Critique Part 1 supplement — What is the piece about?

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One of the important lessons students take from an art workshop is that their work might miss the intended mark.   Thus, the first response fellow workshop members might make is to address the question, “What is this piece about?”

The question will be addressed differently according to art form. In my nonfiction writing workshops, I invite students to use the framework presented by Vivian Gornick in her book The Situation and the Story.

Every work of literature has both a situation and a story.  The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.  

— Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story, p. 13

Thus, when my students comment on a piece by one of their classmates, they are asked to begin by identifying the situation and the story.  They have an easier time identifying the situation, which might be as simple as . . .  

“The narrator, a high-school senior, goes with her family to Thanksgiving at her grandparents’ house, and a big argument about politics and family history breaks out.”

They have a harder time identifying the story.   I ask them to describe the arc of the narrator’s insight.  Something like . . .  

“The narrator braces herself for a holiday with the family, especially given her tense relationship with her father.  He has always been critical of her, most recently about her plans for college.  Over the course of the weekend, she sees her father bracing himself for his encounter with his own parents.  Never before has she taken note of how much criticism they dish out to her father or of how much her attachment to her grandparents might reflect a sense of mutual alliance against her father.  By the end of the weekend, when she rides back home with her parents, she wonders whether these discoveries into her father’s psyche will inspire renewed connection or simply enlightened detachment.”

Or perhaps . . .

“I couldn’t find the story.  I wasn’t sure if what the narrator was describing was a series of revelations about her father or her evolving plans for life after high school.”

When students dig out and articulate the story (or report on the absence of a clear story), their critiques reflect a more organized understanding of the piece’s successes and problems.  More importantly, the process of asking and answering the question “What is this piece about?” drills into them the fact that their readers will be attempting to answer the same question. 

Thank you for reading.