Thursday, July 29, 2010


Alone, this word may strike fear in the heartiest of writers. We've been trained to believe that the word criticism leads to bad things. We've even come to preface it with a term like "constructive" to soften the potential blow. But, in all honesty, in the writing world, we need to consider the word's secondary definition: the analysis and judgment of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work.

From an early age, we are molded into little approval-seeking beasts. Yes, you can play with that. No, don't eat that. Get your finger out of your nose. Therefore, it's not surprising that as we grow older, we still yearn for approval or confirmation that what we are doing is right, liked, wanted, etc. Sure, we learn forms of self approval; I can play with that, I shouldn't eat that, and nobody's looking so I'm getting that boogie out with or without a tissue. But, when it comes to an individual effort, we still often seek out the approval of others.
Some people are content to seek out one or two trusted individuals. These people require little confirmation to appease their urge for approval. They are the folks who write a novel, allow their significant other or perhaps a parent to read it, then burn it so that the words never see the light of day. Know any of those people? Yeah, me neither. As their desire for affirmation isn't great, they have no need to seek out others in order to gain approval. I am not one of those people.
During my years of college creative writing courses, I was fortunate enough to study under a Pulitzer Prize Winner. He did not give praise freely. Sure, he would pick out lines that he liked, but rarely was the time when he expressed total satisfaction in what he had read (which makes sense now, knowing that we were really just a bunch of undergraduate hacks trying to grope our way out of the darkness with a Bic lighter). So, my greatest triumph was receiving back from him a revised story (a 30-page novel wannabe that never developed beyond the 30 pages) in which he made few comments and at the end wrote: You've done it. Good job. That little blurb was enough to boost my ego for a very long time. And that's what it's all about, isn't it? Criticism isn't about what's being said (well, ok, it is…but more on that later); it's about who is saying it. Sure, your Mom reads your story and tells you it's really good. But, she also lied to you when you were in third grade when she told you that the picture you drew of her was beautiful when, in reality, it looked like a transgender purple moose with a complexion problem. But, when you want the truth, you seek out those you know will tell you the truth…even if it hurts. During this time, I also learned how to give and receive criticism. Giving may seem easy, until you have a recipient turn on you like you just smacked their child (which, in a sense, you have). In my various creative writing courses, I came across writers of all sorts. Some really talented people. A lot of mediocre people. And, inevitably, a couple of people who were downright awful at times. I learned to give both good and bad. I couldn’t just say bad things. There had to be something of merit, but often, it was a blatantly vague nicety like, “Well, I like the idea, but…” (translation: In someone else’s hands, this story might be good) or “It’s well written, but…” (there were no typos and your punctuation was clean) or, “It was a quick read, but…” (I skipped several pages…even though it was only 7 total). Which then begs the question, “Do we just want to be lied to?”
If you’re hoping to be a serious writer, the answer to that question is, obviously, no. It's important to hear honest opinions on your writing. It's good to get a broad perspective of your work. And, hopefully, the opinion isn't a one liner like, "It's good," "It's bad," or "I hated it so much I hope your fingers fall off so you can never write again." Learn to extract the important parts of criticism. Think about it this way. Have you ever read a novel that you loved every single line or chapter of? Maybe so, but I'm sure there are plenty of novels out there that you've read that have issues. We all have an opinion! I love J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. A lot of fun to read. But, I hated (ok, strongly disliked) The Half-Blood Prince. Why? Harry's a whiny little be-atch throughout most of it. But, you know what? Fifteen-year old boys can be a bit whiny. Do I want to read a whole book like that? No. Was it a part of developing Harry's character? Certainly. Do you think J.K. cares what I think about her multi-million selling book? Doubtful. But, as they say, everyone is a critic. And, even if you’re dead set against change, if you start hearing a lot of the same thing, then there might be merit to the criticism. Go back, try and take a fresh look. Try and distance yourself from it (a difficult thing when working so close for so long on some projects).
The worst kind of criticism is that which is blind to your work. I once told someone that I wanted to be an author some day. Her response was "Hah…good luck with that." Crotchety old bag. Since then I have tried my best to avoid language that might even hint at squashing someone's dreams. I used to think of it as an impossible dream. Now, I see it as merely a task to be accomplished. Heck, if Peter Benchley got published with drek like "Jaws," I think I've got a fairly good chance (it really was the first book I read that made me think…'I can do better than this'). It's not so fanciful. People who laugh at others' dreams have none of their own. They've given up. Don't let that sort of blind criticism ever drag you away from your dreams.

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