Chris Cleave, award-winning British novelist, was a faculty member at the fourth Iceland Writers Retreat. In his typical self-deprecating yet good-natured humour, he led a workshop on criticism: how to get it, how to seek it out, and what to do with it once you have it.
We begin the workshop by going around the table and introducing ourselves. Name, where we’re from, what we write, what we’re struggling with in our writing. For each introduction, Chris responds with a related personal anecdote spoken with unfiltered enthusiasm.
Throughout the spin-off of discussions about dealing with criticism in all its forms, a few key points emerged. The participants, each a writer in his or her own right, seem to struggle with similar doubts. How do you accept criticism? Chris knows this struggle well. He tells us tales of writing his first two novels, and how receiving criticism made him stop writing for 10 years. He knows the dejection but he also knows how to take it. One suggestion he gave is to remember that writing doesn’t happen when the pen first touches paper at the beginning of a new project—it happens in the revision. This is the perspective a writer should use to approach criticism. He also suggests listening to those who have your best interests in mind. But he warns us to be mindful. Your mom or significant other would have your best interests at heart, yes, but they might still not be the best readers. They could be too critical or not critical enough. Or, they may not understand the genre or audience. A writer should look for a reader whose criticism is from a place of good intention for both the writer and the text. A reader should recognize the potential of both, and guide the artist and the art to reach that potential. Furthermore, you don’t have to listen to all of the criticism you receive. “Be strong enough to be independent but sensitive enough to listen and learn.” Find that balance between holding onto your gut feeling and opening up to other ideas.
Then the perspective shifted. A few of us were editors as well as writers. How do you give criticism? Chris’s answer was quite simply, “karma. Build karma.” His theory is that if you provide good criticism for others and help them reach their own potential, then eventually the writing community will reward you for it. Writers often wear many hats: editor, journalist, teacher, and so forth. Use these roles and influences to raise the tide of literature by helping other writers, and your boat will rise with the tide alongside everyone else.
What I was most struck by when talking to Chris (apart from how hilarious and grounded he is) was his comment on writer’s block. He said, “Writer’s block only happens to smart people.” Only good writers consider what they write; it is in the moment of reflection that the block hits. But he urges that writer’s block is positive. It is how you know you are on the right path.
By Adriana Sgromo, IWR 2017 Social Media and Marketing InternTags: book critics, Chris Cleave, Iceland