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.