A Martial Artist’s Approach to Critique Groups

The dojo taught us many things, not the least of which was how to get the most out of a group. We knew ourselves and the people we trained with very well. We knew who excelled at which techniques, and made sure to position ourselves and each other so that each of us could train to greatest advantage. I like to joke that in the world of martial arts, abuse is love.  If someone throws a rock at you, it’s because they want to play. We’re rough on each other, but only so that we improve. Our petty cruelties are built on a foundation of trust.

I trust that you’re strong enough to take this.

I trust that you’ll tap out when you’re not.

I trust you to know your limits, even while you fight to surpass them.

Training for my first black belt was one of the roughest and most gratifying periods of my life. There were six of us in that group. We were within a rank of each other, within a year of each other, and at that golden age when you’re just old enough to have some independence; but young enough to have no real humility. Late teens.

Each of us had a buddy who balanced us out. A shy person paired with an assertive person. A strong person paired with a fast person. My brother and I were paired off because his incredible talent and goofiness offset my crueler, harder intellect. He had a whip-chain and I had a chokuto if that helps illustrate our personality differences any further.

I’ve chilled out a lot since then, especially because of his influence, but I digress.

One afternoon, we were all released from teaching to do our own training and got to work on our forms off to the side. Each of us did a kata called Bassai Dai. When each person performed, we sat around them in a square and prepared to give critique, just as we did with the lower ranks and younger students. When we finished, we had to stand there and listen to the others pick apart our timing, stance, execution, the works. That day was the first time we had done so for each other at this rank.

As each person went up, we found that we had less and less to say. We were all at about the same level of understanding and fitness. We started to see not what the others were doing wrong, but what the others were doing differently, based on their natural movements, attitude, and body-type. A slender boy was the fastest. The tall, slightly chubby one was the strongest. “You could just flow around the mat all day,” the most senior said to me. In that group, I was the most graceful.

The best way to learn, our sensei said, was to teach. That’s because your students will force you to find the answer to questions you’ve never thought of. You start to see the technical elements. You train your perception to identify why something works, and when, and how. In a rigorously disciplined setting like a dojo, when a senior rank tells you to correct your movements, your understanding, or your attitude — you do it. Take it, and grow.

Writers, like any artists, have some part of their ego wrapped up in their work, much like that group of teenagers. For the most part, writing groups and critique groups will level out to have the same level of understanding and skill. The biggest variable is where the strengths and weaknesses are. Someone in your group is more knowledgeable of current social issues. Someone in your group is a better world-builder than the rest. Someone in your group is more attuned to emotional resonance.

I like to joke that in the world of crit, abuse is love. If someone says this section isn’t working, it’s because they want it to work. We’re rough on each other, but only so that we improve; and our petty cruelties are built on a foundation of trust.

I trust that you’re strong enough to take this.

I trust that you’ll ask questions when you’re not, or suggest we move on to the next section.

I trust you to know your limits, what you can use in your story, and what you can’t.

I’m not kind with feedback, but my group knows that if I yell at them it’s because I care. I know my strengths, and I’m discovering new weaknesses every day; but I remember those days in the dojo. I remember the bonds we built by practicing until it hurt, and then through and beyond the pain. I remember the beautiful moment when the ache transformed into understanding.

Choose your critique group wisely. Then, when they correct you, take it and grow.

“To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”
― Aristotle
“There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends.”
― Sylvia Plath

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