Opening the Door to Criticism

Back when I was in high school and was still very involved in music, I remember the terror of upcoming performances. A school orchestra concert was fine, but it was the solo moments of performing that always terrified me. It was the recitals, auditions, festivals, competitions, and all that jazz that had me a nervous quaking mess.

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My trophy for six years of consecutive excellent ratings in the Certificate of Merit festival

After failing one audition my senior year, I had a long talk with my private violin teacher where I lamented how my nervousness had destroyed me, even though I’d been very well prepared. Her advice to me is something I’ve never forgotten.

Practice regularly in front of other people, she said. Sit down and make your family and your friends and other people listen to you over and over and over again. And you’ll start to get over some of the jitters. The best thing you can do is practice.

I took her advice for my next piano festival, pulling a few friends aside after class to make them sit in a practice room with me while I played my pieces for them. And it really did seem to help in some respects.

Violin 1

Me at my violin recital

What I’d never considered before this year, was doing the same thing with writing and the thing I feared above all else: criticism.

I am a sensitive person. I hate hearing negative things, whether about myself or my writing or something else entirely. I just don’t take it well. At all. But the thing is, this last year I decided to do a novel for my senior thesis project. I knew that would involve regular checkups with my professors who would end up reading my works and looking at them critically. I was understandably nervous.

And yes, my first few meetings with my advisors were rough. I was embarrassed and extremely jittery. What I found, however, was that the more I practiced giving my works to others, the easier it became.

I had to do a writing group for one of my classes, I was taking a fiction writing class at the time constantly putting short stories in front of my peers, I sent out a plea on Facebook for readers and gave a few drafts to different friends.

Now, I won’t just pretend I can now hand over a manuscript with absolutely no fear, but I certainly stopped hesitating in hitting a send button to send a section to someone. I stopped having to do three edits before being brave enough to give my work away. I started feeling less hurt every time someone told me something I needed to change or suggested I do a rewrite.

Constructive-Criticism

I think my violin teacher really hit home with the basic concept. The more you get used to something that seems intimidating and difficult, the less scary it becomes. Normalizing and immersing yourself in a fear can help you adjust to it.

So my advice for being more open to criticism may seem a little odd, but the best thing you can do to is to take more of it. Keep giving your work out to people. Keep working on being more open to feedback and realizing it’s helpful. Keep being brave and testing yourself. But also keep recognizing the small victories for what they are. It isn’t easy sharing with others, nor is it easy facing potential negative feedback or more critical points, but like any good thing in life, practice makes perfect.

Here are just a few ideas: join a writing group, put up a Facebook post asking for readers, ask a friend, find an online writing community, ask a mentor, teacher, or professor (for students especially), find a website to post works on, try posting sections of your work on a blog, and just keep an eye out for opportunities to submit works to different places or give it to further readers.

How do you deal with criticism? What methods do you use to be brave? How do you choose who gets to read your work? Just a few good questions to get some conversations rolling. Let me know your thoughts!

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Opening the Door to Criticism

  1. asotherswere

    So absolutely true. I’m a pianist and a writer and a Shakespeare actor, and you really just have to acclimate to it and remember all the while that they don’t hate you. They just want you to perform better as an artist. In a way, constructive criticism is a compliment: they care enough about you to try and help you do what you do in the best way possible. 🙂

    • Aw yes acting would most certainly be the same way! And that’s a great attitude towards constructive criticism. I’ll have to remember that in the future.

  2. Great post! It used to take me half an hour or more to work up the courage to hit the darn send button when I was emailing a manuscript or chapter out for critique. But the more I do it, the easier it gets. In fact, criticism has become incredibly motivating for me, and I can tell that there comes a point in my writing process where I need some feedback to push me forward. Sometimes it’s a relief to have someone who has read what I’ve written just so I can talk to them about it and bounce ideas off of them.

  3. Excellent post. Interestingly the one thing that stuck out to me didn’t have anything to do with playing an instrument or writing, etc. It had to do more with interaction between two people. “The more you get used to something that seems intimidating and difficult, the less scary it becomes.” Being honest with people, even in small things is difficult for me at times. I’m guessing it works pretty much the same way…

    • That’s another great one to get more practice at! Great thoughts, I hadn’t even thought about it. I think that’s the best part of the principle, is it applies to lots of areas of life. 🙂 Thank you for commenting!

  4. Great post, Emily. Is that photo of you playing violin?

  5. Nice picture of you fiddling around with a violin. 😉
    Great article. I hate criticism too. And, opening up to it is surely a great inoculation. Yet, I have had limited exposure, so I’m hardly one to talk.
    But, here’s a question I pose: When is it right for an artist to say, ‘you’re wrong’ concerning criticism? I am not out to stress a kumbaya mentality that states ‘It only matters if you like it,” for if we want our work to sell, someone, somewhere has to like it. And certainly, I have issues creating this shell of arrogance that says, ‘they’re just not smart enough to understand what I’m trying to do.’ As do a number of indie and literary writers out there that criticize everything and anything mainstream. Maybe, others are smart enough, and they simply don’t like it. I know there have been works (supposedly deep ones) that I have understood, but haven’t liked.
    But, how does one know when the critics are wrong? I remember hearing Cloris Leachman once speak of how, because certain actors ‘know’ the right things they’re supposed to do, they believe they are good actors. She in turn stressed they are not good actors, but cliché. I liked that application for writing.
    So, what do you do with criticism that goes as such, “for this genre you’re supposed to yada…” When in you’re thinking, “Yeah, but I hate it when they do that.” Didn’t many of the great transitionalists meet such criticism? Yet, I guess, maybe… that’s the hope arrogant wannabe writers cling too? I don’t know.
    P.S. I’m even a bit fearful to send this hunk of comment.

    • I think ultimately it’s up to the author to decide if the criticism is right or wrong. But if he or she is getting the same feedback from multiple people then it’s probably a good indication that he or she might want to change what’s “wrong”. I wrote a short story for my writing class last year and probably 90% of people reading it said the characters were great, but one reader said she hated them and thought they were flat. I was a bit uncertain at first, but I kept remembering all the ways I knew that the characters were well developed and all the ways others had told me so, so I eventually disregarded her criticism entirely. That’s just what I think, but you know I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to decide. Sometimes critics might have a good point. Other times they just might not get what you’re trying to do or say.
      And don’t you ever be fearful about sending fantastically long comments. I love it! Great question, wish I had a better answer about it!

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