The Milford Method, Reconsidered

The Milford Method of critiquing has become so ubiquitous at writer’s conferences that it’s become the default. It’s also terribly flawed, and it needs serious reconsideration.

There’s a lot to be said for the Milford Method, of course. Let’s pretend there’s a brand-new writer who’s never attended a critique group before. He has his short story pages. He’s absolutely sure they’re the best thing ever, and once he’s corrected a typo or two, it’ll be a straight shot from here to the New Yorker. He’s got his degree (or whatever), he’s read some classics, and there’s not a chance his work is anything less than brilliant.

According to Milford, writer-dude takes his place in the circle and the other writers in attendance take turns giving him feedback, offering both praise and suggestions. He has to stay quiet and must not argue. Good thing, right? Writer-dude needs to learn how to listen, and humility’s an easier pill to swallow if you don’t embarrass yourself by arguing back before you’ve had a chance to consider the criticisms. The moderator finishes up with what is (one assumes) a more authoritative critique, and writer-dude finally gets to respond with thanks and maybe some more questions. Then writer-dude can go off and ditch the critique, or not. Hopefully, he’ll make revisions, and maybe someday the New Yorker is not out of sight.

It’s good to be forced to listen.

Here’s another scenario, however. A person of marginalized identity – let’s say, a non-binary writer, or a writer of color with a disability – also attends the critique group. They’ve already crossed into a space in which they feel foreign. They’re sharing work that’s specific to their experience, but not shared by anyone else in the circle. Their work gets hammered because nobody else finds it credible or honest. “I don’t see how a character in a wheelchair could pilot a spaceship,” says one person, and there are nods. The writer has to listen. It keeps going.

After, the writer has their chance to respond, but – according to the description of Milford that I linked to above, and to the standards typically applied – the writer should “avoid defensive explanations, justifications, synopses or clarifications about the story.” So the writer has to contend with a heap of problematic critiques, and may not defend themselves. The critique group becomes not so much a helpful tool as a trial by fire, a means of toughening up the writer, thickening their skin against abuse – or else weakening them until they decide there’s no place in the community for them.

These are both examples on the extreme, but how many of us have experienced snarky critiques and had no recourse? I’ve had a guy really run roughshod over my work before because he “will never be able to relate to a story about a mother and a daughter,” as if we’re some alien species, or as if I haven’t read countless stories about boys coming of age, or about fathers and sons, or about men and their troubles in love, etc. Milford put me in a position of having to just listen, and what could I say?

I’ve also had a recent Milford critique experience in which I broke the rules at the end. The chapters that I brought to the group engage with questions of faith. After the rest of the attendees had finished their critiques, the two moderators took their turn, and each took significant issue with my treatment of religion, with the clear assumption that I don’t know anything about the religious experience (if the singular can even be used). One moderator wondered aloud if I knew anything about religion, or if I’d spoken to anyone who is religious. The second spoke a bit angrily, remarking that speculative fiction has for decades treated religion as intellectually inferior and regarded atheism as ascendant.

Then it was my turn to respond.

I explained that the work at hand was in many ways a response to a crisis of faith I’d experienced following a very difficult stretch of time. Turns out, I am a member of a faith community (although if you’re wondering, I really don’t know exactly what I believe, which is basically just being honest because nobody really does, we’re all just working through stuff). I took some comparative religion courses in undergrad, and I’ve attended services from a variety of faith traditions, both in an academic context and as a personal guest. I am actively reading works of theology, in part to give nuance to how I depict characters of faith in my work, but also to try and understand more about myself and the world around me.

Both of the moderators – for whom I continue to have only the highest respect – backed off their critique of my handling of religion. It was a case in which, I believe, they’d each brought their own context to the two chapters, and when they didn’t see their own experience reflected, they reacted negatively. They assumed that, like most people writing in the speculative fiction space, I had no experience of religion.

That isn’t to say they were wholly wrong in their remarks. I’ve since returned to the chapters with an eye to see how I can clarify certain moments and at least delay a religious reader’s knee-jerk negative reaction until later in the story, when more texture is revealed.

However, had I said nothing, they would have carried their assumptions about my work and about me forward for the remainder of the conference and beyond. In fact, I believe my later interactions with them were better for my having spoken up and explained my own context. Our conversation about the work was better for it, and I learned more from them.

Milford muzzles people. Sometimes that’s okay, but sometimes it’s really not.

So what are the alternatives?

I come from a theater background. In my community, we’re strongly influenced by the many graduates of a particular MFA program who have either stuck around or returned. The standard for staged readings around here is that you have some actors read the script. There’s a strong moderator, often a director or dramaturg, who actively guides the conversation. Audience members respond to the moderator’s questions – such as “What do you remember most?” or “What was confusing?” – rather than launch their feedback in a free-for-all. The moderator also ensures that the playwright doesn’t go off on the audience afterwards or some other really awkward and embarrassing scene that everyone will sooner or later regret. The audience members also talk to one another during the discussion and may even debate a point among themselves.

The playwright is forced to listen, but the playwright is also protected.

