The Most Important Critic is You: Thoughts on the Nature of Criticism

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“I have spent a good many years since―too many, I think―being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction or poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.”

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

“[A] writer’s most powerful weapon, his true strength, was his intuition, and regardless of whether he had any talent, if the critics combined to discredit an author’s nose for things, he would be reduced to a fearful creature who took a mistakenly guarded, absurdly cautious approach to his work, which would end up stifling his latent genius.”

Félix J. Palma, The Map of Time

“Still the voices of your critics. Listen intently to your own voice, to the person who knows you best. Then answer these questions: Do you think you should move ahead? How will you feel if you quit pursuing this thing you want to do? And what does your best self advise? What you hear may change your life.”

Steve Goodier


I used Goya’s painting of “Saturn devouring his sons” to symbolize the adverse effects of toxic criticism on the creative process.  In an earlier post on this subject, I used the image of a Dementor from the Harry Potter books, but the message is similar: certain kinds of criticism devour rather than inform or inspire.  While some criticism is necessary and valuable, even crucial to our development as writers, how does one differentiate between helpful and toxic criticism?

While the following provides a few general thoughts, I know there are more.  Please share some of your own in the comments below. I would love to hear what you all think on this subject.  I have been surprised at how many of us struggle with this area. There is also the truth that sometimes we can be our own worst critic, too.

  • Constructive criticism gives specific, practical advice about how to improve your writing, while honoring the creative process itself and the ideas you are trying to convey (even when the critic disagrees with your ideas).  There is a sincere, or at least objective desire to help you become a better writer, while providing possible alternative viewpoints.
  • Non-constructive criticism on the other hand, often comes in the form of a general, non-specific, or blanket rejection of your writing and your ideas.  This form of criticism confuses rejection of your ideas with your writing style or technique. There is no intent to help you improve as a writer, but rather to belittle or discourage.

I don’t mean to imply that tough criticism always has such a negative intent, of course.  If I want to improve, I have to be willing to receive feedback and constructive criticism. However, the main thing to discern is, “Why is this person saying this to me?  What is their intent?  Is there anything I can take from these comments that serves me?”  While I always prefer constructive criticism over the negative kind, there is usually something I can learn from any type of criticism.

For one thing, it has taught me to detach, toughen up, and use criticism more effectively.  I learned to ignore it in some cases, and in other instances to stop being so defensive and at least hear what my critics had to say.  I even learned to ask them questions and find out why they felt the way that they did. Conversely, I also learned to balance that openness with the importance of being true to myself first. I learned that while I can always improve my technical skills or how I communicate my ideas, I won’t change the bedrock of what I believe or write just to please other people.  As Raymond Carver once said about what his favorite professor taught him (who also was a tough but caring critic):  “If the words and sentiments [of a writer] are dishonest, the author is faking it, writing about things he or she does not care about or believe in, and the result is that nobody else will ever care anything about it either.”  This is what the best of my writing teachers and critics taught me as well.

Graphic though the above Goya painting may be, I think it is a good illustration of what happens to our self-confidence and to the creative process when we allow negative criticism to affect us adversely.  That is when criticism turns toxic.  As Eleanor Roosevelt once advised:  “No one can make you inferior without your consent.”   As writers and artists, we must always refuse to give our consent. Instead, to choose to believe in who we are and what we are moved to voice or create.  If we don’t, no one else will.  And, at the end of the day, isn’t our opinion about who we are and what we want to say the most important one anyway?

Question:  How many critics do we remember?  Mostly likely none.  How many great and innovative thinkers, writers, and artists do we remember?  And the latter always had more than their fair share of critics.  We are the richer that those great minds being criticized weren’t afraid to shake things up and neither should we.

