Wednesday Wonders: The Gifts of Rejection and Criticism

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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

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. Know that some critiques will be kind. Some will not.
  4. 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.
  5. Decompress with trusted friends and family. Let them reassure you that you are not a mistake and that you should keep going.
  6. 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.)
  7. Write down what you’ve learned.
  8. Keep working.
  9. Ask for another critique.
  10. Repeat.

May you do the work, brave the storm, and then do the work again-

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And if you want more, here is Brene Brown. Her take on criticism quiets the howlers with grace and the image of an arena.

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Epic Fail Part One: The Gift of the Seahawks After the Loss

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My first column in The News Tribune ran last week. In it, I talked about my admiration for Pete Carroll and his leadership of the Seattle Seahawks. After reading it, several people I knew (and many I didn’t) sent me emails telling me how much they liked my work, including my high school English teacher Mrs. Koon.

It felt wonderful but also oddly terrifying in a way that I struggled to understand.

Apparently, it’s one thing to write along hoping someone will notice and that I will improve enough to be good. It’s another to have people watching for my next piece to see if they like it or not.

Then the Hawks lost.

Dramatically.

Because of a decision Carroll made.

I’ve read the posts and talked to my friends about it. Most people say it was a bad call. They say Pete Carroll made a mistake in throwing the ball instead of running it with Lynch or, my husband tells me, running the ‘read option’ where the Wilson fakes it to Lynch and then runs it in himself if he reads the situation correctly.

“What’s with all the throwing!?!” one person posted on my Facebook feed. “Run the ball!”

I’ve seen plenty of analysis as I’ve tried to process and understand what happened. I’ve even read smart statistics about why Carroll made the mathematically best move.

For the record, I think he made a mistake. Or, at the very least, he made a carefully calculated gamble and lost.

When I saw his face fall after the game ending interception, I felt a recognition. That is what I am afraid of when people say they liked my work and are looking forward to the next. That. Making a mistake, feeling the devastation, and having more people watching to see it.

In a strange way, it helped me that Carroll lost the Super Bowl.

Don’t get me wrong.(Please, dear fabulous Seahawks fans!)

I’d so rather we had won and keep wishing for the Hermione’s time turner so we could go back and make that last yard with Lynch, the read option, or another down. Anything.

It’s just that something about seeing a gigantic failure gives me permission to keep going, knowing that we all make mistakes.

Some will forgive us.

Some will not.

That’s the risk.

The pain of that football loss only happened to me because I cared enough to feel the absolute thrill of the victory two weeks before.

My writing is a calculated gamble I’m willing to make because the joy of getting the words right matters to me enough to face the risk of the defeat, public or not.

To that end, this month I’ll focus on the epic fail. I’ll look at different failures each week. For Carroll and for me, I’ll look for stories of resilience — of how others have overcome huge mistakes and come out stronger for the struggle.

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