I take my criticism black.
Yesterday I was in the process of replying to a blog post by one of my colleagues when I realized that my reply had ricocheted off in a direction that had nothing to do with the question he’d posed. The topic had to do with the so-called creative process of working with a team of people as the graphic designer on a given project. The question revolved roughly around the topic of criticism, and, having worked as a graphic designer in some capacity for more than ten years, I felt qualified to chime in. Here’s what I started to say…
It’s the same in every “creative” career field, I’m finding. Taking criticism is part of the job. And somehow we have to figure out what’s constructive and what isn’t. I don’t know how to do that, but I’m trying to learn. So instead of getting defensive when receiving criticism, I smile and nod and wholeheartedly agree, and walk away and isolate myself and fall into a depression for about a day and a half. (This is where I realized that I was no longer talking about what I do at my job but about my experience with creative writing, so I decided to post here rather than comment on my colleague’s blog.) But in that day and a half of feeling like a minivan ran over me, I don’t block out the criticism. Instead, I accept every word of it as absolute truth, and I think really hard about it, over and over again. I wrap it around me and let it all sink in. I dwell on it, really. And what I’ve found is that, after a period of time, the critical skewer isn’t as pointy sharp as it was at first stab. It softens and changes into something malleable that I can work with, and I emerge from my depression with new ideas that I really believe will make my work better. It isn’t until that point that I’m finally able to see the criticism objectively (or at least as objectively as possible) and decide what to work with and what to scrap. If it sounds a little intellectually masochistic, well, it is. But it works. At least for me. At least for now. Hopefully, though, the old adage is true, that practice makes perfect. And eventually, I won’t need to subject myself to the minivan treatment anymore.
Two weekends ago, I completed all the requirements for my master’s degree in creative writing. One of those requirements included receiving feedback from an outside reader—either an agent or an editor in the publishing field. My feedback happened to come from an editor at Penguin Publishing, and her comments, as you could imagine, were expertly targeted. Of course, I didn’t see that bullseye immediately. In fact, it took me longer than usual. It wasn’t that I didn’t immediately know her comments were dead on. I did, and they were, so much so that they made me feel paralyzed. I had worked so hard for an entire year on what she casually referred to as my first draft (in my mind, it was actually my sixth). And even though I knew she was right, I didn’t know if I had the ability to do what she’d suggested. Maybe what I’d already written was the best I could do. So I smiled and I nodded and I wholeheartedly agreed …
Two weeks later, I’m beginning to see the light. I’ve let the comments sink in, and I think I’m ready to take another crack at that manuscript. I’ve assimilated my outside reader’s comments into the mental model I had for my book so that now I can see how to use that feedback to make my book better. I think I can do it. Finally.
I wasn’t kidding when I called this writing thing the neverending process. Still I somehow fooled myself into believing I was finished. When I mailed my “final” manuscript in to the Wilkes University creative writing office on November 24, 2008 to complete my requirements for the master’s degree, I allowed myself the luxury of feeling closure. It’s funny to me now, in a tragicomedic sort of a way. But looking on the positive side, at least I enjoyed that luxurious closure while I had it. And now it’s back to the pages, my constant companions. My trusty old friends.