Art, Literature, Poetry, and Connectedness

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“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”   – James Baldwin

When I read a book, hear a poem, or write — I feel connected to a world where things make sense.  Real life, on the other hand, can sometimes seem the opposite.  In addition to its other gifts of beauty, literature, art, and music help me better understand life.  Like James Baldwin, I don’t feel alone, yet it also puts my one small life into perspective.  Regardless of whether we are one voice among many, it doesn’t mean that the one voice is any less valuable or meaningful to the whole.  Reading or observing any art form is like hearing another human being’s cry in the wilderness as it mingles with our own.  Art connects us — not only to ourselves– but to each other.

I get a similar feeling when I look up and see a starlit sky, painted with an endless stretch of tiny brilliant sparkling lights, thousands of miles away, seemingly unreachable.  But then I find myself focusing only on one tiny speck of light–one unique star amongst a galaxy of trillions. Yet that one star doesn’t seem any less miraculous because it is only one in a billion trillion others.  We are like those tiny individual stars, each of us but one in the eons of other human beings who have lived on this Planet.  Yet each one is individual and unique, suspended in the common sky we call the human condition. If that seems paradoxical, it is; because that is the nature of being human: reconciling all these aspects of ourselves with life and finding our place in it.

While such an awareness only increases my awe, it also keeps me from taking myself too seriously in the vast “Scheme of Things.” I am aware that I am not alone and that I matter, and so does everyone else.  People–past and present–have experienced all that I have or most likely ever will.  The circumstances may be different, but we are equal and one in the larger and continually evolving mosaic of what it means to be human.  When we read, create, play, listen, love — we connect ourselves to all that has ever been and all that will ever be, and find our spot in the ancient constellation of life.

The Work at Hand

“I find myself most drawn to art that has arisen from a deeply personal conversation between the artist and the work at hand. It is art that walks perilously close to the Edge, that crosses the river of blood into the Faerie, that flies so high it is scorched by the sun, and then returns to tell the tale to us.  It is art that needed to be written, or painted, or sung, or woven, or otherwise shaped.  It is art gifted by the Mystery to the maker, and then in turn, gifted to us.”

— Terri Winding

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know. Writing is nothing.  You just sit at the typewriter and bleed.”

— Ernest Hemingway

Using Hemingway’s metaphor, we know that open wounds bleed and so do open souls:  creating works of art that flow from the deepest parts of ourselves and of life.  Whether our creating begins with “writing the truest sentence we know,” as Hemingway so brilliantly instructs us to do,”or walking over the river of blood” as Winding describes in her beautiful metaphors, we write our truth.

There have been times in my life when I wrote from those places of despair.  As I have said before, they could also be portals of inspiration and healing despite their rigor.  Other times I wrote from the opposite end of the spectrum: happy, joyous, celebratory times, which also inspired me to write.  There were also rare and special times when inspiration would seemingly come from nowhere, like the rush of an incoming tide, leaving in its wake a flood of words on paper that flowed easily and almost effortlessly.

These are the times when, as mystical as it may seem, I feel as if I am being guided from a Source outside myself: yet its voice and medium are my own experience and understanding, like the liturgical metaphor of the connection between bone and marrow.  During these times I feel as if the creative process is almost like an act of worship, but not in the traditional sense of the word.  Rather, it is a journey, where I travel the outermost reaches of my soul and find God there waiting. Others will call their creative experience something entirely different, and it is right that they do: there is no single definition for the creative process, unique as it is to each writer or artist.  Perhaps we all draw from the same Source, I don’t know; but each time we create we give ourselves a glimpse of what is possible.

I wish I could have these mystical experiences every day, but of course I don’t.  Those times are wonderful, absolutely, but much more common is the simple day-to-day discipline of writing, the choice to create as an act of will and heart.  I struggle a lot — writing this particular post being one of those times.  I felt like I couldn’t put two cohesive thoughts together.  My Inner Bitch was urging me to skip writing this week and “apologize to the entire Blogosphere for having the audacity to post this piece of crap.”  :)   Life is messy; writing sometimes is too.  And so I write from this particular part of my own shadow, stare that Bitch down and write … anyway.  As Jack London once said, “You can’t always wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.”