Mary Robinette Kowal’s ABCD method offers another, very different option that I’ve voluntarily adopted when critiquing other people’s work. You mark A for awesome, B for bored, C for confused, or D for disbelief, to mark your reactions, and that’s pretty much it. That’s a totally different direction, but it’s worth considering.

So many writer’s groups and conferences have inadvertently carried forward the practices of an earlier era when half of being a writer was showing how thick a skin you could grow, and how big of a passive-aggressive asshole you could be. In some places, that’s still the dominant mode.

It doesn’t have to be. What’s gained by proving how tough you are? How’s the work better because you’ve survived a truly cutting takedown and kept your mouth shut?

Just like drinking yourself stupid every time you sit down to work is perhaps counterproductive, so is voluntarily walking into a situation in which you are defenseless. The alternative doesn’t have to mean listening to new writers protest that nobody understands their work and they aren’t reading correctly. There are other ways of critiquing that build a writer and their work up while still preserving the act of listening that’s so vital to growing as a writer and as a person.

Books on the Shelf 1.2

This is the second installment of my aptly-named series “Books on the Shelf,” in which I take any title or object from one of my lovingly alphabetized shelves and write a short response.

Cervantes to Defoe
Completed ratio: 8 of 19

Can you make out the title of the second book from the right? It’s Peter Ho Davies’s The Ugliest House in the World. It’s a very approachable collection of short stories that I purchased in college with a $50 gift card to Borders that I won as part of a poetry reading contest my sophomore(?) year.

It is a fortunate thing that I do not have the poem any longer, because I am positive it doesn’t deserve the internet knowing about it. It was written in response to a prompt from my actual Poetry Writing class, which was to write a poem “about a place you’ve never been.” I wrote what at the time seemed like a silly, humorous poem (but if it still existed somewhere might just be full-on terrible) about the teacher’s lounge, and I somehow rhymed “teachers” with “what we’d do behind the bleachers,” and one of the student judges told me after the fact that it was this line that won the contest for me.

Oh, undergrad!

As for the class, I think I got a B. I was an irritating, arrogant, and naive thing to have in a poetry writing class. The professor happened to be a short, arrogant, and somewhat sexist fellow, and a total jerk to have teaching a poetry class. I wrote a poem that used the word “dodecahedron” in it (do not ask me why), and he graded it poorly, in part because of something having to do with the soft “e” sound in the second-to-last syllable but also because that’s dumb. Instead of rolling with it, I went up to my short, arrogant, and somewhat sexist professor, and told him that the second-to-last syllable in fact has a hard “e”. The following class meeting, he caught me afterwards and told me that yes, the word does have a hard “e”, that he’d looked it up in four separate dictionaries. Why on earth he didn’t trust the first one, I don’t know any more than I know why I wrote a poem with the word “dodecahedron” in it.

You can see how we’re all at fault here.

As a further insult to the world of poetry, my teacher’s lounge poem earned me $50 in gift money. This is more than a lot of really excellent poets can say, thus supporting the theory that there is a near-total lack of justice in the world. With that gift card, I purchased Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Jean Rhys’s Voyage in the Dark, and Peter Ho Davies’s The Ugliest House in the World, which has a lovely and touching short story called “Release” that revolves around a big fart unleashed at a dinner of British army officers at the dawn of the 20th century.

I can think of no better way to end this story than with the secondhand story of a literary fart. Cheers!

Books on the Shelf 1.1

I am the only person I know who alphabetizes her private library. I do it with a sheer and unrelenting joy. I know how to find things, and I don’t have to remember where they are. Oh, you want to borrow my copy of Night Circus? Here you go! Feel like looking up that passage from Huckleberry Finn? Look how easy that was.

It’s pretentious as eff, which only makes me enjoy it more. Y’all can keep your disorganized, “but I just know where they are” bookshelves. Not me. God invented the alphabet for a reason, damn it.

Anyway. This is the first installment of my aptly-named series “Books on the Shelf.” I’m going to take advantage of my amazing organizational system (aka the alphabet) by going through each of my 18 shelf rows and picking a topic from each to discuss. Could I do this with chaotic, randomly compiled shelves? Sure, but it would be less fun. When I finish, I’ll start over again, because I will have certainly shifted my collection a bit since then.

Let’s get started. Ready? Shelf one! What do we have here?

Adams through Carroll
Completed ratio: 11 of 23

Crap. She had to come at the front of the alphabet.

I can’t gloss over Marion Zimmer Bradley. I would rather talk about how much I love Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons, or about my friend Brenner’s bizarre pamphlet “Five Steps to Greater Joy in a World of Sorrow,” but there’s an elephant on the bookshelf.

I got Mists of Avalon and The Forest House years ago, before Bradley’s actions became widely known within the SF/F community. I may have purchased Mists of Avalon myself; I worked at a bookstore in high school and made generous use of the employee discount. The Forest House was a gift I requested, if memory serves.

I understand that her publisher continues to sell the titles and has arranged for the proceeds to go to charities supporting victims of abuse. (I’m open to being fact-checked here.)

