When I first joined a critique group, I would sleep restlessly for the week between submitting my story and receiving the criticism, fretting about what I could have done to make it better or what obvious mistakes someone else would pick up. During the group meeting, I would be so tense that I could barely speak, let alone properly take in the feedback. Yet, joining a critique group was one of the best thing I did as an author. Overtime, the anxiety’s intensity lessened, so that although I am still anxious the night before receiving criticism, I am more open to it. Joining the group vastly improved my writing in a way that going it alone ever could have. It allowed me to broaden my horizons as a writer. And, by providing criticism of other people’s work, I not only helped improve their writing, but also saw how to improve my own.
Receiving feedback might not get easier, but you can deal with it more effectively if you learn about the different types of criticism. In her book, The Artist’s Way, which I highly recommend, Julia Cameron delineates two types of criticism: criticism that is appropriate and work-enhancing, and criticism that is shaming and damaging.
Shaming and damaging criticism, on the other hand, ‘disparages, dismisses, ridicules, or condemns. It is frequently vicious but vague and difficult to refute’ (Cameron 81). Moreover, it ‘leaves us with a feeling of being bludgeoned. As a rule, it is withering and shaming in tone; ambiguous in content; personal, inaccurate, or blanket in its condemnations’ (Cameron 83). Recognising these differences during a critique session can make all the difference from coming home in tears convinced you don’t have what it takes to be an author, and coming home, a little hurt but resolved to improve your story.
It’s also important to recognise that the artistic part in us is a child and needs protection, much like a parent protects a young child. Therefore, it’s vital you find a critique group in which you feel comfortable to receive feedback. As Cameron says, ‘as artists, we must learn to be very self-protective … we must learn to create our own safe environments. We must learn to protect our artist child from shame’ (81). This means learning ‘to comfort our artist child over unfair criticism’ (Cameron 81) and understand that we cannot control the criticism we receive, only our reaction to it (Cameron 81).
To do this, Cameron recommends the following steps:
- 'Receive the criticism all the way through and get it over with.
- Jot down notes to yourself on what concepts or phrases bother you.
- Jot down notes on what concepts or phrases seem useful
- Do something very nurturing for yourself—read an old good review or recall a compliment.
- Remember that even if you have made a truly rotten piece of art, it may be a necessary stepping-stone to your next work. Art matures spasmodically and requires ugly-duckling growth stages.
- Look at the criticism again. Does it remind you of any criticism from your past—particularly shaming childhood criticism? Acknowledge to yourself that the current criticism is triggering grief over a long-standing wound.
- Write a letter to the critic—not to be mailed, most probably. Defend your work and acknowledge what was helpful, if anything in the criticism proffered.
- Get back on the horse. Make an immediate commitment to do something creative.
- Do it. Creativity is the only cure for criticism' (83).
It’s also important that you learn to let go of your work when submitting it for feedback. Many authors have likened writing a story to giving birth – in each process, you are creating a new life form that has a will of its own. Like a parent has to let a child go out into the world, have their own experiences and make their own mistakes, so too a writer must let a story grow in its own way. This means letting other writers read it. Cameron labels the inability to let go of a piece of work, perfectionism. ‘The perfectionist is never satisfied … To the perfectionist, there is always room for improvement’ (128). However, this pursuit of perfectionism isn’t a pursuit for the best. Rather, it’s a never-ending quest that brings out the part of us ‘that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough’ (Cameron 128). This leads us nowhere. Instead, Cameron recognises that '[a] book is never finished. But at a certain point you stop writing it and go on to the next thing … at a certain point you let go and call it done. That is a normal part of creativity—letting go. We always do the best that we can by the light we have to see by' (128).
Cameron’s final piece of advice on dealing with criticism is to deal with it. Otherwise, it will block your creative endeavours. ‘[A]rtistic losses … must be mourned [because t]he unmourned disappointment becomes the barrier that separates us from future dreams’ (Cameron 136). So forget about the damaging criticism and accept the appropriate criticism for what it is: an opportunity to improve your work. As Cameron says, ‘[t]he artist within, like the child within, is seldom hurt by truth … much true criticism liberates the artist it is aimed at childish’ (136). The antidote to criticism, then, is to love yourself (Cameron 82). The best way to do that is to be creative and get on with the work.
First, give any feedback you receive a few days to settle in. You’ll be amazed at how much more clearly you can interpret the criticism and see that something does need to be changed once you have some space from it. I’ve received criticism I detested only to be inspired by it a few days later.
Second, while I have never found anything to ease the anxiety of having your story reviewed, I have discovered that maintaining a positive attitude and acknowledging that any feedback you receive is ultimately going to help your story helps you get through the feedback session.
Third, learn to trust your gut because it will tell you if a piece of criticism is useful or not. Often, a little voice in your head will go ‘Aha!’ and a feeling of truth and obviousness will resonate through your body. On the other hand, if some feedback doesn’t evoke an emotion of some sort, it probably has no value. The exception to this is grammar and punctuation.
Fourth, remember this is your story and that you have the ultimate decision of what to change or leave as it is. Further, if some criticism rings true for you, don’t feel pressured into utilising it the way the reviewer has suggested. Instead, take the advice, but feel free to implement it in your own way.
Fifth, never feel afraid to express why something in your story should remain the way it is. At best, your reviewer and you will gain some insight into your story. At worst, you can always come to a compromise.
Sixth, and most importantly, remember that the criticism is aimed at your work, not you. Yes, it’s natural to feel like your story is part of you because you’ve put your heart and soul into it, but it is not you. Detach yourself from it. Most authors recommend allowing three months between writing a draft and reading it. I recommend the same for submitting your work for feedback.
Cameron, Julia. The Complete Artist’s Way: Creativity as Spiritual Practice. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher / Penguin, 2007. Print.
See also: http://juliacameronlive.com/