Monday, July 13, 2015

Criticism: A Thorny Gift by Jeanette O'Hagan

A 'Blast from the Past' reposting


Though it’s many decades ago, I still remember my Grade 6 & 7 teacher, Mr Steubins. He was an English man in the heart of Africa teaching Zambian nationals and a few white expatriate kids the three R’s and the glories of England and Englishmen in Africa. Despite this Eurocentric outlook, he inspired in me a lasting love for history, a love for English language and introduced me to the musical wonders of Gilbert and Sullivan. Most of all he always had time for a chat at the end of the school day. He also taught me the power of words to hurt and heal, though perhaps inadvertently. I recall the day I sat up straight in my chair, chest swelled with pride, while he read out and then extolled the beauty of a descriptive sentence I had written. Several weeks later, I wanted to sink through the floor, when he ridiculed (without naming me, the hapless author) the rather laboriously polite and tentative letter I had written as part of a class exercise. Looking back, I can see that both evaluations were fair though one I received gladly with both hands, while the other I took like poison.

Growing up I hated even the hint of criticism. It made me crumple and spiral inwards in shame, guilt and protective anger. I still don’t like it very much – especially when it comes from those closest to me or it seems unjustified or it is perhaps too close to a tender point. Criticise me too much and I clam up, withdraw, run away or - just maybe - fight back with a latent Irish temper. We all deal with criticism differently. For me it has always seemed like a scorching fire that withers and burns me away into vapour.

One day, some six or so years later (now back in Australia), I read a small book that opened up a new world of thought for me. Criticism, it said, can be your friend. Later Dr John Savage of LEAD ministries said much the same, “Let your critic be your coach.”  Now, as a writer, I can really appreciate the wisdom of those words. Yes, I learn and improve by practice, by reading the greats and by reading books or articles on the craft and art of writing. And when others wax lyrical over my works (as has happened from time to time), I am uplifted and encouraged. Yet, it has often been the honest and sometimes brutal search light of criticism that has forced me to take important new steps. As a writer, I need to know what I do well and what needs to improve. I value my critique partners, I value their honesty. I also value their kindness and diplomacy.

When first faced with a forceful critique I still often rear up in protective defence. Maybe smiling on the outside, I’m a riot of protest on the inside. “That’s ridiculous. She just doesn’t get it. He doesn’t know what he is talking about. She is too harsh, too rigid.” And then, as the adrenalin begins to cool, I can start to spiral down. “Well, maybe I’m kidding myself. I’ll never make it. This is too hard. Maybe I should just give up. Maybe God’s not with me in this.” It’s only after a time of reflection, as once again I give this dream – to write – back to my Lord that I begin to find my balance. Failure cannot vaporise me. Making mistakes is not the same as a permanent burial. I remind myself that my worth is based on God’s love and acceptance, not on my skill and success as a writer – or in any other area of my life (as wife, mother, friend, colleague, professional etc).

As I quieten my spirit I find I can receive this thorny gift. I can scrutinise it and trim it to fit. I don’t have to take everything everyone says on board. Not all criticism is valid. Not all of it is relevant. But there is often a kernel of truth– big or small – beneath the thorns. Suddenly, the idea that there are areas in which my writing can grow and change becomes exciting. I begin to see new possibilities, new options. Out of the dying comes life. (Now where have I heard that before?)

There is an art to giving criticism as well as receiving it. Perhaps criticism is akin to pruning. A judicious pruning shapes the rose bush, strengthening it and encouraging it to flower in abundance. A too vicious and careless pruning might stunt the bush and even kill it. And every gardener knows the bush needs fertilising and watering too. One of my fellow students in my current course suggests using a critique sandwich –with the negative in the middle surrounded by positive and encouraging remarks in front and behind. As a wise person once said:

The right word at the right time
    is like a custom-made piece of jewelry,
And a wise friend’s timely reprimand
    is like a gold ring slipped on your finger.”
Proverbs 25:11-12 The Message

How do you deal with criticism? Are you overly sensitive or thick skinned and dismissive? Or do you receive it like an edgy but faithful friend? How do you give it? Do you shrink from hurting another’s feelings or do you relish hitting hard without mercy? Or maybe you give a word in season, speaking the truth in love (Ephes 4:15). I know that in this, as in so many other areas of my life, I'm still learning.


Jeanette has recently had a short story published in the general market Tied in Pink Anthology  (profits from the anthology go towards Breast Cancer research) . She has practiced medicine, studied communication, history and theology and has taught theology.  She is currently caring for her children, in her final unit of post-graduate studies in writing at Swinburne University and writing her Akrad's fantasy fiction series.  You can read some of her short fiction here



You can find her at her Facebook Page or websites  JennysThread.com or Jeanette O'Hagan Writes .

21 comments:

  1. The objective part of me tries to remind myself that it's a gift, but the other side of me wants to curl up in my bed and never come out the minute I receive the slightest of criticisms. I've never been one to take it well.

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    1. I know what you mean Lynne. Depending on how close the bone or the heart the criticism is - it might take hours, days or months to recover. I almost gave up writing last year after one particularly drastic and (it felt like) brutal feedback. On reflection - that critic had some points though I think s/he actually wanted me to write the book s/he would have written - not the one I wanted to write (and others have enjoyed). Took me a few months to recover - but it reminds me that while we should consider everything the critic says, we don't have to take it all on board. I think one thing to remember is that we are not our book :) And, imperfections don't make us any less valuable to God - or our true friends.

