In a writing class a few years ago, one of the participants commented how collegial and supportive the group was. The instructors had indeed created a wonderful and supportive learning environment. Then that same person went further, saying how her critique group was not like that at all, that her group was competitive, tense, and everyone was always on edge, waiting for the slings and arrows to let loose.
That exchange stayed with me. It popped into my mind again recently when reading a book about cells, biology, and belief.[i] The author tells a story about how one of his professors taught him that to sleuth out what is wrong with ailing cells, the first step is not to look at the cells themselves but to look at the environment. On a very simple level, cells (no matter their inherent health) suffer in a toxic environment and thrive in a healthy environment. Inject toxins into the environment and cells will do everything they can to get away. They metaphorically attempt to run for the hills.
It’s a very simple and basic survival mechanism: Move away from the icky.
Yet we humans often override such an instinct, and like that writer, stay in an environment that is not conducive to our mental or emotional health, and I would argue also not conducive to the health of our writing or whatever story we are working on.
Why do we do that? Here are three possibilities:
Depending on our upbringing, we may not know that getting out is an option. Have you heard how to train fleas? You put them in a jar, they’ll jump up and keep banging against the lid, but eventually they stop jumping so high. (To avoid the icky.) Once that happens, you can take the lid off, and the fleas will not flee because they don’t realize being free is an option. They keep jumping only to a fraction of their capacity because they’re still avoiding the possibility of whacking against a lid that is actually no longer there. Some of us may have had childhood experiences that make it difficult for us to believe in or even conceive of a collaborative, supportive environment. We are functioning like the fleas.
For others of us, it may not be childhood trauma messing with our instinctual, cellular abilities to get out of a (mildly or majorly) toxic environment but rather a simple case of not being exposed to a healthy alternative. If all we have been exposed to is the tense, combative, “feedback must be harsh to be effective” mode of critiquing, then we might resign ourselves to the internal suffering because what other option is there? In this situation, we are ignorant, in the most basic definitional, non-pejorative sense of the word: We lack knowledge or information.
I’m a total fan of the cerebral cortex. That part of our brain allows us to create and imagine, to remember and plan, to assess and evaluate. It’s a keeper. That all said, sometimes our top brains get a little too big for their britches. They start thinking they are the be-all-end-all of us and override or discount information coming from other sources. Like our bodies and our emotions. So instead of listening to valid data coming in from our feeling self that’s screaming, Alert! Alert! Leave now!, or at the minimum saying, I’m so not feeling the love here, our cerebral cortexes serve up logic and justifications and even insults, if needed, to keep us stuck. Examples include:
- Mary said this group was great, and she’s a better writer than I am, so if I just stay here until I get better then it will get better.
- All these writers have been writing for a lot longer than I have, so this must be how critiques are done.
- You’re being a baby. Buck up. Real writers can handle this kind of environment. I mean really, do you think it’s all going to be rosy-posy when you’re getting Amazon reviews?
Any of this resonating with you?
Now before I go further, I want to state that I’m not suggesting that we writers become wilting flowers and run from any difficult situation. But I would argue that the best preparation for handling difficult situations is a grounded, happy sense of self. That type of inner confidence and self-esteem is nurtured both by our own actions and by our regular environment. A critique group can be a years-long part of our regular environment. So you want to be cellular here. Way cellular. If your critique group’s mode of operating is toxic to you, it is hurting you. Period. Get out.
If you suspect you are staying in an icky critique group situation because of conditioning or lack of data that it could be different, please know that kind and rigorous critique groups exist. Groups where writers read deeply; give thoughtful feedback with care; and are committed to each others’ stories and careers. It may take time to find your right group, but it is worth the effort. Are you still with the very first person you ever went out with? Most likely not. Give yourself the gift of finding a critique group that functions great and feels great.
If the challenge for you is more of the logical variety, i.e., you are convincing yourself to stay despite leave data coming in from your body and emotions, then take a deep breath and allow yourself to take in that information. Then apply some counter-logic. For example, if you’ve only been in one or two critique groups, do you really have large enough of a sample set to know for sure that this is “how critique groups are”? In the case where your cerebral cortex is dogging you, calling you weak or a baby, take a deep breath, and say, “Thank you for your opinion. That may be true, and I am going to try out other critique groups anyway.” A final point for your cerebral cortex to ponder is that data is data, no matter where it is coming from, so to discount emotions and feelings is to actually mess with the data set. Which is a tad bit . . . illogical.
The process of writing and creating stories is a long, winding, and wild journey for most writers. There will be enough slings and arrows along the way. So wherever and whenever you can be cellular. One of those whenevers and wherevers is most definitely your choice of a critique group.
Onward in kindness,
Christine Carron, The Critique MD
[i] Bruce H. Lipton, Ph.D., The Biology of Belief (New York: Hay House, 2015)