Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Using Criticism to Foster Growth

The most difficult challenge for a writer isn't putting words on the page but taking them off again. When inspiration strikes and we get into that rhythm of key strokes and all the words seem to flow so smoothly we become attached to that piece of writing. It becomes our child to be nurtured gently. Add a word here. Take one out there. We reread the passage over and over smirking at our genius. This, this will certainly be in the Norton Anthology for American Literature in the next 5...maybe 10 years. Before you get too cozy next to Mark Twain, I have some bad news. All first drafts are shitty.

In case you are confused, it's right here.
When I was a member of a writer's group it would always frustrate me when I'd spend the time reading and analyzing someone else's work for hours just to see them grimace with the slightest suggestion that their work was anything less than perfect. Well, why would you even submit it if all you wanted was a pat on the back? I suppose I was being naive to think that these people actually wanted to get better at writing. Let me just say, there were some people there who I really respected and I thought contributed a lot to our meetings, like my friend Ali (hi!). But for the most part I think our members were too afraid to take any real risks with their writing i.e. using backspace. 

I remember one guy in particular that REALLY pissed me off. Maybe you know the type. Refused to listen to anyone's constructive criticism. Permanent pretentious smirk pasted onto his stupid face. Said things like, "You just don't understand." Sure, sometimes people aren't going to get it. But if no one gets it then there's probably something you need to work on; such as the fact that there are more adjectives than nouns which makes it read like a jumbled thesaurus. Oh and then he says how he wants to write for The New Yorker. Yeah, very ambitious. I can respect that. However, there's no way you're getting there if you think that every single word that's vomited from your holier than thou gullet is made of puppies and unicorns....

I'm going to my room to surf reddit forever. 
As I criticize this guy for his facade I pretend like I don't have one of my own. I wrote this creative nonfiction piece about a very devastating, tumultuous time in my life. However, since most of the work that we read in my group was fiction everyone just assumed that mine was too. So there I sat listening to my peers dissect the main character (me) saying she's "fragile" and "misguided." It was really weird. On one front my writing was being torn apart and on the other end it was a personal attack. I got this sickening feeling that started in the pit of my stomach and radiated distally. And I was stone faced. Trying not to flush or sweat. It didn't work.

It's so hard to sit at a writer's group and listen to people pulverize something that you poured your heart and soul into. We're taking a risk and becoming vulnerable to a potentially hostile audience and if we're hurt then we're much less likely to take the same risk again. The thing is, how are we supposed to grow as writers and as human beings if we never take any risks? Isn't it the free nature of art and creative writing (or anything really) that draws us to these fields? Aren't we limiting ourselves if we don't explore new ideas?

Often times we feel like the person offering the criticism doesn't understand or is preventing us from being ourselves. I would not give people enough credit to figure me out, since I'm clearly a warm and gooey homemade cookie crafted from the heart in a room full of Chips Ahoy. We want to believe that we are original. And sometimes we are. But we need to cut back on the defense mechanisms and start seeing criticism for what it is: an opportunity for growth.

The beginning of something beautiful.
In an attempt to be concise, I've deleted something like 750 words worth of sentences that dance around ideas that I'm trying to relay. I'm admittedly a little rusty from months where the only time I'd write was when I needed to make a grocery list. This isn't stopping me though. I'm ready to grow and learn new rhetorical tricks and maybe discover new things about myself and the intricacies of human nature. I'm going to write until I hit something really truthful and important. I'm writing because it's what I love and it's what I was born to do. The fear of failure and disapproval will no longer deter me. In fact, bring on the failure! Because in the end it will only make me better.