Sunday, September 23, 2007

Taking the Sting Out of Criticism’s Bite

(This is a repeat, fleshed out and edited, of some earlier blogposts on the subject. I thought it would bear repeating as some writers have expressed an interest in seeing it again.)

Writers, unless they hide their work in a closet, under the bed, or locked away in journals where it will never be read, will encounter both praise and criticism. When I was a young mother, I told stories to my kids as my mom and sister had told them to me years before. I loved stories of the family traditions and the escapades of ancestors. I wrote them down and submitted them to children’s magazines. I had the unusual fortune of having the first four or five pieces I ever wrote accepted and published. When the next piece was met with a rejection, even though the rejection was accompanied by encouraging words, I let it rock my world, topple my fragile ego, and block my muse. I didn’t write again for publication for a dozen years. Thankfully, I’ve managed to develop a thicker skin.

I don’t think I’m the only writer who has allowed criticism and rejection to stifle their creativity. Why do we do this? I think it’s because writers are a special breed—one with extraordinarily acute vision, talent, and passion—and tender ego. From the writer’s pen flows, not mere words, but an outpouring of the soul, not wholly unlike the travail—and the joy—of giving birth to a child. Inherent in that exposure of our innermost thoughts and insights is vulnerability and defensiveness of our verbal creations.

Blessed is the writer who can emerge undaunted from the paralyzing blow of sharp criticism. Naturally, our tender hearts bleed from the onslaught of arrows shot at our work—our babies. Our tender ego takes the full force of those arrows and is wounded by their sting. If we never toughened our egos, we’d never write another word. And that would be a tragedy, for criticism is not only inevitable, it is valuable, it is not only valuable, it is crucial.

In the years I have been writing, I have learned how useful criticism can be. I seek it as I'm writing. But in order to avoid letting a rejection or negative review bring creativity to a halt, as I've done in the past, I've learned that I must get beyond the defensive feelings and look closely at the criticism, measure it thoughtfully against my purpose, apply what is constructive, discard all that isn’t, and move on to write again.

Criticism has made my writing better. I give a lot of credit for the popularity of my stories to my editor, writers group members, and other critics. They see things I miss. That doesn't mean they are always right. I must keep in mind that no one knows the characters, plot, and purpose as well as I. It’s important to keep my purpose, as well as my audience in mind and gauge suggestions and criticisms against it.

Monica Wood says in her book, The Pocket Muse that “every writer needs two critics, one who gives only praise and another who never ever lies.” I have found that there are other categories of critics a writer must identify and deal with as well.

The love-everything reader is nice to have, and I agree that the encouragement of family and friends who love everything I write goes a long way toward keeping a positive attitude.

The gently discerning listener is, I believe to be the most helpful. In my writers group, I have the support of people who never lie, but they tell the truth in the most gentle and supportive way, qualifying with an “I may be wrong,” so that it hardly feels like criticism at all.

The viewpoint of the blunt but honest stranger, who points out the flaws in my work, may be harder to take, but has sometimes affected improvements in my writing. But don’t confuse them with the next one.

Unfortunately a writer stands a large chance of encountering the nasty and adversarial critic—one who, for reasons we may never know—seems bent on tearing the writer and her work apart, apparently taking personal umbrage.

There is also the clueless critic, who, though he may harbor no malice, just doesn’t get it, but because of their own experiences, beliefs, or biases, finds fault where there is none.

It’s up to the writer to sort it all out. Not quite as easily said as done, especially when our tender egos get in the way of objectivity. It’s hard not to take criticism of our work as an attack on our personhood. Because we pour our souls into our work, we have a hard time separating ourselves from our creations. I remind myself in the face of criticism to tell myself, repeatedly, if necessary, that the critic isn’t saying “You're a horrible person and a terrible writer;” to look instead at what they are saying. (If they are attacking your personhood, the critic along with the critique should be summarily dismissed.)

Then I step away and let it jell for a while. It is much easier to be objective when I come back later to study the critique. Then I review what I know of the characters, the plot, the purpose, and direction of my story and then examine the criticisms and suggestions of the reviewer or editor with an open mind—to see whether they are valid or not. I use what supports and enhances, and disregard what doesn’t fit. Many blunders, long boring passages, and inconsistencies have been pared from my work thanks to the honest and thoughtful critics who care about my writing.

I have come to appreciate and rely on “critics” as I write my stories. It is far better to write and be criticized, than not to write at all—or to write in a closet and never let your words see the light of day, for how can that help the world?

4 comments:

Janet Grace Riehl said...

Janet, I like what you've done with this piece. Isn't it interesting how we've seen your ideas and words develop from listserve posts to Riehlife posts to this insightful and articulate post here? I'd say you have a fully developed article now that could be sent out to a writers magazine.

I suffer exceedingly from criticism that I consider to be clumsy or mean spirited or unthinking. I like your Clueless Critic distinction very much.

Personally I've always done better with a Writing Partner than with a Writing Group. I can easily accept that person's comments and suggestions, because it's in the form of an easy conversation.

Janet Riehl

Anonymous said...

Janet,

Personally I had a hard time accepting criticism when I began to write my first novel, which you reviewed just before this blog. It wasn't that the criticism was unwarranted or nasty, but I was afraid that my book wasn't good enough to publish. I had lots of encouragement throughout the process along with criticism, so I eventually developed a thick skin. Once I did that, my book moved along much faster. And better.

Understanding that most people meant well and wanted me to succeed helped me overcome my fear. Then I found that the most helpful criticism came from friends and family who truly dissected the book gramatically and in terms of content. It made all the difference.

I think it may be difficult for some critics to face the author with their criticism if the're a friend or family member. I try to keep that in mind as I accept criticism. I learned through the writing process how important the "Acknowledgement" page is in a book. Those people truly are wonderful.

Beth Hodder

Jayme Schaak said...

Nana,

I think you should publish your blog. You have an amazing and poetic way of putting words on paper. Especially for such a serious situation. I really think that young writers (meaning new to writing) should read this before they ever submit any work to a publisher. That way they don't follow in your steps, and learn from you. They wont be affraid to pick up that pen after they have received that harsh, ego damaging criticism. I think I knew that about you, that you didn't write for a long time after they declined your work, but I don't think I put it together. I didn't think their criticism was the reason you didn't write. I thought it was because you didn't have time. You were becoming a mother all over again with your grandkids and I just thought you were busy with that. Anway, I am very glad we were on that ski lift together and I said, "Grandma tell me a story."

Jayme

Janet Muirhead Hill said...

Jayme,
I am glad, too, Jayme. I never tire of telling kids how my Miranda and Starlight series began—with my granddaughter, Jayme's request to "tell me a story."
Thousands and thousands of children have benefited from the stories that resulted from your request. Several have told me that it has made them love reading when they didn't like to read before.

You can take some credit for that for helping me get started writing and publishing. It's true I was very busy during those many years I didn't write for publication, and I often used that as an excuse. But to be truly honest, I did let that simple rejection stop me from writing for way too long.

I am going to be speaking to 565 kids in an elementary school in Loveland, Colorado next Monday, and I will be telling them about your contribution to the story and all the ways you are like Miranda of the "Miranda and Starlight" books.
The purpose of my visit is to encourage reading and writing. Is there anything you'd like me to relate to them from your viewpoint?

Love, Nana