I did not reread Mists in advance of writing this post. What I recall are its effects on me when I first read it as a teenager and then again in my 20s. I recall discovering female characters in epic fantasy who were central, defined, and powerful, which were in short supply in the 1980s and 90s. I recall a treatment of female sexuality that was empowering because it was real. I recall characters that were flawed in recognizable ways that broadened my understanding of humanity.

And yet, look at what its author did.

Everyone must decide for themselves what to do with the creative work of abusers and bigots. I am fortunate; I have not suffered abuse at the hands of a relative or trusted friend. It’s easy for me to say that we should not dismiss the work of a flawed creator. While it’s true that if we chuck all the books written by dangerous or damaging people, our bookshelves would be pretty sparse (Lewis Carroll’s just a few inches down, after all), it’s also true that if I had experienced abuse, I’d likely feel stung at the very presence of works deemed “genius” by people who didn’t seem to care about the suffering of others.

Is there something selfish in holding onto these books that I have loved? Yes, I suppose so. It’s also true that I won’t be able to read them again without remembering how its author caused deep hurt to other human beings. Something’s spoiled, and perhaps that’s as it should be.

I have other books by other problematic writers on other shelves. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s story strikes pretty close to home, though, because she worked within a genre space in such a way that gave inspiration and joy to so many, and she boldly advanced feminist writing. Feminists and child abuse? What? But we do ourselves no credit if we dismiss the harm done by once-beloved figures. We also risk causing further harm if we believe our value communities to be immune from sheltering the sorts of people who would hurt those who cannot speak for themselves.

I don’t intend to make this blog into a place for politics or fighting or the kind of anger that cancels people or provokes further outrage. However, as many other artists have observed before, all art is political. Not mentioning Bradley’s work and deeds, or hiding them from my shelf long enough to take a picture, or destroying all evidence that the world was ever fooled by the front she allegedly put up, are all choices that one can make. So is keeping the work that’s spoiled, to remind us that even our heroes might be rotten.

Here are a few charities I’ve found that support victims of child abuse:

What Happens at Viable Paradise

Hi! If you’ve landed here—which also happens to be the inaugural post on my blog—I’d guess it’s because you’re thinking of applying to Viable Paradise, you’ve been accepted to Viable Paradise, or someone you know has been accepted, and you’d like to know what it is.

The Viable Paradise website does a great job of telling you what specifics to expect. Even so, the distance between “you will receive a writing assignment” and staying up late Wednesday night with a dozen other writers in the common room to finish a draft is full of many feelings.

I’ll take a stab at describing what I experienced at Viable Paradise 23. It’s an unapologetically incomplete picture, but with any luck it will convey some of the flavor.

My week at Viable Paradise started off with a little challenge, in that I arrived with acute laryngitis. It actually happens every time I get sick, and I was on the mend from a cold when I arrived on Martha’s Vineyard. Not what I’d hoped for!

By the time I met my Viable Paradise cohort on Sunday night, I could barely say my name loud enough to be heard in the acoustically challenging common room. Forget about projecting enough to tell a joke or ask a question. What’s more, at Viable Paradise, there is (reportedly) a lot of singing late at night—but not for me! Couldn’t sing a lick. I was kaput.

There are, mildly put, worse things. Still, though. I would have liked to have had some conversations. Instead I’d try to introduce myself, and people would look at me with huge eyes and ask if they could fetch me a throat lozenge or a cup of tea.

Writing tip: If you want to show that a character is kind, perhaps have them offer a throat lozenge or a cup of tea.

Oh, but look: if you take someone (me) who tends to talk too much and force her to listen, guess what? She listens!

I mean, duh, of course that’s good, that listening thing. Really, though, it was healthy to be thrown off my game at the first of the week, because guess what: the whole week is an exercise in stepping out of your comfort zone. Yes, there are critiques and lectures and exercises and opportunities to visit with instructors privately and more. But Viable Paradise was the first time a lot of us had found ourselves in the company of so many other strong writers with such great imaginations, for that long a stretch. That is both the most wonderful thing in the world, and also terrifying. It’s time to abandon all those ideas you had when you were first doing this in the corner of your bedroom (or wherever) and you had the safety of nobody knowing about it. Now it’s time to engage with the community for real.

A lot of the beauty of it has to do with your cohort, which I can pretty much guarantee will be filled with interesting people of different backgrounds (just to sample a few). The Viable Paradise grads on staff work hard to ensure that each VP class gets the same positive experience that they did. That means looking out for people’s physical and emotional health and setting a tone of positive collaboration. By the time the week is over, that group of 24 good writers becomes a cohort prepared to support and cheer one another on into the future.

The week didn’t get anybody signed with an agent. (There were no agents there, so…) The week didn’t see anyone selling their novels to a big-five publisher. But it was about learning craft and building positive relationships with an excellent group of writers.

Now, me being mostly silent for those first few days is not the only way I would have figured all this out. But thanks to all that listening-not-talking, it was immediately apparent that while all of us at Viable Paradise are passionate strivers and dedicated dreamers, we can also do it together as friends and colleagues. So apply to Viable Paradise, and go. Fundraise if you have to. (Some people in our class had to get creative with funding. It’s okay. Don’t let that stop you from applying.) If you go, go with the goal of sharing with kindness. It’ll be worth it—even if you can’t talk.