On Critique: I Promise I Will Tell You
February 29, 2016 § 29 Comments
by Jan Priddy
I like to think I have a thick skin, that I can handle conflict and criticism rationally and dispassionately. People think they know me, believe this about me. Others who know me better understand this is wishful thinking. I take everything personally.
Sitting silent in a room while others list all the ways my work sucks is just a pain.
This is true despite coming from a family prone to debate, a habit of playing devil’s advocate and raising logic and consistency to high art, and years of critique experience first as a visual artist and more recently as a writer.
Until I entered college as an art major, I had earned my way as one of the talented. In school my artwork was exhibited and admired. Suddenly that was not enough, and I was asked questions I could not answer. I was expected to grow. Critique was no longer about what I had done well, but where I needed to be better. My work was trivialized and sometimes dismissed altogether. I recall accepting all this with calm. My husband recalls tears and screaming. It is likely we are both correct.
As a writer, I follow the same pattern—earnest striving, self-flagellation, and then crawling back out from under the bed to begin again. Inner turmoil as I listen to my flaws while the outer calm protects my vanity.
All I wanted from critique is to be told my work was perfect.
I also wanted that judgment to be true.
All it takes to create perfection is infinite time and patience, thought and growth, and many, many drafts. How does it go? Staring at the page until blood squeezes out your pores?
To save time, creative people invest in critique, seeking outsiders to confirm what works and what does not. We want the reader who can get us through all that growth to something closer to perfection. Quickly. We want our warts pointed out so that we can fix them, even if we have to bleed to accomplish it.
The truth is that there will be pain. The truth is there will be many, many drafts.
Poet and fabulist Suniti Namjoshi told a workshop there are three kinds of readers: Readers who know less that the writer, readers who know more, and readers who know what the writer knows.
Sometimes readers know less than you do about the story. They may be inattentive readers or lack experience to follow my story. Or they might not like it. Their feedback is useless.
Sometimes readers know more about your own story than you do. They are very perceptive readers with greater understanding of the experiences that have fed my story. I can no more use what they tell me than a non-swimmer is able to utilize advanced coaching on the butterfly stroke. I am not there yet. Their feedback is also useless, but I file it away for later.
The third kind of reader knows what you do about your work. They connect with the purpose and meaning of the work on my level. They will tell me that the problem is here and what they say pinpoints my nagging discomfort about that passage. They will ask, What do you mean by this? and their question is my own question. This is the feedback I need most.
Over the years, I also picked up three ways to respond to feedback.
You can ignore critique. The reader might be wrong or make suggestions that run counter to my own sense of my work. It is my work, after all, and it is my right to reject feedback. However, the danger of routinely ignoring criticism is that if I am unwilling to recognize flaws in my own writing, I will fail to grow and improve.
You can try to use critique. If the reader can’t grasp what I am writing, perhaps there is a way to revise the work that will make it more accessible. This is probably what most of us do most of the time. In workshop, several readers say they are confused about the significance of dialogue on the fourth page. Since it’s not just one reader, but several, I consider how to improve. Is that piece of dialogue necessary? Is it meant to be ambiguous or can I clarify? Is the problem not with the dialogue on that page, but with something that happens (or does not happen) earlier, or something later? The critique indicates a problem, not necessarily how to fix it.
You can accept critique absolutely. My best reader provides the insight I might eventually reach on my own, providing me the hard, painful truths about my writing that I need to hear.
I rarely cry about critique these days. It still stings, it still beats me up, but I get over the judgement in my eagerness to repair the flaws. (That is, I hide under the bed and suck on dust bunnies, but then I crawl back out and get to work.) I don’t like it, but I want it anyway.
I have my share of scars: A reader declared one aspect of a story inauthentic and “ridiculous”, and a workshop participant announced that she would not have finished reading my story if she had not been required to. Another writer told me that withholding a key detail until late in my story was annoying and that waking from a dream was cliché.
The first reader was wrong and the second was cruel. That third reader? He was spot on. Appreciating and correcting the problem required many, many drafts. But first, there was that hour under my bed, sobbing.
Jan Priddy’s work has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and publication in journals such as The MacGuffin, CALYX, Work Magazine, Raven Chronicles, Ink Filled Page, The Humanist, and North American Review. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, she lives and writes in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon. Jan blogs at Quiet Minds.
I blog with tips and encouragement for writers (www.writergrannysworld.blogspot.com ) and I often talk about the value of critiques and how we should use them to grow as a writer. All true but you’re right on with the ‘it hurts’ part of receiving critiques from readers or other writers. Once we get beyond the feeling rotten about it, we do learn. Thanks for this ‘bare it all’ post.
Thank you, Nancy. I found during my MFA that many students only wanted feedback from their instructors and failed to appreciate what they might gain by reading the work of their peers and receiving feedback from them.
I love this post! It’s an excellent understanding of critique.
Thank you so very much!
This is very honest and full of good advice. I’m not sure I entirely agree with your take on readers who know more about your story than you do. You equate their feedback with advanced butterfly stroke advice to a non-swimmer, but people who offer such useless advice don’t just know more than you do. They know more than you do and want you to know it. They don’t want to be constructive or help you grow or improve. Their critiques are not meant to be useful. But some people who know more than you do offer feedback with the express purpose of helping you grow, and their feedback can be extemely valuable. I suppose the trick is to find them and ignore the rest. Thank you for this piece. So many writers need to hear that a critique is simply an opinion.
