Tuesday, September 21, 2010

MFA Critique: What Makes a Good Story

Writing with any literary merit demands that you grab your readers from the start and lead them on a journey with an impact. Usually this is accomplished through a story arc with a character facing some conflict culminating in a transformation. As my instructor said, "A story should build and accumulate from scene to scene, and break your heart at the end."

Judging by the feedback from last week's critique from my MFA cohort, my travel essay didn't do that. Though I knew it going in (which is one reason I chose to share the piece), it was kind of a tough-love session for me. After hearing "there may not be enough of an experience or story here to make an exciting piece," my ego that wants to be 'a good writer' and my inner critic who wants to prove her wrong had a teary battle on the long drive home. The next day, reading through my notes and the written comments of my classmates restored my sanity.

In case you're curious, we each write a 1-2 page response to a piece, addressing 'what it's about/trying to accomplish,' strengths of the piece and weaknesses/suggestions for revision. I've included some (anonymous) written feedback, abridged here. I hope you, too, can learn from them!

"It was a pleasure to read 'A Monk for a Day: Reflections on a South Korean Temple-stay.' The essay's main purpose seems to be to offer a glimpse into the world and practices of Buddhist monks and nuns... Your prose is clear-eyed, honest and direct, and serves your piece well - mimicking the calm and meditative state the narrator longs for... [But] an outsider's beautiful and thoughtful description of a place does not quite go the full distance to creating a meaningful and original essay... I believe an angle exists in your piece and would suggest bringing it more to the forefront in revision."

"Your descriptions of the landscape are really good - the strongest parts of the piece... But I'm not convinced about the narrator's motives.... which is linked to the broader issue of the piece's arc: What happens in this story?"

"The tone is detached, straightforward and matter-of-fact, keeping the pace of the action in the scenes going... It's difficult to tell what the narrator thinks... The narrator mentions a 'poised exterior' which in some ways all the reader is seeing as well... The reader does not know the circumstance that brought the narrator on this journey, nor what she is returning to, and that seems important for us to get to know her... What does the narrator want the reader to get from this piece?"

"The structure of this travel piece is essentially picaresque... Right now [the sections] fit together chronologically...but there's not a lot of emphasis or subordination between parts... It has lovely description of place, but it's all set-up without anything happening... If you could develop [the conflict] more, that could be the story that emerges from this visit... the kind of moment that can make you see things differently... For your next piece, try to find material to which you have a stronger connection."

"This piece contained vivid descriptions... To make this piece stronger, I suggest making the thematic center more obvious. The travel descriptions are rich, but I don't get enough of the narrator... I want to know what she thinks and feels about it all. Overall, the piece has a friendly tone and is well-written."

"This was a very dynamic and multi-faceted piece... It wasn't only a straightforward narrative of travel, but also explored the narrator's personal struggles with acclimating to a new culture, and trying to find some inner peace to take away from the trip and apply to her regular life back home... The reader craves this kind of transformation by the end of the story... Perhaps if we knew what she was thinking before going into the trip and what she was looking for, it would benefit the ambiguous conclusion... I really enjoyed all the reflections pertaining to the theme of the culture clash and constant pressure of not knowing how to behave as a foreigner and as a woman."


lakeviewer said...

It would have helped us if we read the original writing, then the critique. The points appear to be solid.

Nicole Zimmerman said...

I can see your perspective; however, I don't want to share a draft of anything online. My intention here was to a)show what an MFA critique might look like and b)to share the process that goes into deciding how and what to revise. My next step will be to figure out what the 'story' is that I want to tell, and then figure out how to structure the piece to tell that story/make that point.

soulyluna said...

I think it's all quite impressive and triumphant. I adore learning about what strikes your passion, and moves you to the point of tears. That real magic happens by being completely true to yourself. That's when that borderline obsessive, mind intoxicating fury of getting better at what you love takes you over. That's the essence of living life to the fullest, and it sounds like you are doing just that. Thank you for sharing pieces of your experience here.

Nicole Zimmerman said...

Thank you for that, from one of the most inspirational/creative people I know! As someone reminded me last week, being an artist of any kind is a courageous act, based on a willingness -- or passionate desire -- to transform personal experience or emotion into something tangible for the public eye. The process is humbling and painstaking at times, but I believe it's worth the effort.

vicki18 said...

Nicole: thank you for posting this. It's scary, getting a critique of our writing, isn't it? You're inspiring me to take some writing classes to improve my newpaper writing. I like the definition of an artist; we might also include "check one's ego at the door." A cliche, true, but cliches come from somewhere. You're a great writer.

Nicole Zimmerman said...

Thank you Vicki!

Lynn said...

This is good, clear, insightful, and informative. There's a good balance of praise and suggestions in the comments. Do professors suggest guidelines for critiques? If so, it would be great to see their suggestions.

Thanks for sharing this!


Nicole Zimmerman said...

Glad it was informative for considering an MFA, Lynn. At USF the professors ask that in our written comments & class discussion/workshop we: summarize what the piece seems to be about, discuss what's working to that effect, and offer suggestions to consider for revision -- though we aren't supposed to be too "prescriptive." I don't know how it is at other schools; I've heard some programs (Iowa?) can be pretty harsh.

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