The Big C(riticism)
By Jeff Bowles
The first Wednesday of every month, science fiction and horror writer Jeff Bowles offers advice to new and aspiring authors. Nobody ever said this writing thing would be easy. This is your pep talk.
I don’t think there’s a soul on earth who likes criticism. There’s just something about it that can cut to the bone. Human beings have such fragile egos anyway, those pesky little conscious seats of individuality that get bruised and battered when others make us feel small, less talented, less competent, perhaps even less valid as people. Some more than others, right? I’ve had writers tell me they never feel offended, angry, upset, or in any way discouraged after a round criticism. I don’t think I believe them. I mean, not at all? Even just a little? Really?
And of course, if you’re checking out this blog, odds are you’ve seen your share of creative criticism. It’s essential to the process, right? Every writer can benefit from it, from the newest of newbs to the most seasoned authors. And a change in attitude often occurs once a writer actually gets neck deep in a viable career. At that point, criticism has become just another part of the job, kind of less of a hassle than, say, making deadlines you have no hope of making or enduring long, drawn-out revision cycles.
But there’s another dimension to writers that’s so common it’s a cliché. Many of us suffer from mental illness. I know I do, and lots of my associates and acquaintances are in the same boat. Most of the time their personal stories boil down to a bit of depression here and there, but look, there’s something about a creative profession that requires long periods of solitude that seems to attract folks who are maybe a bit less emotionally equipped than the rest of humanity. Plus, you know, the ubiquitous link between genius and madness. Some of the greatest writers in history should have been in the nut house. Some of them were.
Now there’s a big difference between getting your feelings hurt over some bad comments from a crit group and losing your mind completely. We subject ourselves to the honest (and often brutal) opinions of our colleagues because we understand in the end criticism will make us better. Especially when we’re just starting out. If we can find a few people who really get what we’re all about and who consistently offer good feedback, we’re wise to consider them valuable resources. The fact remains, writers pour ourselves into our work. In many ways, stories and novels, articles and memoirs, they’re like our children. Sometimes it’s hard not to take criticism personally. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong in admitting it.
So as a writer who’s had one or two creative outbursts himself (sorry about that black eye, prof), here’s a few tips to soothe the wounded beast. Number one, and going back to the crit group thing, it really does help to know a few people who are on the same page as you creatively. It’s old advice, but it is enormously beneficial. Also, try not to work with writers who aren’t quite as skilled as you are. Likewise, learn to recognize when you’ve gotten in with folks who have a lot more ability and experience. Writers who punch in above your pay grade aren’t going to be able to help as much as you might expect, and you may even struggle trying to understand and disseminate their feedback.
Next tip: always keep a few pots on the fire. Okay, this new story didn’t work out for me, but at least I have that other one that shows way more potential. Dive into this process head first, if you can. Conceive, draft, and revise in cycles. Nothing blunts criticism like a sense of forward momentum. Keep an idea notebook handy. Never miss an opportunity to dream up something new and play with it a little. We’re still growing here. Got lots and lots of stories to tell in the future. Stagnation sucks. It crushes the life out of creativity. Avoid it if at all possible.
Tip number three: make sure to honor your private life. I mean that. Some people throw themselves into their work at such high velocity their relationships and daily routines suffer. You’ve got friends, right? Hang out with them, have some fun. While we’re at it, don’t neglect your romantic life, either. Seems like kind of a toss-off to some people, but look, you’re human. Biology is a factor, and it’s just a basic fact that people tend to be happier when they consistently engage this part of their personality. Family, hobbies, even other, more practical career goals, these can all serve as a refuge when your creative mind is battered and tired. Conversely, writing itself can act as a pretty powerful refuge from things like, oh, family, hobbies, career goals, romantic life, friends…
Fourth tip: don’t worry about developing a thick skin. Focus more on developing a keen critical mind. Say someone tears your latest to shreds. You can either A) get emotional about it, B) decide this loser doesn’t know what the hell he or she is talking about, or C) penetrate the matter a little more deeply, choose which criticisms are valid, discard everything else, move on to the next thing. Your lizard brain is your lizard brain. It’s a given. But your analytical mind, that you’ve got to hone. So get clinical if you can. Easier said than done? For some it really is. You’re not a robot. At least I don’t think you are. I mean, you haven’t blinked in several minutes. I’m watching you…
Do the best you can to stay neutral during and after a round of feedback. Or if not neutral, at least receptive and pragmatic. This is a process. Repeat it to yourself if it helps. This is a process. This is a process. And don’t forget to ask plenty of questions. Stay engaged. Again, criticism affects people differently. I imagine some will read this blog post and think, “I don’t see what the big deal is. This Jeff Bowles guy must be a total train wreck.”
To which I might reply, “Stop staring at my mangled caboose!”
…Ahem, yes. Anyhoo, there’s no accounting for temperament. Look, it’s always seemed to me writers just aren’t honest when it comes to these things. And why should we be? Nobody likes a hot head. No one’s particularly desperate to work with a soppy, spongy mess. But there’s always the case to be made for blowing off steam when necessary. Never let it jeopardize your work, your reputation, or your sense of professionalism, but don’t bottle it up, either. If you find the situation becomes chronic, do a little soul searching. What’s really bothering you here? Why does criticism seem to affect you so much? Self-analysis, some say, is the path to divinity. Not that divinity has anything to do with the life of a writer.
Speaking of which, and if all else fails, there’s still good old-fashioned counseling and therapy. It might sound dopey and overwrought to even remind you of it, but sometimes in life, it helps to get serious about ourselves and consider our own triggers and shortcomings. No shame in it, and never let people tell you there is. Mental health is extremely important, much more important than the modern world ever seems to recognize. And even simple depression can become dangerous if left unchecked.
And now to spoil the mood completely, some depressed writer jokes!
“Well doc, I guess it all started when they said my steampunk riff on The Notebook was even lousier than my 50 Shades of Grey fan fic written from the whip’s perspective.”
“Really? And how did that make you feel?”
“Like we should have used a safe word.”
Why did the anxiety-riddled writer cross the road? Are you crazy? I’m not going outside. That road is clearly a death trap.
[end of joke digression]
Ready to tackle another round of critiques? Well, in a perfect world, I guess you would be. Do what you need to do to combat discouragement and self-defeatism. One of the healthiest attitudes we can adopt as professional writers is the macro, career-long perspective and an abysmal memory. If the fates allow, you’re in this for the long haul, so just remember this or that little hiccup will mean nothing in the end. It’s a basic fact that we learn more from failure than success. So what are you waiting for? Get out there and fail as hard as you can!
Pep talk concluded. Feel better now, don’t you?
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