I’ve always been a firm believer in the power of critiques. Lately however, I’ve started calling them “Critique Essays.”
“Don’t treat these like off-the-cuff responses,” I tell my undergraduates. “You’re writing a paper about a work of fiction–only it’s still in progress.”
As much as I hate the word “paper,” it’s a word that students understand. It means they have to analyze. They have to say what they mean as clearly as possible, back up their points, refer directly to the text, etc.
I give them a rubric, a template that describes in detail how critiques should look, what I want them to include. Here is my assignment sheet for writing critiques. Day, Critique Essay Directions
And then I grade them. I give out a lot more C’s and D’s on these than on any other assignment in the course.
My thinking about the value of critiques has been most informed by:
- this essay by Jeremiah Chamberlin, editor of Fiction Writer’s Review, “Workshop is Not For You,” in which he says, “You become a strong writer by writing critiques, not reading them.”
- this essay by Peter Turchi, “Making the Most of a Writing Workshop; or, Out of the Workshop, Into the Laboratory,” in which he says, “One of the most useful things a workshop can do for the writer is to reflect the intention of the work back to her.”
Paradigm Shift: The Hypoxic Workshop
A writer-teacher on Facebook was discussing a problem familiar to all creative writing instructors: in a class with 20 students, how do you schedule workshop slots so that everyone in the class can be “up” more than once? Lots of writer-teachers discussed their strategies—and then Michael Martone chimed in with a comment that caught my attention:
Here’s the thing—give up the traditional workshop model. Come on over to the hypoxic workshop. I have 12 students in my workshop and they all produce a story a week. That way they have written 12-14 stories a semester. Critique is reduced to 5-8 minutes a class.
Michael went on to say: “After teaching the traditional workshop for years, I realized that what was being taught was criticism. The “writer” in your class only gets to be writer twice a semester. Doing a hypoxic workshop insists that the writer of stories write stories. Not criticize stories. Not read and critique classic stories or anthologized stories. A writer writes. A workshop should be a generative space not a curatorial one. Other classes can teach how a story works via means of models. An hypoxic workshop teaches by doing. It is about process not product. Just saying. You don’t have to order textbooks for this kind of workshop. You are not “norming” your students. Their work is the textbook.”
So I asked Michael if he’d talk to me about the pedagogical thinking behind the hypoxic workshop, and he kindly agreed.
Michael Martone on the Hypoxic Workshop
[Here's something from Triquarterly about Michael's approach: CATCHING ONE’S BREATH: LONGEVITY, ENDURANCE, INTERVAL TRAINING, AND THE HYPOXIC WORKSHOP.]
I took the notion of hypoxic training form athletic interval training and subtracted the contest for which athletes train. This is practice as practice. That kind of training forces the cross-country runner or swimmer to go “hypoxic,” that is to be out of breath. Usually when you go hypoxic you must stop and “catch” your breath, recover.
But in interval training you must recover while still running or swimming but at a lower pace. This increases endurance first and with the increase of endurance speed perhaps follows. I have all 12 or 15 writers in the class write a story every week instead of a story every 4th faced with this schedule often balk. They have never done it before and have actually been taught that it can’t be done.
The usual workshop imagines its job as creating perfect or wanting-to-be perfect stories. Everything goes into the two or three stories a term. There is much talk of revising them too. And in most traditional workshops, the writer acts more often as a critic anyway and not a writer.
The purpose of the hypoxic workshop is to write. Its purpose is to allow the writer to write what she or he wants to write in a space that is uncritical—no time to “workshop.” The writer is concentrating on understanding, developing, creating process not product. It is to increase endurance and efficiency of writing. It seeks to make writing itself, the act of writing, as natural and necessary as breathing. Make it habitual.
My goal, and it is stated so on my syllabus, is that the writer will still be writing in 20 years. This workshop is not interested in winning the race, however. I have no interest in what is good or bad, what works or not, for anyone other than the writer. This is about the individual writer writing what gives him or her pleasure. It seeks to simulate that good feeling one has after exercising vigorously and is not interested in either the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. It is not about winning a race, about being the best in a race. It is about writing itself and the discovery of each participant as to what he or she wants to do with his or her own writing.
What do you think?
It’s a real paradigm shift, isn’t it? When I started teaching novel writing, I started rethinking my ideas about the value of critiques. Here’s a post about that.
Tell me your thoughts.