Inside the Basilica of Mary Magdalene, Vezeley, France

R E S P O N S E by Bill Scheffel

Like writing, giving response is an art and a craft. As such, we have the freedom to explore and the chance to develop - get good at. The experience of hearing/reading someone's work is like a reflection on a mirror. Our mind is the mirror - a word rooted in the Latin mirari, "to wonder at," which also has the connotation smile.

Pay attention to the aesthetic smile (Aphrodite arrives and makes the other gods visible).

Whatever we experience - the reflections on the mirror - is what we can offer to the writer. We experience what is vivid to us. Vividness - as Allen Ginsberg said - is "self-selecting." We can only notice what is vivid (to us) because that is what we did notice.


As we develop the eye and ear of response, what we notice gets wider, deeper. We broaden our bandwidth.


Since we can only notice what we notice, our reflection of someone's work is partial, particular and unique.


How to prepare oneself for giving response. The definitions of mirror:

A polished or smooth substance that forms images by reflection. To be "polished and smooth" means our mind is alert, open, settled.

Something which gives a true representation. Product of above. True to our experience (rather than "The" truth).

An exemplary model. If we can clearly articulate our reflection it becomes an "exemplary model" because it is a response to the stimulus of the writer's words.


. . . . .


Writing is the unknown in oneself, one's head, one's body. Writing is… a kind of faculty… another person who appears and comes forward, invisible, gifted with thought and anger, and who sometimes, through his own actions, risks losing his life. - Marguerite Duras


In my on-line classes, students write their responses. We find it takes a lot of time and thought, but is satisfying. Someone put it this way:

No one really notices, but when I say to Kerry, that "I'm feeling like we are squatters in someone’s empty cabin along the St. Johns river as she lights a candle after the power has gone out," it feels better than having said that "the candle light is pretty" or nothing at all.



GO RECEPTIVE: Clear your mind, give the piece your attention (try listening without looking at text).


Notice what is vivid, what brings wonder, what brings a smile.

Notice disruption, confusion, loss of energy.

Try to hear the "authorial voice" (the personality) and/or the soul of the piece.

Try to hear - as Marguerite Duras says -"the other person who appears."



Begin with the positive, the strengths; then the weaknesses, falterings.

Be specific as possible. General statements (I like it) seldom convince whereas something specific, even if strange or vague, is interesting and valuable.

Basically anything you notice will be of value if you can reflect it back in a specific way. To simply cite a line or sentence that you liked is quite adequate.

If you can put words to the authorial voice, the soul or the "other person," your gift to the writer could be profound.


Peter Elbow: The most valuable thing you can do for a writer is to tell her what you really see and how you really react.


R E S P O N S E (Part 2)

by Bill Scheffel


Lee Siegel, in an article titled Eyes Wide Shut: What the Critics Failed to See, took movie critics to task for missing the point on Stanley Kubrick's last movie. He claims the critics responded not to the content of the movie but the studio hype put out to publicize the movie. Most critics panned the movie, at least in part, because it did not live up its publicity. Advertising and opinions about a movie (he argues) are not the movie itself. Siegel could accept someone not liking the film, but not someone who refused to pay attention to the film. Eyes Wide Shut is a work of art and, like any work of art, demands one's attention to understand it. Attention must be given before a conclusion is reached - as Siegel lamented about all the reviews that missed the mark, "you'd think someone would have given a genuine work of art its due."

Giving attention is also a key to both writing (creating a work) and feedback (articulating impressions of a work). In my workshops, I give the participants (unexpected) themes to write about and then we write, maybe for five minutes, maybe for twenty. The surprise element is a slight shock (and what grabs our attention more than a shock?). Students are encouraged to be personal, candid and wild, to write, as Kerouac said, "in recollection and amazement for yourself." There is an energy in this encounter which heightens attention.

After this we all read our work aloud, we give our full attention to each person and we don't talk about the pieces until everyone has read. The experience of witnessing a human being read something they have just composed (by definition not premeditated but discovered) is a moving and exciting experience, something I never tire of. I find most people (once they become comfortable in this experimental and unpredictable creative space) become, like myself, quite moved by this experience.