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Many bestselling authors admit they still struggle with self doubt despite their success.  I found that comforting. In his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King mentions how he will work feverishly for as long as it takes to get everything out that he wants to say before he will go back and edit.  He said if he stops before he gets all of it out, his self-doubt will kick in and he then finds it hard to finish.  In the closing paragraph of his book, he wrote of the hope that what he wrote will give his readers the “permission slip” to go out there and just do it:

“You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will. Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative art.  The water is free.  So drink.  Drink and be filled up.”  

Stephen King’s encouragement reminded me of a similar quote from Goethe, written over two hundred years ago:

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

As writers and artists, we can wait for those splendid divine moments or we can write our way into them.  Either way is a gift.  Hemingway’s timelessly beautiful advice on “writing the truest sentence we know,” is a writer’s best first step.  That truest thought begins the conversation that Winding says is “between the artist and the work at hand.”  Begin: write from the shadow, “walk the Edge,” “cross over the river of blood into the Faerie,” or “fly so high you are scorched by the sun;” –but however you do it,  just begin.  And wherever that first step of truth may take you, please “return to tell the story” of that Divine conversation you found along the way.  We are as hungry to participate in that conversation as you are to create it.

Photo Sources (in order of appearance):

Photographer: Glores.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Computer_keyboard.gif

Photographer: Zaui/Scott Catron.  http://www.flickr.com/photos/zaui/4455991107/in/photostream/

Photographer: Weinstock.  http://pixabay.com/en/hand-child-paint-play-colorful-93168/

Artist:  Winslow Homer. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Incoming_Tide,_Scarboro_Maine_by_Winslow_Homer,_1883.png

Photographer: Katara. katara1439.deviantart.com

Artist: Sarah Klockers-Clauser. https://www.flickr.com/photos/sarabbit/4549185468/

Photographer: Chandra Spitzer. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:M82_Chandra_HST_Spitzer.jpg

 

Viktor Frankl

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What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.  – Viktor Frankl

Victor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and neurosurgeon who had barely begun his professional career when he was condemned to die, along with millions of other Jews at the onset of World War II.  During that time, Dr. Frankl was imprisoned in no less than four Nazi concentration camps, one of which was the most horrific and notorious: Auschwitz, where over 1,500,000 people alone died in its gas chambers.

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WAR & CONFLICT BOOK ERA:  WORLD WAR II/WAR IN THE WEST/THE HOLOCAUST

During the War, Dr. Frankl also lost his wife, his parents, and most of his family.  He miraculously survived this horror and afterward wrote a book about his experience (written in just under 9 days), entitled Man’s Search for Meaning.  To date, this influential book has sold over 14,000,000 copies and has been translated into twenty-four languages.  By many accounts it is one of the most important books of our time, and I agree.  This book was completely life changing for me and continues to deeply influence me.

In the forward to the 1992 edition of his book, Dr. Frankl reveals what drove him to write his book in the first place:

I had wanted simply to convey to the reader by way of a concrete example that life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones.  And I thought that if the point were demonstrated in a situation as extreme as that in a concentration camp, my book might gain a hearing.  I therefore felt responsible for writing down what I had gone through, for I thought it might be helpful to people who are prone to despair.

In summary, Dr. Frankl believed this search for meaning and purpose is the most important task we have in life and described three primary ways in which we find it:  (1) by creating a body of work or doing something we feel is important or relevant; (2) through love (a deep connection to someone or something other than ourselves); and 3) by finding meaning in our suffering.  While Dr. Frankl is quick to point out that suffering in and of itself is meaningless (and to be avoided if possible), if we do find we cannot escape our suffering, we attempt to find meaning in it. He writes that this act of choice will not only help transform the experience, but ultimately will give us the courage and strength to rise above it.

