Let’s think about this criticism thing…

Yesterday I had the most wonderful time at a writer’s group. I was productive, ate great quiche, met other writers, and enjoyed being with other people who spend all day writing or thinking about writing.

Best of all, after working, we took turns reading some of what we’d written: two memoirs, a poem, a YA novel, and my nonfiction. And then we all commented on each other’s work.

This is where my warm fuzzies went a little cold.

How do you feel about criticism? Even criticism you have asked for?

One particular point they made stung for a while. It made me realize, first, how out of practice I am at taking constructive criticism. They pointed out a distracting detail in the story that starts my last chapter. At first, I couldn’t even understand what they were saying, and flashed back to the early stages of my book’s reading committee — 10 brave people who volunteered to read my book by email, chapter by chapter. When I saw the committee’s edits, I thought I’d sent files around for 10 different books, none of them the one I wrote. What were they talking about?

Criticism Insight #1: It’s all about them.

People read their own stuff into your stuff. When they criticize you, it has everything to do with them. The trick is, if you are writing for a broad audience, you do have to write flexibly enough to handle all their stuff, too. So while it’s good to remember that they are talking about their side of the fence, not yours, it’s also important to listen to what they have to say.

Criticism Insight #2: We tend to notice criticism over praise.

When I got home and reread my notes, their constructive ideas finally made sense. I made the edit. Then I remembered they also gave me great compliments: “I like how the book talks about healing in such a positive light.” “I like to hear your enthusiasm.” “That is a great story!”

I received that.

Criticism Insight #3: Even when you’re brilliant, people can complain about something.

Then I started thinking… If I brought a page of Faulkner, Hemingway, Twain, or Joyce to a writer’s group, read it and asked for critiques, I would get them! One of the readings we heard was so good, all I could find was one word that confused me. But I did find something. In fact, I feel bad that I did not emphasize how brilliant it was.

If you ask for critique, you get critique, even on masterful writing. Art is not set in stone. There are no right answers. Everyone would do it a little differently. Writers are notorious for changing (and changing and changing) their own work. Of course you can critique the masters — people earn PhDs doing so, but those writers are still masters for a reason.

Criticism insight #4: With practice, you can get a lot out of constructive criticism.

You asked for it, you got it. And you asked because you wanted to make your art better. Let go, listen, and have fun with it. See what others have to say. (Nobody said you had to take their criticisms, after all. One particular member of my committee clearly didn’t understand the kind of book I was writing, so most of their comments were inappropriate, and I moved on.) Constructive criticism is a resource for better art, for you, and for healing yourself, too, when you look at what catches you or ignites strong emotions.

All told, I cannot wait to back to the next writer’s brunch! What are you doing to take your art and healing to the next level?

© 2012 Daria Boissonnas

1 Comment
  1. More ‘fan mail from some flounder’… (Thinking you just might be old enough to catch that reference!)

    I’ve been given many items – articles, stories, books – to critique over the years, mainly because I’m good at copy editing, but also because I explain the reasoning behind the feedback, be it technical or personal observation from a writer’s perspective. I’m amazed that so many authors are as gracious as you in receiving constructive criticism — while I can dish it out, I am not so good at taking it.

    Thanks for the encouragement to improve on that.