute or unmoved as a kindred spirit, nor should you. This is not a clinic, it's a critique group.

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett said...

Interesting comments! I'm writing a memoir and when I offer it to my readers, I do so with a deep breath and the knowledge that separating the writer from the writing may be difficult for them. Yet, their comments are inevitably useful. I would never allow someone to read it who didn't understand that the feedback needs to center on the story and writing.