So how does this specifically apply to the act of writing?   Undoubtedly, Dr. Frankl was a brilliant doctor and clinician, and while he wrote many books from this point of view, his most powerful and influential book came from his own personal experience. Through the act of writing about his suffering, he exemplified for us his own guidance in how we find meaning in our own lives:  (1) he found meaning in his suffering (in his case, to help others, which also was an act of love); (2) through love (one example of which he relates in the book: how during a particularly terrible time in his imprisonment, his despair made him want to give up; but he found a mystical yet very real and present strength when recalling the love of his wife); and (3) he wrote a seminal book and created a professional practice and school of psychotherapy around what he learned from his experiences[1].

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There is so much more to Dr. Frankl’s book and life’s work than I can adequately relate here, so please try and read Man’s Search for Meaning if you can.  It is an inspiring and beautifully written book, and one that I can promise you will touch, inspire, and encourage you no matter what your background or circumstance.  And of course, do “give voice and effort” to your own quest for meaning, whatever path yours may take.  Perhaps you will find that a life or two (or more) gets changed in the process: most notably, of course, your own.

With that, I will close with Dr. Frankl’s own closing words at the end of his book:

A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining.  What he becomes—within the limits of his endowment and environment—he has made out of himself.  In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints.  Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.

Our generation is realistic, for we have come to know man as he really is.  After all, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.

For those who have read the book, please leave your own thoughts and reflections in the comments.  I would love your help in honoring this beautiful man and his work.


[1] One Note: Dr. Frankl emphasized that even prior to his experiences in the concentration camps he deeply believed in these ideas.  His experiences in the camps only strengthened his original core beliefs and thereafter crucially shaped his clinical practice for the rest of his life.

Photo Sources (in order of appearance):

Photo by Dr. Franz Vesely. http://tr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dosya:Viktor_Frankl2.jpg

Photo by Mariusz Cieszewski.  https://www.flickr.com/photos/polandmfa/8736839849/

Photo by Private Ralph Forney (Army). http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:At_the_German_concentration_camp_at_Wobbelin.jpg

Book Cover. Galicia Musuem Publications. http://www.shop.galiciajewishmuseum.org//produkty/mans-search-for-meaning.html

Photo by Michael Schaffner. https://www.flickr.com/photos/

Photo by Travis Forsyth. https://www.flickr.com/photos/forsytht/5844157752

Photographer unknown.  Viktor Frankl Institute. www.viktorfrankl.org/

Photographer “CAHairyBear.”  https://www.flickr.com/photos/91173606@N00/5766331983/

The Artistic Temperament

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“The artistic temperament sometimes seems a battleground, a dark angel of destruction and a bright angel of creativity wrestling.”   ~ Madeline L’Engle

Depression or some other related mood disorder afflicts about 1 in 10 Americans.[1]  While this is worth noting statistically to show that it is a growing and common problem in our culture, there has always been a disproportionate number of writers and artists who suffer from some type of mood disorder.  There are many theories that are still being debated as to why this might be, but the cause is still not completely understood.

Some say there is a genetic or biological predisposition to mood disorders, which can also produce an extraordinary creative talent or genius.  Others debate that the same sensitivity and awareness required to produce great works of imagination also make one sensitive to the shadow side of life, inflicting a higher tendency toward melancholy, depression, anxiety, or addictions.  Others conclude that abuse or other trauma is the cause, while others claim a more utilitarian approach: art is often simply the result of individuals trying to express or create meaning out of their experiences, whether celebrating life or simply trying to rise above its wounds.  Perhaps it is a combination of some or all of these factors: an alchemy unique to each individual, and therefore not easily defined.  This latter position is the one I prefer to take.

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In her book, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament[2], Kay Redfield Jamison (a physician who also writes from personal experience) explores a more clinical approach to this subject.  She writes:

 The fiery aspects of thought and feeling that initially compel the artistic voyage—fierce energy, high mood, and quick intelligence; a sense of the visionary and the grand; a restless and feverish temperament—commonly carry with them the capacity for vastly darker moods and grimmer energies, and occasionally, bouts of “madness.”  These opposite moods and energies, often interlaced, can appear to the world as mercurial, intemperate, volatile, brooding, troubled, or stormy.  In short, they form the common view of the artistic temperament, and, as we shall see, they also form the basis of the manic-depressive temperament.  Poetic or artistic genius, when infused with these fitful and constant moods, can become a powerful crucible for imagination and experience.

