I have been writing as long as I can remember being alive.
Starting from when I could pick up a pen, I wrote. I wrote stories. I wrote diaries. I wrote songs. I wrote drafts of novels. I wrote blog posts. I wrote news articles and features and profiles.
But I’ve never really learned to take criticism all that well.
When faced with criticism, my heart and stomach sink. I flush red. It’s a little bit, I imagine, like that film camera technique where they track in and zoom out at the same (the dolly zoom?). The world skips a beat and fades away, the blood pounding in my ears quickens and grows louder.
I am my own biggest fan
In my second year of high school, I got a group of muso friends together and we performed one of my songs for the annual talent quest. It was a fabulous song. Short, tight, catchy, poppy. I got compliments from two people that I remember: one of my girlfriends and my music teacher.
I was expecting more of my friends to be impressed, frankly. It’s darn hard to write a catchy pop song (though Gaga seems to churn them out no problem). I am still really proud of my amateur effort (which I reckon is on par with some of the Kiwi music that makes it out there) even if hardly anybody else appreciated it.
And also, my own worst critic
I actually can’t bear to read stuff that I’ve had published in print. Despite all the time spent agonising over every word choice, every paragraph, I just lose all perspective on the story. I flip to the page, cast a quick eye over, then quickly slam it shut. Once it’s out of my hands, I don’t really want anything to do with it.
So I’m probably always not the best judge of my own work…
Sometimes I know I’m hot shit. I look back on stuff I had published in high school and am kind of surprised at how mature I was on paper. That song was pretty rad. I have a fond spot for my favourite blog posts (here, here, here and here). And usually, I find my best work happens when it just flows out of me. Writing that I labour over is sometimes up there, but it’s never on the same level.
Learning to take criticism
All my life I was one of those high achievers – a big fish in a small school pond. Then I got myself a pretty practical degree. Unlike friends who did more creative courses, I never learned to get ripped apart and take heat at uni. I’ve definitely never had anyone “shit all over my work”, as a designer I know once put it. I’ve never had my creative work criticised by peers in classes or workshops. The peer review part of every tutorial was kind of a joke; straightforward news stories don’t take much creativity, and writing clean copy was never a problem.
Sometimes I fear news writing has drained me of my creativity. Even writing short, simple reviews sometimes proves an agonising exercise. (I’d be a terrible columnist – I’m a die-hard fence sitter and can never make my mind up on issues, paralysed as I am by both the pros and cons.) And so although I started this old blog completely on the spur of the moment, I’m very grateful I did, because it gives me a space to write freely.
One thing I don’t think I’ll ever forget is my ex telling me that his mother didn’t think I would make it in media, because I couldn’t hack the pressure, the criticism, the pace. And granted, criticism hasn’t featured often in my life. I’ve been spoiled.
Criticism is part of the creative life. If you’re going to create art and put it out there, there will be haters. No creative work is going to appeal to everyone.
Slowly, very slowly, I’m becoming better at receiving it. I’d like to think I get better at dealing every time it happens. My initial reaction is still a defensive one, I won’t lie (psychology dictates that we tend to hold others wholly responsible for their own actions, but play up external factors when the focus is on ourselves and our own faults). I can recognise criticism as being constructive and given in good faith, and appreciate the end result when pushed further.
You need a bit of both, ultimately – the self-belief that keeps you going through those dark periods of creative despair, and the ability to accept and act on feedback.
How are you with accepting – or giving – criticism?