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Critical Theory

June 14, 2007

I don’t like being told what to do—be it sketching a grouping of cylinders for Introduction to Drawing, analyzing the works of Jane Austen, drawing parallels between historical events from various eras, or deciding what comprises perfect balance in a black and white photograph. There’s only one arena where I’ve learned to graciously accept, evaluate, and apply constructive criticism: writing.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t start out with such an easy relationship between myself and writing advice. I spent years squirreling away every thought in one notebook after another—along with any dreams I had of becoming a “real” writer. Though the fear of being ripped to verbal shreds was the largest obstacle to sharing my work, the possibility of someone else dictating how or what I wrote weighed almost as heavily on my mind.

None of this became any easier after I read articles featuring successful authors who claimed it imperative that mind the demands of their audience. I took such offense that when first venturing into the world of peer review, I fought back like an enraged bull charging the flag-wielding matador. Every comment—good, bad, or indifferent—was a summary judgment, not just about the piece being workshopped, but on my entire worth as a human being. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before I wondered whether or not I was truly up to the demands of seeking publication.

Grace came when I needed it though, in the guise of an editorial position at a locally produced literary magazine. While there I read around a hundred manuscripts—some were great, others were good, many were close but “not quite there,” a few showed their author’s potential, and a handful were God-awful.

My fellow editors and I agonized over the choices: whose work was in or out, did it fit with our overall theme, would readers take offense to this poem or that short story, should we send letters of encouragement to those whose work we came close to choosing but ultimately decided against? And it was through this process that I learned my greatest writing lesson: critique, rejection, praise, acceptance, awards, sales, hurt feelings—none of it matters. Everyone’s first duty—be they an agent, editor, publisher, or writer—is to the story itself; to make every piece the best it can be.

Under the best circumstances, none of us offer criticism because we want to hurt someones’ feelings or because we think their work is garbage. We comment because we want that story, that writer to reach their full potential—and hopefully, receive the same support in return.

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guestwriter1.gif Thanks Catherine James!

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6 Comments
  1. June 14, 2007 7:56 am

    Here, here! Well said!

    The hardest part for me was when I took a couple of creative writing classes in college. We had to make copies of our work for the entire class and when it was our turn to sit in the “hot seat”, we sat there, listened, and made notes. We weren’t allowed to comment or interject. It was hard to hear my classmates rip my story to shreds as my first impulse was to defend myself, but it was a VALUABLE lesson for me because it taught me what worked, and what didn’t, with my audience.

    Now? I simply thank people for their opinions. I don’t defend, I don’t argue. I simply walk away, let it all simmer in my brain for a bit and then when I’ve calmed down, I come back, take what was said into consideration and move ahead.

    Accepting criticism is part of being a writer. The trick is to endure the pain and remain professional.

  2. June 14, 2007 9:47 am

    Your distinction between the writer and the work is so valuable. The critique is on the work, not the person.

    This post is making me think about vanity publishers…Good thing I have a few days to mull it over before I post.

  3. June 14, 2007 12:46 pm

    Hello Catherine,
     It’s so good to read your writing again and you know me I had to write about you in my Blog today; Welcome Back Catherine! 

  4. June 14, 2007 12:54 pm

    Like Karen, I had a creative writing class in college that took that form: Submit work, have it critiqued by the other students, sit there silently soaking it in. Fortunately for me, I didn’t realize how much I had to learn then, so it was just the nerves of putting something out there that got to me. Looking back at that story (I was an 18-year-old freshman and the only Engineering major in the class), I see it chock-full of eye-rolling cliches. But the prose wasn’t too bad, and maybe that’s why the professor let me into the class to begin with.

    More recently, about 18 months ago, I joined writing group and had a very difficult time showing my work for criticism. Not because I thought I was terrific… just the opposite. I hoped I wouldn’t fall into that “God awful” category.

    Three short stories published later, I can point out several discrete points where the critique improved all three stories a lot. Some criticism I ignored, other I heeded, and the end results were far better than before.

    I also learned not to ask my wife to critique my stories. That’s like asking your spouse to point out your flaws. Bad, bad idea.

  5. June 14, 2007 1:23 pm

    Karen – Thank you! Ooo, those Hot Seat sessions were torturous! Talk about a baptism by fire–and you’re absolutely right: remaining silent when all you want to do is defend your “baby” is one of the hardest things for a writer to do. Obviously you’ve mastered the difficult art of “grace under pressure.” Kudos!

    Tammi: Ah, thank you! 🙂 I can’t wait to read your next column!

    pjd: I once heard Ray Bradbury speak and one of his major points was that in the beginning, writers are able to keep sending out their work because they’re unaware of “how bad they really are.” I have to say though, I find your second scenario far more familiar–sitting in a critique group/workshop, waiting to present, and thinking: “Oh Lord, oh Lord, my work is *horrible.* How can I dare show this to another person?!” I think you make an excellent point about spousal critiques as well–unless a couple is certain the comments won’t be taken personally and/or on a larger scale, it’s probably better to find a neutral party. 🙂

  6. June 15, 2007 1:55 am

    Thank you Jeff. Nice to see you again too. 🙂

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