You are right, and I suppose that in any endeavor there are people only trying to score points. I assumed good intentions, and you are right that is not always the case.
What I meant with the butterfly analogy is that sometimes advice comes that I am not ready to hear, and that is what we must tuck away for later. I may not know my own story well enough or have gained the skill to use it.
I’ve had that happen, too. A couple of times, it took years for me to see what a couple of my MFA mentors were trying to tell me. In the end, I found they were right… but I had to figure that out myself when I was ready. I remind myself of this when I give my young adult children advice. I know what I’m saying is true and useful, but mostly they are going to have to come to understand life organically. 🙂
Its really interesting
Thank you! I hope it is helpful too.
Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. I felt your pain whilst reading this and it is a fantastic piece of writing. 🙂
Thank you, Kit. (I love to write too.) I am glad it spoke.
Indeed it did. The power of your words were magical!
Very helpful-Thank you!
Thank you, Rhiannah!
Loved that last bit! Hard to work with criticism like “Your story is ridiculous!” or “Only finished it ’cause I had to”. These aren’t cobstructive criticisms. Third reader, however, points out things that can really be changed ” Don’t hold back the detail. Dream sequence is cheese-y”. This is info you can actually work with.
Perhaps would-be critics should be educated in how to give constructive criticism before they are permitted to critique. Destructive criticism destroys the artist, as well as the art.
I absolutely agree about the destructive power of criticism and about learning how to offer feedback. I have been very fortunate. Years ago, Ruth Gundle’s packet for The Flight of the Mind contained invaluable advice and a detailed plan for how critique should be conducted. I have tried to follow it. However, as I suggest, I will say that no comment at all might be the cruelest response for me. Sometimes I just have to be told how to be better, even if the manner of the telling leaves something to be desired.
Finally someone says it!
I enjoyed this very much. Thanks for sharing, Jan. I am now finding that looking back at comments/critique from my professors during my MFA, I can better appreciate and hopefully use what they were saying. It wasn’t that I disregarded the input in past years so much as I just couldn’t connect with it enough to know what to do with it in terms of my writing. So, what you said about the third kind of reader made a lot of sense to me – they really did know/or see more than I did. So it’s important not to discard those old critiques – you never know when they will come in handy down the road as we dust off old work. Thanks so much!
I was warned that some advice would be “useless” but my own experience was as you say—sometimes it was only that I was not ready to hear it, but there would come a time when it would be useful. A story can be like that too—it seems to have nothing to offer me as a reader (or as a writer), but then I return to it and find there is wisdom.
Critiques and reviews come in all shapes and sizes. If I have a book that averages 4 to 4 1/2 stars, I feel good about it. If they are all 5 star reviews, the potential readers will be suspicious that I just asked a bunch family members and friends to post them. I remember receiving my one and only two-star review on Amazon. To my dismay, the review was one word, ‘boring’. I wrote a lengthy reply to the reviewer and then held back. I decided to look at the other reviews done by this person and there were only two focused on gardening books. They had enlightened reviews like ‘not bad’ and ‘didn’t work’. When I saw that, I considered the source and let it go.
Thanks for sharing this.
I certainly empathize. I once paid a successful editor to read the first 100 pages of a novel I had worked on for more than 10 years and she found the female protagonist was so unlikable that I could barely read on. She liked my writing but…not a primary character, how she was and how she was written. Her critique had the effect of “fast freezing” my brain about that novel. I have yet to return to it…though I know the fine editor gave honest input I need to revisit. I still work very hard on sorts of prose. Some truth telling may mean it’s may be time to move on! Very good post, fellow Oregonian, thanks.
Thank you, Cynthia! I have paid for disappointing critique that seemed not to “get” what I was trying to do. I tried to make all the changes that were suggested, but then I set the ms aside because I decided there was nothing wrong with what I was doing, but only with my ability to accomplish it.
A thoughtful response, thank you. I will think more about this! Regards.
Where are the adults in the room who allow comments like “Your story is ridiculous” and “Only finished it because I had to”? Were there no parameters established for the discussion and if so, why not? Workshop participants are not consumers, but writers tasked with the responsibility of reading and responding to a work in progress; the facilitator is there to ensure that this happens. That someone found the story “ridiculous” is useless–far more useful would have been an honest discussion of craft as to why that was so for that reader.
Thank you. Though, I was never told my story was ridiculous, only one part of the way I had written it. I absolutely agree that it could have been handled more kindly and respectfully—sometimes “critique” is careless, but most people do not know automatically how to give critique and that is something that should be reviewed.
On the other hand, unkind critique isn’t necessarily wrong. Sometimes it is necessary to call out the elephant in the room, and no criticism, no matter how tactful, is easy to hear. At least that is my experience.
We tend to assume in our culture that if we can do something, we can also teach others how to do it. That is not always the case. (Perhaps it is not even often the case.) Many people possess enormous skill from lengthy experience without knowing how to effectively handle a classroom and teach their own craft. And the teacher who is harmful to one student might become a mentor to another. I saw that happen often enough.
This challenge seems especially true of the arts. We are all basically self-taught, and learning to use critique, to distinguish what is useful to our personal education and what is not—that is part of our journey. Or at least it has been an essential part of mine first as a visual artist and then as a writer. We seek our own vision and our own voice. Finding our stories means distinguishing between the useless (and painful) responses and the useful (but still painful) responses.
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