A few weeks ago, I posted here about my struggle not to obsess over one piece of critical feedback about my novel, an obsession that almost prevented me from being able to process all the good things I was hearing. The person who criticized it, I reasoned, must be the only person telling the truth. Anyone who said they liked it was obviously hiding something.
Your comments were so thoughtful and encouraging, and truly helped me find my footing again. Thank you. At the end of the post, however, I promised a part two in my meditation on getting critical feedback. So here it is.
As I wrote before, I was fascinated (and comforted) to discover that human beings are actually wired to put more emphasis on the negative and the threatening, a legacy of our time as prey, and an ancient form of self-defense. This wiring often does result in the kind of distortion I described, preventing us from having a balanced, accurate view of the feedback we are getting from the world around us. But it can have another self-sabotaging effect. What about our ability, as important as training ourselves to hear and absorb praise, to hear and absorb criticism that we really should listen to?
It is hugely to the credit of this wonderful community that, in response to my last post, nobody said, "You know Kamy, did you ever consider that the woman who had a problem with your book just might have a point?" That would have been a totally sucky thing to say. But the truth is that my reaction to the criticism was so strong, causing me to recoil into my shell like a box turtle on a gravel road (see helpful illustration above), that I couldn't slow down and consider this question very reasonably. Instead I got defensive, told my friends what happened, and sat back and smiled with appreciation as they assured me that my critic was, in a word, an idiot.
I'd like to say that in this particular case, that's true. (Ha!) But it isn't. The critic in question is someone whose judgement I respect. I may not agree, in the end, with her assessment, but it was well worth listening to and considering carefully. And the fact is that none of us will ever get to where we need to go as writers if we do not learn to manage our visceral response to criticism, not just by dismissing it as coming from "the haters," but by taking a deep breath, suppressing our "flight" reflex, and using the criticism -- the good criticism anyway, and of course part of our work is to learn to know the difference -- to listen, assess, and learn, recognizing its power as invaluable ammunition in the good fight of getting better. No pain, no gain. It's as simple as that.
You could make an argument, of course, that it's a uniquely awful kind of pain. A strained calf muscle is one thing. Exposing your writing to others' opinions is like standing on a table naked and listening while people critique your backfat. Except it's worse, because you probably know whether you have backfat or not before you get up on that table. When it comes to our own writing it is much easier to be blindsided. We often don't see what others are able to see, and being shown flaws that we (at first) have no idea how to fix, and did not even know were there in the first place, is devastating, and can be humiliating, too. As hard as it is, however, if we don't find a way to take criticism and use it to improve our work, it's fairly safe to say we will never be any good.
This isn't to say that a lot of criticism isn't suspect, off-base, or just plain wrong. (It's worth remembering that the same can be said of a lot of praise.) What I'm really talking about, of course, is the art of discernment -- striking that difficult balance between trust and faith in your own judgment with a willingness to truly consider and benefit from the opinions of others. Clearly it's an art I haven't fully mastered yet.
But I'm going to keep working on it.