I’m hopeful that a new generation of writing workshops will offer the kind of meaningful and useful feedback that’s possible with Critical Response Process, the kind of feedback that fosters creativity and the desire to resume work, and not the kind that is so demoralizing the writer gives up in despair.
Critical Response Process is a dynamic method for both giving and receiving feedback on creative endeavors. Initially developed within the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, CRP is a process that can provide “useful feedback on anything you make, from dance to dessert.”
Last week it was my great good fortune to attend a two-day workshop in Critical Response Process with Liz Lerman, at Marlboro College.
I was there to learn the process, so I can use it in the Narrative Non-Fiction Writing Workshop I’m scheduled to lead at the Marlboro Graduate Center in the fall.
I was already all too familiar with the shortfalls of the workshop methods I’d grown up with, where participants generally tell a writer how they would rewrite the author’s work, which isn’t really helpful at best, and can be quite harmful.
As a writing teacher for more than thirty years, I’d already developed better methods, starting with praise, and limiting students’ comments to two simple questions: 1) Where did you get lost in the text? and 2) What questions do you have that rise from the text? Sometimes I’d start classes with, Have you ever had a conversation only in questions? These were good practices, but I wanted more, and I knew from others that Critical Response Process offered it.
The theory behind CRP is that there are ways to provide feedback that make the artist eager to return to work with new understanding and ideas; in practice, CRP enlarges artistic capacity for all who participate in the well-defined steps of the process.
Participants include the artist, the responders, and the facilitator. In a writing workshop the author is the artist, the other workshop participants serve as responders, and the workshop leader facilitates. In the narrative non-fiction workshop I’m planning, I hope to pass the facilitator’s role to each of the other participants, so that they can bring CRP back to their classrooms and writing workshops.
Step One: Statements of Meaning. Following the artist’s presentation, the facilitator asks the responders what they found meaningful, memorable, challenging, compelling, delightful – or some other quality through which responders can filter their reactions. These are not simple affirmations, but statements of meaning that serve to establish what responders witnessed in the work.
Step Two, The Artist as Questioner, places the writer at the center of the process; it’s the writer’s chance to ask questions about the work. In Step Three, Neutral Questions from Responders, responders ask neutral questions of the writer, which the writer answers. A neutral question does not have an embedded opinion. For example: How are you hoping the reader will experience this passage? is neutral. How do you expect the reader to understand this passage? is not; it contains the embedded opinion, This passage is incomprehensible! (Example from Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process by Liz Lerman and John Borstel.) Neutral questions allow the artist to think widely and creatively; they help artists define their focus and understand their intent and/or their presentation better.
After two days of intensive practice, I can confidently assert that learning how to ask useful questions in both Steps Two and Three are at the heart of this process, and this skill alone is transformative to both writer and responders.
Finally, in Step Four, Permissioned Opinions, responders are invited to ask permission to give an opinion about a specific topic. For example, a responder might say, I have an opinion about your use of “they” as a singular pronoun. Would you like to hear it? Only if the writer says yes may the responder share that opinion.
Throughout all these steps, the facilitator checks in with the writer, coaches participants to ask helpful and neutral questions, helps with follow-up questions, and keeps track of time.
The process takes time, and the more people in the group, the more time it can take. But as a group gains practice of CRP, it gathers group knowledge, skill and momentum. I witnessed this over the two days twenty of us spent together learning.
While Critical Response Process was initially designed for use in the dance world, it’s successfully used across the spectrum of creative endeavor. My purpose here is to prompt writers, teachers and writing workshop participants to know that Critical Response Process can make the writing workshop a positive, engaging, creative activity that fosters writing the story a writer wants to tell. But this post is necessarily just a thumbnail sketch of a powerful tool. I encourage you to learn more.
* This is a deliberate use of the Singular They.
Deborah Lee Luskin is the author of the award-winning novel, Into the Wilderness, and an educator who has been teaching writing and literature to learners in a wide variety of settings, from the Ivy League to Vermont prisons. Her blogs include Living in Place and The Middle Ages.