This is totally inside baseball kind of stuff. Don’t want to read a post about criticism? Here’s a slideshow from Alaska instead. It’s pretty.
I made Some Random Dude mad at me last week. I posted a picture of what I thought was a travesty of an opening line from a travel piece in the Register-Guard, a paper out of Eugene, Oregon. The photo included the writer’s byline and the name of the paper.
Said line? “Recent reports of shark attacks on surfers not withstanding, there’s nothing like a visit to the coastal enclave of Seaside to rekindle one’s imagination of an early 20th century Pacific resort.”
My associated comment? “Worst opening line…. ever?”
What, exactly, was I doing wrong? I leveled some sharp public criticism at a piece of publicly available work. In a fit of weakness, I deleted the post from my Facebook page, something I now regret. It’s not that I don’t have the muscle for argument, it’s that I have a policy of not engaging when the argument is a fallacy. The defense was that the writer was respectable and hardworking, people were uncool for making fun of his work. George Lucas is respectable and hard working. The Phantom Menace still sucked.
Some Random Dude was mad because the writer’s name was exposed and I was engaging in unprofessional hatchet jobbing on that writer. The writer was a hard working guy, it was disappointing for Some Random Dude to see supposed pros piling on him like this. Another participant in the conversation suggested that I should have obscured the writer’s byline. That’s when I pulled the post. I didn’t feel like getting into it on Facebook and the whole thing was making me depressed. How is it we are so tender when it comes to criticism?
In my career as a writer, I am grateful beyond words for my art school education. If you think art school is just some feel good love fest where everyone gets to express their genius and wander out in to to the sunshine feeling great about themselves, well, you did not go to school with my professors and classmates. You did not hear, repeatedly, “Yeah, I think that’s an okay start, but you’re nowhere near done yet,” after you’d wrung yourself out and decided it was laurel resting time. You did not hear, “Uh, I totally understand the words that are coming out of your mouth, but I don’t see at all how they’re related to this work,” on a weekly basis. You did not hear, “Look, it’s basic technique, but still everyone gets it wrong. That’s why everything has turned to that awful muddy red brown. You can save it, but you’re going to have to…” You did not hear, when presenting your final body of work, the stuff you knew was good and were proud of, this: “Yeah, this is some really great work. What are you going to do now?”
I’ll never forget the first round of reviews I went through when I started writing as a full time job. What a bloodbath. And so it’s been, not quite every day, but often, for the last 15 years. My stuff gets taken apart, before press, if I’m lucky, after press (both online and in print) if I’m not. I’ve worked with bad editors who change my meaning and intent, and good ones who refine my work and make it better. I take a blow to my ego weekly. If I’m lucky, it’s a small one, just something that says, “Yeah, that’s not clear.” When I’m less lucky, it’s a rejection letter, or a painful edit that calls out every single error in my work. It stings, and you know what? It makes my work better.
I’ve learned to evaluate criticism based on the content and the source. Sometimes, people just don’t like your work. It’s not personal, it just doesn’t do anything for them. We all want people to like us, sure, but that’s a losers game. Sometimes, though, your critics are on to something. You’re rambling, you don’t have a point, your story is lost. You’ve opened a story about how great a seaside resort is with reference to shark attacks.
If I can get out of my own way when I’m on the receiving end of the critics, I will take it for what it’s worth and act accordingly. Sometimes this means making changes to my work. Sometimes it means I have to explain my choices. It’s not a bad thing to have your work questioned, and it can be quite satisfying if you have a solid grip on the answer. Other times, it’s frustrating because some editor has made hash of your story and your name is still on it. That’s the worst for me, but at least I know why it happened. When people shake me down about it, I can tell them, “Yeah, the edits. Would you like to see the original?”
Criticism takes a lot of different forms. Sometimes it’s brutally sharp and satiric, sometimes it’s snarky and fast, sometimes it’s a thoughtful deconstruction, sometimes it’s a bloodbath of rev marks and red pen. If it’s not personalized — “You’re a jerk and your work is stupid!” — than it’s worth consideration. It can also be remarkably helpful in making us better at what we do. I feel so lucky to have had both a formal education and some serious on the job training in taking criticism.
I’m guilty as charged on snark attacks and I’m probably not going to stop. I’ve been on the receiving end too. Sometimes, it hurts. But most times, I’m wearing my armor, a thick skin I acquired in university. I’m not claiming to always be successful at deflecting the barbs, not by a long shot. But I know the difference between what’s essentially a valid critique — “Uh, you might not want to start your glowing prose about the shore with shark violence” — and a personal attack. “You blog too much about blogging” is one I’ve received, in snark attack format. You know what? That’s a valid critique. It’s not personal, it focuses on my work, and it gives me something to consider. I’m okay with that.
Buck up, people. Weigh that criticism for what it’s worth. Pull your own ego out of the mix and listen to people who make good arguments, who offer valid counterpoints. You can ignore the stuff that sounds crazy or sloppy, but not every piece of criticism is invalid simply because it doesn’t support what you’re doing. Your critics could be totally wrong. If that’s the case, you’ve been given another opportunity to stand solidly behind your work. But check it out, sometimes, your critics are right. Then, you have the opportunity to do something amazing. You have the opportunity to be better.