In today’s Writer’s Oasis, I want to talk about something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot: criticism on our creative work. With something as close to us as our writing, or any creative form for that matter, it can be hard not to take the criticism we get personally. However, critique is unavoidable, so learning how to handle it and take away from it positively is very important. I’ve been in four workshop-based classes at my university so far: two fiction classes, a nonfiction class, and a poetry class.
First, I’d like to say that three out of four of these have been nothing but motivating and encouraging experiences for me. There was one instance that I really struggled with for a while, though. It ended with me leaving the classroom in tears and texting my mom, saying something to the effect of: “I’m a terrible writer. I should just give up and delete the draft of my novel.” She then convinced me that that was ridiculous, and that I should take some time to calm down and then make life-altering decisions. Ah, the voice of reason.
During this workshop, I walked into class knowing that the piece I’d written needed some work. But I figured that’s what workshops were for, right? I sat down, feeling somewhat confident for being one of the only two underclassmen in the class. The workshop started off great. People told me about the details they enjoyed and gave me pointers as to where I could include more. Then, one classmate in particular started to speak up. They brought up a detail that apparently didn’t make sense. Fair enough, right? But then they kept going on about it. This classmate continued doing the same thing to this effect over and over again. It was as though they were critiquing about every little thing that they didn’t remotely like in the piece just for the sake of ranting. After all of their comments, the class would get silent (I would just stare at my binder trying to hold back tears), and then someone else would try to offer something positive. I appreciated the effort, but the damage was already being done. It wasn’t always the critiques this particular classmate gave, either. It was the way they said them; it seemed personal to me, not just about the writing. This was odd since I hadn’t known this person before that class, but that’s how I took it. It seemed quite directed at me, not the writing. By the end of the workshop, this classmate had said something along the lines of, “I don’t even know why I read this.” The professor then closed out the workshop and everyone applauded, but there was an evident awkwardness among the class. I honestly felt targeted in that workshop, like there was a spotlight on me in the worst way.
You know what happened after that, and after the near deletion of my novel draft, I started to think a little more optimistically. Fast forward to this semester, when I was approaching my first major workshop for another one of my classes. I was terrified; I didn’t want a repeat of what happened. I wasn’t completely happy with the story I had for this new workshop, either, and while I liked the piece itself more than the other and had improved my writing through practice, I was immensely insecure. Well, I kept my poker face up through the workshop, and everyone was very constructive with their comments this time around. I solved a lot of issues I’d had with the piece through their comments, and it was probably the best workshop I’ve ever had. Following that, I was talking to one of my friends who is the TA for the class. I expressed how thrilled I was with how the workshop went, especially because of my past experience. He responded that it can actually be very good to have had the critic who took it too far; it toughens you up.
He’s 100% right. Having that awful workshop session not only gave me a story to tell; it gave me a thicker skin. I hadn’t cried that day even though I’d wanted to. If I face someone like that again, I know that in the end, they’ll only give me the motivation to prove them wrong by making the piece in question the best it can possibly be. So, yes, it’s best to prepare yourself to not take criticism personally, but sometimes it gets personal. It’s important to reflect on those times not in a panic (as I did with my frantic texts), but rather to put it to the side and reflect on it later when emotions have settled. Criticism isn’t always pretty, but when given well, it’s something that can make us revise and revive our work in a whole new way. It can propel us as an artist. It will make us want to refine our craft and our style within it that much more. It’s essential.
Prepare yourself for criticism, but don’t center your work around your critics. Your creative work is yours; it has to be centered around what you want and need to say. It’s a part of the creative process, but no critic is worth giving up your craft. Remember that and let them make you stronger. Critics are a part of life, but they aren’t the end of the world. In fact, many times they prove exactly what we’re doing right. Create on and stay inspired.