“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.”
“[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.”
“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.”
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.