How to Take a Critique

Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of whining on Twitter from authors. Someone left a bad review of their book on Amazon. Or someone gave a 4-star review but meant 3.5 stars. Or someone just didn’t get it.

These authors receive unfavorable critiques as if they were personal insults or the equivalent of systemic injustices.

Why doesn’t everyone love me and tell me I’m a genius and be super, really nice to me? After all, these authors seem to imply, I wrote a BOOK!

So yes, I am here to complain about them complaining. But to do that, let me back up a second.

Good Ballet Teachers Are Heartless

I grew up in the preparatory dance program at Cornish College of the Arts where the goal for us 9-year-olds was to be ready to audition professionally by ages 16 to 18. Back in the 1990s, the instructors believed they had to prepare us for the sometimes harsh world of professional dance where our bodies, our technique, our hygiene, and our work ethic would all be scrutinized and evaluated publicly.

This meant singling us out, pointing out our errors to the whole class (anything from a sloppy tendu to a wrinkled leotard), and criticizing us for laziness or carelessness. Over the years, some of the girls broke down in tears. A few ran straight out of the studio and waited until they could collect themselves. One locked herself in a bathroom and refused to come out. I took this to mean that if I wanted to be an artist, I was going to hear a lot of criticism, and I had to figure out how to make peace with that.

So I don’t have a lot of sympathy for adults who can’t deal.

By the time I was 11, I knew how to keep a stiff upper lip. I knew how to listen to things I did not want to hear. As a white person, this has proven invaluable. White fragility, my ass. I will fuck up. As a human being. As an artist. As a partner. As a friend. You name it. And I want you to tell me. How else am I going to do better?

Before I hit junior high, I’d learned that while compliments felt nice, the benefit was short-lived. But a real critique could improve my performance immediately. If someone told me a hard truth, like I was being careless with my passe during a pirouette or that as a friend I seemed awfully self-absorbed, it was an opportunity.

I had to decide if it was valid, and if so, whether I wanted to act on it. To use it to get better. And if not, if it was invalid or if I didn’t see it as a problem, to shrug it off and move on.

As the great Zen teacher Kosho Uchiyama taught in his classic Opening the Hand of Thought: 

A person who feels he has to defend himself every time his teacher says something to him isn’t really practicing Buddhism… If it’s correct, then you ought to sit on it for a while and consider the matter. If it isn’t, then it should be enough for you to tell yourself it’s off the mark and let it go at that. If you aren’t able to forget criticism by others, how can you really be living out the full reality of your life?

I only cried over a criticism once, and that was long after I’d left the studio and the school and was walking to the family van after class. And even then, I recognized at age 14 that it was more who it had come from—a teacher whom I’d pegged as someone who believed I was exceptional—than what she’d actually said. Which was, after all, true.

Good Critique Partners Tell You What You Don’t Want to Hear

I have received loads of criticism on my writing from teachers, fellow writers, friends, and critique partners. Most of it made me inwardly shrug. Some of it helped me become a much better writer, even if I felt a sting of humiliation in the moment. A few comments made me angry, but this was usually because the judgment was accurate.

And when people give me a critique, I never say anything in return. I make notes, nod, and thank them. If you can’t do the same, you are not ready to work with an editor or an agent, let alone to be published.

To be sure, those dance teachers did not need to make children cry. They should have been as concerned with child development as they were with our technique. And there are respectful ways to point out errors and shortcomings that refrain from personal insults.

Their point, however, still stands: You need thick skin to be an artist. Some people are never going to like your work. Others will downright hate it. Some criticism you can learn from. Some you can’t. Some critics are having a bad time themselves—maybe they will make it personal. Maybe they actually do dislike you. But even then, it’s not about you.

It’s about their own reaction.

You Don’t Get a Say After Your Work Is Out in the World

And that, you will never be able to control. And you have no right to certain reactions from certain people, however much you want their admiration.

Richard Ford, for example, clearly expected Colson Whitehead’s adulation. And when he didn’t get it, when this brilliant young black novelist wrote a critique of one of Ford’s novels that asserted that Ford’s work did indeed have flaws—as all work does—Ford was outraged.

This is not a professional response to the professional necessity of criticism. Art and criticism are soulmates. Life partners. Art enters the world only when it is received, analyzed, interpreted, heard. And there are as many ways to interpret a piece of art as there are languages on the planet. No one gets it right because there is no “right” with art. They either get what the artist intended or they get something else out of it entirely. If an artist is very lucky, critics and audiences hear what the artist secretly or subconsciously hoped to put into their art. But most of us just end up with a whole lot of people seeing what they want to see in our work.

Welcome.

This is your art in the marketplace. Free speech, as an artist, is a two-way street. Your critics are going to critique, and you are going to produce work. Done. Over. That’s the ballgame.

And if you’re smart, you’ll make like Georgia O’Keeffe. When someone asked her to explain what her paintings meant, she got out of the critics way and let them do their job. “It’s all there in my work,” she said. See, folks, after her final brushstroke on each canvas, her job was already done.

Sometimes Your Work Will Suck, and People Will Say So (and Sometimes It Will Be Brilliant, But They Still Won’t Get It)

So what I’m getting at is this: we artists are not entitled to everyone loving our work as much as we do. No one forced us to become artists. No one forced us to read reviews. And as far as deserving good opinions because we work hard, get a grip.

The janitor who cleans your office and works two blue-collar jobs and navigates our immigration system works a whole lot harder, and how much appreciation do you give them?

The three-year-old who made macaroni art at preschool also “slaved” over her work, but no one’s obligated to love that but her parents.

And then there’s the chef you rated 2 stars on Yelp. You have no clue how hard chefs work if you haven’t worked in a restaurant yourself. But yeah, maybe it wasn’t great. Don’t dish it out if you can’t take it.

So writers, seriously. If you are published, you threw a party, and the critics were invited. And if criticism freaks you out, don’t read it. I don’t plan to. Everybody is entitled to their opinion of my work. I’m not going to agree with a lot of it. That’s the natural order of things.

My job is to surround myself with readers who will tell me the hard truths, the ones that align with what I’m trying to do but haven’t quite achieved yet, before I publish. And then I take notes and nod and say thank you. And then I go back to my desk and decide what to do with it.

So relax. Put your feet up. Some things ARE only two stars. Some things YOU have made are two stars. Plenty of stuff I have written is one-star worthy, if I’m feeling generous. A lot of the stuff on this blog I would never, ever dream of publishing elsewhere. Everybody shits sometimes. Even da Vinci had some dumb ideas. And guess what? 

So will you.

And some people—people with good artistic sensibilities, who are also hopefully the people you keep close to tell you the cold hard truth—will say so.

And if you choose to read that stuff, what do you say back?

That’s right.

You say thank you.

 

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s