Thursday, July 29, 2010

Believing in yourself - or how I learned to stop worrying and love the critique

You're a writer.  You know it, deep down.  That part of you that has existed since you were a child, that still looks up at the stars or down at the grass and imagines worlds beyond imagining, that part of you knows.  Knows, intimately.  You were born to create.  You were born to describe.  You were born to write.  Then you get your first negative review.

First of all : shock.  How could they say that?  Don't they know how hard you worked, how much you sacrificed?  Don't they care?  Next : denial.  You must have read it wrong.  Surely it doesn't say what you think it does.  Maybe they made a typo, and it changed the whole meaning of their sentence.  Then : outrage.  How dare they?  How dare they?  'I don't see you with a published book/movie/game!' you scream in your mind, silently tearing their criticism apart, syllable by syllable.  'Boring and derivative!  Maybe if you'd ever watched anything other than Big Brother you'd know true originality when you saw it!'  Then : mortification.  What will your friends think?  Will you still have any friends?  And, finally, the big one : what if your critic is... right?

To which the correct answer is : so what?  It's only one person.  Extrapolating one person into many is like saying a grain of sand is a beach.  No sane person will believe you.  But with enough practice, you might be able to convince yourself the beach is real, and therein lies the danger.

We writers, and I haven't met a one of us without this trait, we're not, well, very robust.  Writing is such a soul-baring process that exposing yourself - or what you think of as yourself - to a bunch of strangers who can wound you without a second thought is a terrifying prospect.  Remember when you put a part of yourself into the wide-eyed funny man in chapter 4, who everyone said was hilarious?  And then that one reviewer hated him?  Don't you hate that part of yourself now?

Cut it the hell out.  If you've ever done this, you'll know what I'm talking about.  If you've yet to be critiqued, come forearmed with this knowledge : people don't see you, behind the page.  They're not critiquing you.  It may feel that way, since you know how much of your soul is stuck between the virtual pages of your labour of love.  All they see are words, and all they're thinking about are themselves.

Never forget that.  There are few people - very few - who can give criticism based on what is best for the other person.  For one thing, it requires an intimate knowledge of that person's personality, their drive, what will motivate or destroy them, and their secret and passionate loves.  I'm sorry, but no reviewer, unless they're immediate family, is going to get that close to you.  Breathe a sigh of relief.  Everyone else is simply reacting to their reaction to your work, and, as Epictetus said : "Men are disturbed not by things that happen but by their opinions of the things that happen."  This means that the reviewer/critic is reacting not to the content of your book/story/play/movie/game, but to how that content made him or her feel.  And, as we learned in our turbulent teen years, we're not responsible for how other people feel.  At all.  In the slightest.

Everything is a choice.  Never forget that.  The reviewer has the choice to criticise or praise.  You have the choice to be offended or not.  No one can hurt you without your consent.  That goes for everything in life, and writing no less.  You just have to remember that you are in control of your emotions.

And, if remembering that doesn't help, here are a few simple things that help me get over receiving a bad review :

1) Will it matter in 5 minutes?  5 days?  5 weeks?  5 years?
2) Did you do your best?
3) Have you learned anything new from this experience?
4) Will you be able to do better next time?

If the answer to any part of question 1 is 'no', then, congratulations!  Worry over.  If the answer to questions 2-4 is 'no', then you have a slightly bigger problem.

If you didn't do your best, why not?  Try to figure out what held you back.  Why didn't you give it your all, and is it something you could have reasonably expected yourself to do, at the time?  If you're holding down four jobs and writing five novels in your spare time and you let a couple of typos slip by in the edit, that's an unreasonable circumstance in which to expect better of yourself.  Give yourself a break.

If you didn't learn anything new from the experience, try to uncover why the same thing happened again.  What lesson are you meant to be learning that maybe hasn't caught on yet?  How can you avoid this pitfall in future?  Make a plan, and stick to it.  That will help alleviate your anxiety.

If you don't think you'll be able to do better next time, and it's not a combination of the above, sit down for a minute, because I've got something important to tell you :

The only person you can rely on in this life to believe in you, to really and truly believe that you can do anything, is yourself.

You may have family, or a partner, or children, or a pet.  They love you.  They believe in you, I'm sure.  But they have their own lives.  You're not going to get too far if you need guidance every step of the way.  Eventually you need to stand on your own two feet, and if that means being able to take criticism, then shrug into your thick skin and wade into the fray.  Life is going to be a whole lot easier if you can actively be aware of when you're doing your best, and when you should be learning.  Only when you can see the problem will you know how to fix it.  Only when you believe in yourself will you be able to convince others to believe in you.

Every stumbling block is a learning exercise.  Every critique is a chance to do better.  Genuine constructive criticism is a rarity, so look for it where you can.  Any chance to improve is one you should grab hold of with all your might.  There's a chance it might sting, for a little, but your pride can take it.  It's tough.  And it'll take the fall for you so you don't have to.  Just keep doing your thing, keep believing in yourself, and keep doing your best.  It's all anyone can ask of you, and it's all you should expect of yourself.  Any more and you're just setting yourself up for disappointment, and that's no way to become an award-winning author.

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