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Giving feedback that can be heard
Because of Anne-Marie, I've learned that giving feedback is more important than the feedback itself.
The Massachusetts July day promised sunshine, but midday clouds kept the sun partially hidden. I had survived the first week of the two-week residency in the Solstice MFA Program but felt wounded and raw from the critiques I had received about my writing during the first week. My creative nonfiction instructor for the second week, Anne-Marie sat beside me on a bench nestled between buildings on the tree-lined campus.
“Your writing is a bit taut,” Anne-Marie said. Her words hung like limp oak leaves in the tepid air.
“Hmm,” I replied. “I guess that comes from all that technical writing I’ve done.” I took in her comment even as I explained it away. Maybe I can’t make the transition from writing about software to writing about my inner landscape—whatever that means. Maybe memoir isn’t what I want to write. Maybe I’m not capable of writing it even if I want to.
“You have important stories to tell,” Anne-Marie continued. “Dig a little deeper to find the emotional truth in them. Don’t worry as much about reporting the facts. Focus more on how you felt about what happened, how it affected you, and you’ll be fine.”
You’ll be fine. You’ll be fine. Was she saying I could do this? Maybe I could. For the first time, I felt some hope. In that moment, with those simple words of encouragement, I made up my mind to try.
When I look at the people who have been among my best teachers, especially in the professional sense of that word, Anne-Marie ranks at the top of the list. As a Solstice faculty member, she led many of the creative non-fiction writing workshops I took during the program and served as my faculty mentor for two of four semesters.
Although Anne-Marie exemplifies kindness and empathy in the way she offers feedback, she also tells the truth as she sees it about the writing she’s reviewing.
“Just because it happened to you doesn’t make it worth reading about,” she said. “The job of the memoirist is to interrogate the story, to find its deeper meaning, and to reflect that in a way that the reader can identify with it.”
Anne-Marie taught me to include sensory details to put the reader into the scene. What we see and hear is often the easy way to go, but what about smell, taste, and touch? “What’s the light like in the room?” she would ask. “Is something cooking on the stove?” “Is the chair’s arm you’re rubbing with your fingers rough or soft to the touch?” Those details connect the reader to the story and help describe the mood.
In the first week’s workshop led by another faculty member, my doubts about my ability to write had grown to epic proportions. As soon as I put down the page after reading an excerpt from my first submission, he turned to the other participants and asked, “What’s wrong with this piece?”
I struggled to breathe. As other students piled on their criticisms, I couldn’t take notes fast enough, and then I couldn’t write at all. Their words ran together like paint angrily thrown against a beautiful painting. When break time finally came, I ran to the bathroom and hid in a stall.
That act instantly transported me to more than fifty years earlier when my first-grade teacher instructed us to replicate a cowboy drawing she had taped to the chalkboard. She returned my rendition with a big red D plastered on it. I was devastated and, for the first time in my life, hid my tiny six-year-old body in the privacy of a bathroom stall and cried. I wasn’t sure I’d ever emerge. I did then and I knew I would now, but it took all I had to return to that room.
I quickly learned that Anne-Marie’s workshops were different. She employs a modified Ladder of Feedback, originally developed by David Perkins with Project Zero at Harvard University. This method provides a safe way for writers to hear critiques through observations, appreciations, clarifications, and finally suggestions.
When it was my turn to receive feedback in Anne-Marie’s workshop, I could hear what the other writers were saying. I didn’t necessarily agree with what they said, and I didn’t necessarily believe I could implement their suggestions, but I could hear them and that made a significant difference.
Anne-Marie taught me to appreciate the importance of writing memoir—not as therapy for the writer, although it sometimes feels like that—but as a balm to the world. When a memoir touches me through its sensory language and universally applied reflections, it makes me feel less alone, challenges me to see things differently, inspires me to be better than I am, and in some cases, all of the above.
Anne-Marie also showed me, through her example, about teaching writing—how to explain what memoir is, how to challenge writers to imbue their writing with sensory images, and how to give constructive feedback about a piece in a way that doesn’t discourage the recipient from ever writing again.
Thanks to Anne-Marie’s exceptional teaching, I understand much more about what I’m doing. Even though ten years later, I’m still working on doing it well.
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