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Criticism and Its Discontents

Criticism and Its Discontents

I didn’t learn how to handle criticism from a writing workshop.

I’ve been in many workshops in different places, with different writers as teachers, but not one resulted in a solid understanding of what to do with criticism when it feels non-constructive.

Frankly, I’m still not especially skillful when taking criticism. Yet, born with an excess of both imagination and sensitivity, I’ve been considering how best to react to criticism from all angles my whole life. Often, our most forceful opinions are about whatever things we've struggled to master, rather than what's been dropped in our laps.

Let's back up a little. In my late teens, I submitted a revenge story, The Pirate King, about a teenager assaulted by the boy her grandfather was mentoring, to Seventeen Magazine. The editor liked the story, but found the ending “a little hard.” I spent years futilely trying to untangle what she meant to fix this story, but it's only twenty-five years later, as a critic, after I stopped caring, that I understand what she meant by that.

Studio classes in the visual arts, by contrast, were not about cultivating this type of dangerous solitude.  Year after year, I spent all-nighters making stuff in gigantic concrete studios under fluorescent lights and then hearing mixed interpretations of my work the next morning in group critiques that could be fairly humiliating. Unlike with the rejection of The Pirate King and other short stories, I learned to recover swiftly from rejection because I knew all those critics. They weren't anonymous. They weren't powerful authorities. They were merely fellow travelers in art with divergent points of view. I'd spent all night making alongside them. They liked me; they still might not like what I made.

But, in a critique that still haunts me, in my last year of studying art, my honors thesis adviser told me one of the shadow boxes I’d made was not up to snuff.

I’d phoned it in, he said with sharp irritation. I needed to step up my game. He'd always sandwiched comments about what he disliked in gentle praise. I was unprepared for his tough love mode. It reminded me of my parents. He was right, of course. I'd taken on too much: two honors thesis projects, a triple major. My schedule was bananas. Art is not like academic subjects where you consume knowledge and then need to alchemize it quickly. With creative work, you need to give yourself serious inner dream space. I didn't get that yet.

Stewing over his critique, I realized I might never be great. I might not be talented. I had taken blows to my ego for ten years as a painter, but I could no longer get up and go again.

But failing hard as a visual artist and chucking it all as is my tendency was a strange boon for my fiction writing. I never wanted to experience the embarrassment of knowing I had half-assed anything creative again, so I came to the page with all of myself, every single time.

Yet, over the last five years, I’ve still received reviews I believe misunderstood my fiction in a drastic, aggressively anti-textual way. My intentions haven't mattered. Even after receiving a measure of acceptance, there have still been punches that drew blood.

Turns out, there is no point at which you’re immunized from disappointing feedback in a genuinely creative life.

Here are five considerations when facing responses to your work that make you want to give up:

1. Of course, you want people to fall in love with your writing. Sometimes critical judgments are made over a couple of days. Your vision percolated for months or years. Someone with no vision or interpretive skill can get a byline and, in a flash, tear your work (and you, in some cases) down in public. Emotionally, it's like being stripped while in the ring. To get back up, it can be helpful to remember reviews — any kind of feedback — is simply information. XYZ person didn’t connect for XYZ reason.

If many people are not connecting, you've come to a fork in the road. You have to choose — and it is a choice, not a given. You can conclude the response is meaningful and make different creative choices next time. Or you can decide a reader with these values is not for you. You shouldn't wallow in the criticism. You can't shift with every breeze to try to please a person who will never love your book, your art, your music.

2. Making a choice when you come to a fork in the road might be more fraught when you belong to a culture or community other than the dominant one. Some people, especially critics, hate to hear this, but interpreting subtext in an intelligent way in our multiracial, multicultural society does require a reader to have a rudimentary understanding that life is experienced differently based on the communities in which you grew up and live, and that this affects what you make.  

As a creative person who decides to stay in the game you need to learn how to subtract any critiquer's background and feedback from the equation; this is not a skill writers possess instinctively or can learn through academic classes focused on theory. Each critique is unique with its own agglomeration of factors to consider.

3. Stay calm and remain polite in the face of criticism. Nothing spells sad desperation like a defensive posture. Is it a little WASP-y to stay perfectly calm? Is it maybe an upper middle-class thing to pretend you don't have big feelings? Yes. And yes. Still, maintaining elegant impulse-control in your public reactions can save you from getting lost in the dank woods of, why doesn’t anybody love the stuff I’m making, oh my god, that means they don’t love me, oh no, I need to flee this work for something that provides me with a clear return of dopamine.

4. That said, find writers or other creative people you can trust to disclose your real, less filtered reactions. Nothing is lonelier than not being able to express your truth ever for fear of not connecting with the other person. I have been there. Many writers became writers not only because they loved books, but also in order to express the things they weren’t finding in them, yet ached to see. I certainly did.

Don’t make everyone this friend. Take notice if what you entrusted gets back to people you would have preferred that those comments not reach. Otherwise, things can quickly go south in terms of gossip—a handful or two of trustworthy creative friends to kvetch to works fine.

5. Whatever critique you receive is not necessarily for you as an artist. Trying to figure out what you could do to avoid rejection and pain the next time you make something can kill the creative impulse.

You learn to tell the difference between what’s for you and not for you over years of practice. Don’t waste time trying to figure out whether a critic thinks you’re talented in a broad sense. Who cares? Critics are simply fellow travelers interested in text.

What I needed after receiving criticism, what you might need, was to tune out the noise. Get back to work.

I am gathering interviews about the Bay Area prior to 2010. I also remain open to answering questions and giving advice to those who wish to remain anonymous. anitafelicelli AT gmail.com.