Dr. Jamison also makes the point that there is much more to the artistic temperament than that which falls into a “biological or diagnostic grid.”  Obviously, not all writers and artists suffer from the effects of a mood disorder or other mental illness.  I mention her work here as but one factor of the shadow experience.  Whether we as writers and artists fall within her grid of experience or not, the focus of this blog is how to harness our shadow experiences– in whatever form, substance, or circumstance–into an act of creation and healing.

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Next week I will post about an extraordinary man, Victor Frankl, who has much to say on this subject from a slightly different perspective.  For those of you not familiar, Dr. Frankl was a Jewish neurologist and psychiatrist in Vienna during the 1930s, and was eventually condemned to die in Auschwitz during World War II.   He miraculously survived the notorious death camp and afterward wrote a book about his experience:  Man’s Search for Meaning.  One of the three primary ways Dr. Frankl believes human beings find meaning is through the act of creation–whether artistic or some other body of work.  He believes that finding such meaning is essential to our mental, emotional, and spiritual health.  Please tune in next week for that discussion.


[1] Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2011 Statistics)

[2] Jamison, Kay Redfield. Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 1993 (pp. 2-3)

Photo Sources (in order of appearance):

Shesterrni. http://shesterrni.deviantart.com/art/Light-and-Darkness-fight-194881981

Lucio Torre, Photographer. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bright_Darkness.JPG

Raven Raith.  http://www.deviantart.com/art/A-Spirit-s-Bond-Light-and-Darkness-269164755

James Baldwin

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“All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up.”  — James Baldwin

James Baldwin is one of my favorite writers.  As a gay black man coming of age in the 1940s and 1950s, he experienced discrimination from two fronts and thus shaped his lifetime activism. He was ruthless in his pursuit and expression of the truth–his truth certainly, but also the truth of the human condition: good and evil and all inbetween.  He is an amazing writer, able to slice right through any illusion or mask I might hold dear and yet somehow at the same time lift me up out of the depths of the shadow and into the light.  He urges us to have the courage to face every dark thing and turn it into love — in all its many forms.   There is much more to say about this brilliant man than I can write in one post, but I urge anyone who has not read his work to do so.  He is one of the best examples of someone who wrote from the shadows of fear, racism, and prejudice of almost every kind.  In writing about it, he found the strength and clarity to overcome those things.  He found his voice, the light of truth as he saw it, and the transforming power of love, art, and simply having the courage to speak the truth and do the right thing.

He believed that love was the ultimate goal of human existence, and the only way to survive, transform, and overcome all that brings itself against love.  He describes it in this way:

“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace—not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth… You must learn to make love with whatever it is that frightens you.”

James Baldwin not only wrote of how to transform the shadow within a person, but the shadows of society as well–including the ones that oppressed and attempted to silence his own voice.  Perhaps most of us have not faced the obstacles he did; however, he doesn’t differentiate between his struggles and someone else’s.  I find this remarkable in itself.  In writing of how he fought to be who he is and overcome all that came against him, he left a legacy for every human being, writer or not, to do the same thing with what we fight against or what fights against us.

He wrote his mind and in that process he certainly found personal healing of course, although he would have used a different definition for it than that.  For him, the healing path took the course of an often fierce adherence to truth:  personal or otherwise–no matter how painful, difficult, or even dangerous that may be.  His legacy is a brilliant body of work and an example of a life that transformed his pain into something that brought light, love, and truth into the most darkened recesses of racism and intolerance.   To be able to face hatred and stand unflinchingly truthful and strong in self respect and love for others is inherent in his writing and his life.

Two short bios on James Baldwin:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Baldwin

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/10427.James_Baldwin

Image Source:

Photo of James Baldwin from Wikipedia Commons, a freely licensed media file repository.