Useful criticism isn’t a subjective evaluation of whether you like someone else’s work — that’s a matter of taste — rather, constructive feedback is supposed to be in service of the writer in moving the work forward. How are you helping someone who writes thrillers by telling them to write romance novels instead, simply because you enjoy reading a good love story and still sleep with the lights on? Workshop is supposed to be about advancing someone’s work by giving them tools, insights, and ideas, not pushing one’s personal preferences or agenda.
... What made me a better writer? Writing groups with regular people.
These groups were retired men in their sixties and seventies who wanted to write about the wars they’d been through and the people they had loved who were no longer living. These were second-generation immigrants who wanted to pay homage to their families by telling their stories. In one group, both a mother of an addict and a brother who cared for his disabled brother his whole adult life broke down in tears during workshop because this was the first time they had shared their stories with anyone. They felt safe. Some of the people in my groups went to college. Most didn’t. But we all came together because we wanted to share our work, learn from one another, and maybe make a few friends along the way. At first, I came to workshop armed and ready for battle, but I soon learned that one could receive impassioned, constructive feedback without being patronizing.
I've participated in a few different writer's circles in my time. The least useful ones — the most patronizing, least constructive, least empathic — were the ones run by professional writers. Their mindset was not that of teachers, but of gatekeepers, and so they seemed more interested in picking through a story for its salability or its conformance to standards of existing published work than anything else. The disconnect between what the whole thing claimed to be about, and what it actually was, was wide and deep enough that you could drive four lanes of tri-state area rush-hour traffic through it.
I came away from that experience convinced that whatever I tried to do, none of it was going to be about making people like that happy. I ended up seeking feedback with other circles of writers who were a lot closer to the floor — people who did this sort of thing because they wanted to do it, not because they were trying to be recognized as part of a coterie or because they thought there was good money in it. (People ask me: So how much money have you made with your work? I want to retort: How much money have you made off your kids?) I learned more in six months with a group like that than through all of my previous experience combined.
"Workshop" always seemed like the wrong word for what kind of environment you wanted to create around such a thing. A writer's circle isn't a place where people bring their stuff in so that it can be beaten to fit and painted to match. In fact, it's almost never about the work; it's about the person behind it. It's the person that needs the help, not the story. The story is just a roadmarker for how far along they are on whatever journey they take.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind