I’ve been thinking a lot about criticism lately, partly because I have a new book out, and partly because I recently had to put together a workshop on writer’s block, helping other writers identify what gets in the way for them when they sit down to work.
Of course one of the toughest blocks any creative person comes up against is negative criticism – especially the kind that comes from within. It pretty much goes with the territory of making stuff out of nothing that we step back from the work from time to time – and too often too many times – and regard our masterpieces as total crap.
Calling yourself an idiot – just like calling a friend or a child or a lover an idiot – is never going to get you the desired result. It’s never going to move anything forward or lead to learning or deepen understanding.
Only asking yourself why can ever do that. Why do I feel dumb? Why do I think this piece of writing is stupid? Or, on the flipside of this kind of madness, why do I think it’s a work of genius? Any criticism that doesn’t seek evidence to support your feelings is not going to show you anything you need to know.
Two snippets of external criticism I received smack bang in the middle of writing the workshop illustrate this excellently. I gave my new book, Wild Chicory, to two friends, of similar age and literary accomplishment. One friend didn’t read the book, saying that they could only make it through the first couple of chapters and it just wasn’t working for them. The other friend gulped down the lot, saying they loved every word, giving precise examples of what about the writing and the story affected them.
Naturally, I prefer Friend Number Two’s response, but in thinking beyond the flattery, it’s the evidence that makes the criticism useful to me. If Friend Number One had read the book and offered examples of what they felt wasn’t working, I’d have learned something about their response, and about the way my writing spoke to them. I might even have picked up something that would improve my work in future.
But as it was, I did learn something important about myself in the process, and it came as a sweet surprise: I no longer take on board criticism from others that doesn’t have reasons attached. I binned the unsubstantiated negative almost as soon as it was issued.
And that, for this little pony, is gold. It tells me that maybe one day I will take my own advice and learn to dispatch unreasonable self-disparagements as quickly. Bring on that day!
If you’d like a copy of Wild Chicory, you can get one here – and you can tell me what you think.