Learning to Take Criticism

March Word Count: 4200 (800 short of daily goal)

I’ve been meaning to post something about this since November.  I’ve been thinking about it a lot the last couple of weeks, and some recent conversations have brought it to the forefront of my mind.

I need to get better at taking criticism.  This mostly applies to writing, but it feeds into other parts of my life, too.

My greatest problem is how much I associate my self-worth with my work.  I pour myself into it.  This means that I’m passionate about it, and I really give it my all.  It also means that when I put my work in front of someone else, I’m exposed and vulnerable.

At ConVolution, I was exceptionally nervous.  I felt a little bit of nausea before the workshop met up, and I was a gibbering mess on the inside, when it got to my turn.  As each person spoke, I listened as best I could, while at the same time I was thinking, “Don’t be that guy… don’t be that guy…” When it was time for me to ask questions for clarification, I couldn’t really say much.  I said that I agreed with everything that was said, and I thanked everyone for the feedback.  I might have asked a question, but I don’t remember.  I was still trying to keep myself together.

That was probably the best I’ve done, and it was harrowing.  Since then, I’ve relaxed a little bit, but that hasn’t necessarily been good.

The time before last when the Auspicious NorCal Writer’s group met up, we reviewed a couple of chapters of my Mel Walker story, and I did not handle it well.  I had a very bad reaction to it, and I wound up creating some drama in the group.

The last time we met, my work received a very mild review.  That would be okay, except that my story was terrible.  It had pacing problems.  It had plot problems.  It was gimmicky.

I need to know when my stories don’t work, but at the same time, I need to not take the criticism so hard that my ego and self-confidence take a tumble.

Part of what’s keeping me going is a belief that I am a good writer.  It’s tenuous, though, because I don’t have any real successes that I can hang my hat on.

The only way I’m going to get better at receiving critiques is through additional trial and error.   It’s like writing itself.  If you want to improve, you have to do it, and not just talk about it.  Hopefully I haven’t broken things beyond repair with the Auspicious group.

To make the most the critiques, I think I need to provide some guidance.  When I was first asked what sort of critiques I wanted, I said, “Whatever is in your heart.” That was my answer, because I didn’t know what I wanted.  I have a slightly better set of guidelines, now.

  • If something doesn’t work, I want to know that it doesn’t work.
  • If something is good, I really want to know that it is good.  But I don’t want this fudged.  It needs to be genuine, if I’m going to be able to use this to improve.
  • I am not receptive to someone telling me how they would write my story.  This is not meant to be bitchy.  I bring this up to address my own idiosyncrasies.  When someone else tells me how they would write my story, I hear, “You’re not good enough to write this on your own, let me help you.” This is my kryptonite.
  • If we’re looking at a first draft, bear in mind that it is a first draft.  Applying analysis at a high depth might be useful, but it also might be a waste of time for everyone involved.

I think these guidelines will probably help safeguard me against myself.  There are probably other guidelines that I haven’t thought of yet, but I’m only going to learn them through continued efforts.

4 thoughts on “Learning to Take Criticism

  1. I perfectly understand where you are coming from.

    I’m someone very passionate too and what I create is a part of who I am. I am already so harsh on myself, so when someone critiques what I did my brain takes it and goes ‘Ah ha! You suck. Told you so. And now this person thinks you suck too.’ I’m even more scared when I share what I wrote with someone I love, because then if they don’t like it, I’ll feel so hurt. I think it’s very important for people like us to remind ourselves that even though we poured ourselves into our work, we are not our work. It’s only a part of who we are and a critique of it isn’t a critique of who we are. It’s not an attack, it’s not a judgment of our intellect or of our worth.

    A critique though, should be constructive, and I think that the ones that are just negative for the sake of being negative aren’t really worth listening to and working yourself over it. And yes, I agree with you, telling someone else how you would have written their story? Uh, no. I think it’s a very bad way of critiquing or giving suggestion. It just seem rude.

    How are you with taking good criticism? I have to say I am not so good with it either. I respect my husband a lot. I think he’s brilliant and so well read. And I know that he’d tell me if something didn’t work. And yet… The last story I completed he said that he really liked it, the story was good, but he felt that the ending was abrupt and that in his mind, it would need a bit more work. Good stuff and bad stuff. That’s quite alright. The problem is that hearing that, a part of me thinks that he’s just being nice because he doesn’t want to hurt me. If I don’t like what I wrote then surely he shouldn’t. No one should.
    I don’t think I’ll ever been perfectly content with anything I have done. I’ll always find faults with it. So in that case, isn’t an outside opinion more valid than mine?

    I think it’s good guidelines to give to whoever will critique you. But more than knowing if something is good or something is bad, you want to know why. Why does it works or doesn’t work for others. Well, if you are giving your stuff to read to writing groups, they probably tell you the why but friends and family might not.

  2. It sounds like you and I have similar inner demons.

    I struggle with accepting good criticism, too. I find fault with all of my work, and my inner editor is so vocal sometimes that it’s hard for me to believe anyone would see something positive in my work.

    That was how I used to operate, anyway. In my efforts to try and be a little bit more kind to myself, I’ve become a little bit better at ignoring the inner editor when he’s being too unreasonable, and allowing that other people might legitimately enjoy what I write, without offering praise just to be nice. It’s not something that comes naturally to me. I still have to think about it. But it has become a little bit easier with practice.

    When dealing with why something works or doesn’t work for someone, that’s where you can ask clarifying questions and invite the additional detail. A lot of times, I don’t need to ask. My inner editor is a raging asshole, but he’s also really good at pointing out true problems with my work. When someone tells me that something doesn’t work for them, I’ve probably already tortured myself a little bit over what they’re referring to. I have very rarely been surprised at being told about a section that didn’t work, and that’s not just pessimism or self deprecation.

  3. Well, it seems your inner editor isn’t such a bad guy then… sometimes he’s useful! 😉
    I was kinda surprised when my husband told me he found the ending too abrupt. I like when short stories end on a punch or a twist and wrap up quickly. I’ll have to go back and read it again once I’m more detached from it, or seek different opinions to see if it’s just a matter of taste or if there’s really something to it.

    I wish I knew how to be kinder to myself, to find a way to stop or at least dim that nagging voice in my head.

    • A few years ago, I went to see a therapist to try and deal with my depression. It helped quite a bit, and I try to continue to use some of the things I learned during that time.

      I’ve always been really hard on myself. My therapist asked me why, and I didn’t have a good answer. He asked if I ever talked to myself, and suggested that I give it a try.

      A few days later, I was in my car and I found myself berating myself.

      I said, “Why do you do this?”

      To my surprise, I had an answer. “Because I care, and want more from you.”

      It was kind of a schizophrenic moment, to be honest, but I got it. I’m hard on myself because I care about what I’m doing. I want to be the best person I can be, and in my haste, I treat myself more harshly than I would every treat anyone else, because I know that I could do better. I can always do better.

      I thought about it, and I knew that the pressure I put on myself helped to a certain point, but passed that, it was a hindrance. Then I was able to back off on myself a little bit, and give myself a break from time to time.

      I’m still high strung, but these days I try to love myself a bit more than I used to. That helps dull the blade of my tongue.

      I’m still harsh with my work, but like you said… sometimes the inner editor can be useful.

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