With practice and a willingness to "keep the hand moving," most people begin to write exiting, creative pieces. They may not be major works of art, but they are interesting, they are approaching "art" and frequently are art. The pieces I see students and fellow writers write - in these so-called "free-writes" -are often at least as good - to compare across genres - as a good scene in a decent movie, and sometimes as good as a good scene in an excellent movie. They are often as good or better than the poetry or prose I see, say, anthologized in various publications.


These unpremeditated, spontaneously written pieces often become (at least the seed or core of) people's best writing. After we read them aloud we discuss them. Like blowing on the coals of a fire, the discussion helps bring the piece to life and legitimize it - and it helps the writer accept and recognize its strength and potential.

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I've discussed attention and creative writing. What about attention and feedback? School has taught most of us that feedback is often stifling or downright wounding, though it might be called "constructive criticism," it is often given by a teacher unable (because of time, say, with thirty students in a class) or unwilling to really listen. It is given without adequate attention.


In writing workshops or classes (preferable to call them "gatherings of writers") there are several modes of listening/reading and giving feedback. And now, with the Internet, on-line classes add new modes.


1. The writer reads her/his work aloud and copies are not given out: The others merely listen, without benefit of looking at a text. The voice is particularly prominent. Listeners do not know "what is coming next" because they cannot read ahead. Listeners are led word-by-word. The element of surprise is strongest. The relationship to the oral, bardic tradition is strongest. The evocative nature of the writer's voice adds to (is more a part of) the creative writing. The spell of the piece is strongest.


2. The writer reads her/his work aloud and copies are given out: Some of the qualities of #1 are lost, but there are also benefits. The written text helps orient the listener/reader. Less chance of "getting lost." It is easier to note (and remember) where the piece is strong or weak. After the writer finishes reading the listener/readers can study the text. More possibility of attention, digestion and offering articulation.


3. The writer gives her/his text to someone else to read (with or without copies distributed): This is a valid and interesting method. Hearing one's own work read by someone else mirrors the writing back in new (often unimaginable) ways. Sometimes it's beneficial to "distance" from the ownership of the work and let someone else read it. This can help subdue the internal critic. This can help one take the piece more seriously.


4. People take a text home: In other words, they study the piece away from class, giving more time to digest, contemplate and return to the work. The advantages of time and a longer stretch of attention bring more perspective and potentially more insight (as long as the piece doesn't then just become "something I have to read" - a chore). The immediacy of the oral "performance" of the piece is lost (though, of course, the reader/listener may have originally heard the writer read the piece aloud).


Text shared in an on-line, Internet class: This is a new mode of encountering creative writing (I've gained experience here, having taught five semesters of college-level, on-line creative writing). Seemingly, this mode is - like number four - merely reading a text that someone has written. But when a group of writers are given a creative assignment and then post the results of their work to a web-site five days later, the work they then get to view does have an immediacy, and the experience of encountering it is surprisingly fresh and intimate (this is partially so because the website "publishes" the work). This encounter comes without the sound of the writer's voice - but also without any other exterior (to the writing) data - we don't even know what the person looks like, possibly don't know how old they are, where they live, etc. Thus, there is the possibility of greater attention to the work alone. I find that we (teacher and students) do pay a high order of attention to these writings, and we look forward to seeing them with anticipation.


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Whatever the mode of encountering writing, the next step is to give feedback - which I've called "articulating impressions of a work." But how do we begin to express our impressions of a work? When we are new to giving feedback (and/or new to creative writing) the impressions we have are often vague, inchoate; we might barely find language for them, let alone the confidence to express them. On the other hand, an "expert" might give erudite but wounding feedback. Their feedback might be "academically" informed in that they are well read and know "literary criticism," I question the value of merely comparing a creative piece to some "standard of excellence" without first contacting (what I can only call) the "soul" of the work. To contact the soul of the work - or even anything about the work - what is required is attention.


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We do not pay enough attention to the silent conversations between things - Odysseas Elytis


I do not paint things I paint the difference between things. - Henri Matisse.


Yet millions of feelings, for instance, utterly different from those to be found in the slim lists of even the most sensitive persons of today, remain to be discovered and experienced. - Francis Ponge


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One knows the good people by the fact
That they get better
When one knows them.
The good people
Invite one to improve them, for
How does anyone get wiser? By listening
And being told something.

- from Song About the Good People, by Bertold Brecht