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  2. Great post Jenny. Just this morning I heard the story of someone who was so devastated by criticism they'd received on their novel draft, that they gave up altogether. It's so important to be able to give feedback in a way that encourages people rather than tearing them down. And being able to receive criticism well is also something we have to learn. I really love that verse about 'speaking the truth in love'. I think that can cover a multitude of sins :)

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    1. Love that verse too :) It can be hard to keep that balance & depends a bit on what hat one's wearing (crit friend, beta-reader, editor) etc. I think your reminder about encouragement last week is important. On the other hand, part of being a writer is dealing with criticism. Far better it be from a beta-reader or editor - than a scathing attack in a review.

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  3. Great post Jenny. Yes, it critique (not criticism) is a thorny gift, I agree. Years ago I wrote a book for school leavers in Sri Lanka - a story cum exercise book for those for whom English was a new language. I was devastated the first time I met with my critique group who tore some of my ideas to pieces. They didn't get it! Arrrrgh! But - I learnt the hard way that critique is good and is needed in order for me to write better. I still am leaning it. But yes, there's much wisdom from gifted writers and editors I need to take on board if I can ever reach the heights I aspire to.

    Besides I think it's humbling and so it's much needed in order for us to see the true nature of our writing so we can improve it. A gift! YES!

    Thanks for a lovely post Jenny!

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    1. Thanks Anusha - I think that's how I've come to see it - an opportunity to improve. Even when readers misunderstand, that tells me I haven't been clear enough. I have come to value my critical friends and beta-readers more highly than rubies, a good editor like diamonds.

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  4. Thank you Jenny, great post! It is the quiet criticism that gets me the most. Such as not a soul responding to a FB post or no-one reading or no-one commenting on a blog post.

    I don't mind so much when people explain why they criticise my work because I understand that we all have a different perspective and sometimes I agree and at other times I don't. And sometimes I just plain don't understand where people are coming from or why they have to be so harsh about it.

    But what really gets to me is the silence ... I go; what did I do wrong? Anyone please tell me so I can better myself and not make the same mistake again. Yes for me silence is the worst criticism.

    Thank you for sharing.

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    1. I agree with you Mimi about silence. It leaves you wondering and give you no chance to address the issues. Of course, it may just because people are busy with their lives, especially when it comes to blog posts. I do worry when I haven't heard back from my beta-readers. Sometimes, it's just that they have others things to think about, but other times it might because my story hasn't held their attention at some point. I guess, either way, it would be good to know.

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    2. Whoops - sorry for the typos. My thoughts were flowing faster than my fingers lol.

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    3. My thoughts were faster than your typos ... if that's possible? Because I had to reread it twice to find the typos. Must be thinking alike. Loved your post. Thank you.

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  5. I react the same way you do, Jenny :) I often find the best sorts of critics are those who also find something good to say too, so we're getting a bit of sugar to coat the medicine.
    As you and Mimi both mentioned above, silence is sometimes worse than criticism, especially because it's so often not the right etiquette to ask directly. All we can do is imagine that they must have hated it, and we who write have good imaginations.
    I appreciate the people who come up with constructive, helpful points for us to consider in a respectful and kind way.

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    1. It's very rare that there isn't something positive that we can say :) And so, true, we writers have excellent imaginations to fill the silence. I'm in that position at the moment - having sent a piece off to 3 beta-readers. Once got back straight away, the other two I'm still waiting - but I know both have lots of other stuff to deal with at the moment. Maybe, the wait is because my story didn't grab them, or maybe it's just because life happens. One way or the other, I'd like to know lol.

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  6. I find criticism helpful most of the time. I may not always agree but I will think about it and may take it on board. This is one of the reasons I value being part of a writing group. And yes, silence is so hard to take. I find myself thinking: aren't you even interested in what I have to say? But when it is my blog, I realise a lot of people find it hard to log in and so a lot of my feedback comes on facebook. Anything is great! ( But id do love comments on a blog!) Thanks, Jenny. Good post!

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    1. Thanks Jeanette :) Yes, I've come to that position - from hating even the hint of criticism - to appreciating it (most of the time lol). Like you, I've realised that I can decide whether it's relevant or not, and feedback on my work helps me grow as a writer. I've also realised that making a mistake doesn't reflect on my value as a person.

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  7. Hmmm. I hate criticism of my work but if it comes from a thoughtful heart it can be priceless. Humility... Eeek.

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    1. Love the word 'priceless.' I find it much easier to receive criticism of my work than of myself. Another work in progress :)

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  8. And it's too easy to think, the person who criticizes doesn't know anything about writing. Ever felt that way? However if a reader says something they 'don't get' we'd better listen because perhaps many wouldn't say anything! (the silent treatment you've already mentioned.) After some years, it helps to let our thin skins toughen up and take it. You know...'the wounds of a friend etc' IMHO

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    1. That's a great point Rita. I think that's the value of beta-readers who may or may not be writers. Readers know what they like and if our prose jars them out of the narrative or they react badly to the story - they may not know why that is, but, you are right, most likely some other readers will have the same reaction. On the other hand, we can't please everyone. So I guess it's a balance too. But perhaps it's wise to listen carefully to what our critic is saying (and give it a couple of days at least) before we decide they don't know what they are talking about.

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  9. Hey, Jenny. What a fabulous post. Even though I know it is, I've never really thought about criticism as being my friend. ;-) I remember when I first started writing, I sent my first story to a publisher. Then I waited for the big check (I figured my first story was surely worth 5 figures). :-) I raced to the mailbox day after day until I finally received the much-anticipated envelope. Knowing the check was in there, I tore open the envelope only to find a REJECTION. That was the cruelest criticism. But it set me on my path today. I am thankful for all the critiques I receive because I know they all make me a better writer. I deal with criticism fine now. But back to that letter. I thought, how dare they! *wink* I must admit that story was perfectly AWFUL. Haha.

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    1. LOL Robyn - how dare they not recognise your brilliance! I love how you put it about critiques 'I know they all make me a better writer.' That's what I've discovered and now wouldn't do without them even if at times they can sting.

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