Criticism and rejection are the best parts of becoming a writer or other artist.
I know. That’s insane.
Even as I write this, I am avoiding re-reading critiques I recently received. I am avoiding it like I avoided driving down the icy road where my van slid and almost tipped over the edge of a cliff last January.
Before I read the feedback the first time, I told my son I was afraid to open the documents I had paid two editors to write about my book. I had the sense that they hovered like the howlers from Harry Potter–red envelopes sent by angry parents that would scream at me.
When I finally opened them, I did hear some screaming.
If I never wrote or taught a class, I might go through life without asking for honesty about my work, and I wouldn’t now be shivering at the thought of taking another look at the howlers in my inbox.
I don’t have much trouble asking for input. The agony comes afterward.
When I ask for feedback, someone often tells me.
Many of my sweet ESL students did not. They would write things on my evaluations like, “Karrie is so beautiful!” I adored them for this but couldn’t exactly improve my classroom skill based on that information.
People born in America are not this way.
Often they tell me what they think.
Some try to say it gently.
Some tell me the stinging truth because they sincerely want to help.
And some burn and sizzle me with cruel words like internet trolls or American-born students drunk on the power of anonymously sticking it to the teacher in a class evaluation.
All of this is valuable. Not all that they say is valuable, of course. Some of it is total trash.
But facing the fear of personal rejection–that is valuable. My squeaky ego would much rather guess at what others think. She pretends sometimes that she doesn’t need to read critiques because she already knows what is wrong.
My squeaky ego doesn’t know. She can’t. She’s too wrapped up in herself and her own emotions.
Learning to push my ego to the back seat, pick myself up off my carpeted office floor, and take the next step teaches me a hard core resilience.
If I can read criticism, take what I need and toss the trash, I will be able to face other terrifying things I need to overcome. It’s the only way I know to stretch and learn and grow as an artist and as a human being on the spinning planet.
Here is a method you can use to get through reading your own critiques. I am currently stuck at step five on my latest howlers.
How to Read a Critique
- See that the critique is there. Think on it and work yourself up to opening the doc or the envelope. (Thinking about howlers and how they only get worse if you wait can be helpful.)
- Know that you will read good and not good things about your work. As much as possible, separate yourself from your work. There is a big difference between reading that you made a mistake and thinking that you ARE a mistake. Remind yourself of this. Many many times. As many times as you need to before, during, and after a critique.
- Know that some critiques will be kind. Some will not.
- Open the document. Read through quickly on the first pass. You will be drawn to the negatives and they will stand up on the page like tall men sticking their tongues out at you. This is fine. Normal. Let them. Keep breathing. Meditation practice and deep breathing helps with this part.
- Decompress with trusted friends and family. Let them reassure you that you are not a mistake and that you should keep going.
- Re-read the critiques. The second time through you will see the good things as long as it was not written by one of those cruel trolls. (Please do not read those again. Those should be given to a trusted friend or colleague to dispose of appropriately. Preferably in a sharps container on the way to an incinerator.)
- Write down what you’ve learned.
- Keep working.
- Ask for another critique.
May you do the work, brave the storm, and then do the work again-
And if you want more, here is Brene Brown. Her take on criticism quiets the howlers with grace and the image of an arena.