You know the feeling; someone critiques your writing, and you flash them the evil eyes while thinking, “You complete moron! You’ve missed the point of my piece entirely, and of course you did– you’re an idiot and I hate everything you’ve written anyways, so what do you know?”
First you wish them bodily harm, then you start scheming your revenge, and then, finally, you think to yourself, “Hmmm. Maybe they have a point?”
The other day I posted a link to an article from the Poetry Foundation about the worth of MFA programs. While I’ve never been “officially” enrolled in any creative writing program, I did take three MFA workshop classes in poetry as a post baccalaureate at Portland’s lovely State University when my schedule (and $$!!!) allowed.
Each course was well worth my time and money, and provided all the usual things you’d hope for: expanded horizons, motivation, encouragement from a community of writers, mentorship from an established poet, etc. But maybe more importantly, a workshop offers you many of those “growing opportunities” where you’re expected to take criticism like an adult.
Put your big-person pants on
To keep the old cliché on life-support, we all look at our stories, poems, novels, or songs as “our babies.” In a workshop setting, people have the gall to tell you to your face that your baby is ugly.
Ideally, we come to see this criticism as a kind of kindness. If their intentions are pure (it’s a competitive world, no?) what your classmates/editors/friends/writing-partners are REALLY telling you is this: “Your baby has the potential to be cute; just brush it’s tooth and cut that nasty mullet and scrub the dirt off its chin first.”
Maybe you still think your baby looks cute. If so, great– let that baby rock the mullet. But maybe you never noticed the dirt on its chin because you were too busy squeezing little baby-shoes onto its adorable baby-feet. If you lost perspective along the way, criticism can help. (And by “criticism,” I simply mean an honest and in-depth critique. If someone is being mean-spirited, eject them from your creative life.)
4 tips to help you take criticism like an adult
1) Let them finish!-
The first thing I found really valuable (and uncomfortable, at first) about the workshop experience was the practice of staying quiet until everyone has had their turn to discuss your work.
You have to shut up. You sit there for 30 minutes while the class praises this particular line, eviscerates that one, hates this title, loves that image, calls the work “simple,” “obtuse,” “overly abstract,” “cliche,” “sentimental,” etc. (And hopefully a lot of nice words, too!)
Your forced silence allows you to hear each person’s critique without launching into a heated defense of your every word-choice.
While you’re quiet, you can see what kind of consensus or disagreement forms about your work. Did everyone miss the point? Well then, maybe you didn’t do a good enough job of MAKING that point.
2) No snap decisions-
As you listen to someone critique your work you’ll have one of three possible healthy responses:
- Wow! They’re so right. I can’t believe I never saw that problem before. I can’t believe I didn’t think of that solution. I’ll take their advice right away!
- … but that is my favorite part!!! I’m NOT changing that.
- Hmmmm. I don’t know. I’m on the fence about this suggestion.
Ultimately, you’re the only one that is going to have to live with your writing decisions. If you rush into your next revision later that same day, you’ll be carrying all of the pride or insecurity from the workshop experience into that next draft too.
Wait a while. Let the criticism and praise sink in. Once the sting or flush of genius has subsided, you can approach your work with fresher eyes. For me, it helps to wait long enough that I forget exactly WHO said WHAT. Only the essence of their comments stays with me, and in a more anonymous way. Only then can I REALLY tell whether or not I agree with those comments at a gut-level.
3) Thank you, sir. May I have another?-
You’ve asked someone for their opinion. They’ve given it. Even if you don’t like what they have to say, they’ve done you the courtesy of meeting your request. That is worth your appreciation. Show it!
4) Perfection is boring-
Being able to constructively criticize is a true gift, requiring the person to be both surgical and encouraging, opinionated and open-minded. If you’ve found that kind of person or group to work with, don’t let ‘em go!
If not, keep trying– and remember that few artists ever look back on their earlier works and say, “Yep. Nailed that one. It’s perfect!” There are always flaws, perceived or otherwise. Sometimes those imperfections, scuffs, and scratches are what make the work memorable for a reader.
Don’t put the expectation of perfection on your head; it’ll crush you. The best bands still need record producers. The best writers still need editors. Don’t try to be an island. If you’re an island already, build a bridge!