Learning to take criticism

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?

11 thoughts on “Learning to take criticism

  1. Depends on what it is. For the most part, I think I know my own failings (at work, singing, dancing, whatever), and so when someone acknowledges it, fair enough! I continually work on increasing my skill set and/or don’t care how good of a dancer/singer/painter/cook I am or how people view me for those things. I only get embarrassed if it is a criticism of my personality…even though I know my failings there, too, I feel somewhat helpless changing that so it is difficult to hear. I have been described as aloof, wanting friendships on my own terms, closed off, and secretive. It’s all true–I am like that until I absolutely trust someone. And then I am not like that anymore. It just takes time with me. I don’t know how to be open before I trust someone…so yeah, that kind of criticism cuts pretty deep and for someone to not like me because of it, well…it’s tough.

    I am not good at giving criticism. I can usually see the good parts about people and if I believe in them, I will make up excuses for their failings. If I don’t like someone, I usually don’t have to hang out with them enough to criticize them. Even though I mentor people at work, I don’t feel like I’ve had to criticize anything they’ve done (but maybe they would feel differently!)–I view it more as guiding them along a better path.

    P.S. Now I want to hear your pop song!!! :) There’s some good Kiwi shiz out there.

  2. Last year I took a creative writing class. I’ve always loved to write, but never had the courage to take a creative writing class. By far, the hardest part of that class was when we did our round table discussions on each others work. I always ended up red in the face when the class discussed my work (good or bad), I did find that I mostly liked reading and critiquing the rest of the class. I loved reading what they came up with.

  3. Don’t we need (constructive) criticism to grow or learn? Unfortunately, a lot of criticism is not meant to help us in that direction, instead it tears us down. I think we need equal doses of encouragement to keep us going too.

  4. Criticism is tricky. I value honest, fair criticism. I don’t like it, but as long as it isn’t “personal”, I take what I’m told and try to learn from it. I try to deliver criticism the same way – this is why what you did wasn’t the best option; next time try it “this” way.

    But criticism of artistic work? Definitely my own worst critic!

  5. “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.” It’s so funny because I’m the same exact way. When I put a lot of thought into it, I feel like I second guess myself more often instead of just writing from the heart. Of course I like to make edits any time I write so I think it’s the content that I’m talking about.

    I’m my biggest fan and my own worst critic as well. I’m so hard on myself but I truly believe in myself at the same time. We’re all human so it’s natural that we also hate criticism. For someone to lack this certain defense mechanism to get all irritated when someone criticizes our work, it’s perfectly normal!

    I have a tough time dealing with this too and I’m quick to point out someone else’s mistakes… my BF tells me this all the time. I need to learn to be accepting of criticism but also learn not to take it to heart. I’ll beat myself up so much over something and will think too much about it.

  6. Very profound post. It is so true. We love ourselves and think we are amazing but we can also be really hard on ourselves. I know cutting myself some slack has been a personal development project of mine lately. I have learned though that criticism is an opportunity for growth and should be looked at positively.

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