On Criticism

At the beginning? The middle? The end? Cheerleader? Coach? Sharp bastard? Secure? Sensitive? Close? Far? Love?

A new acquaintance recently submitted a novel to a professional editor/writer for some feedback. What he received back was heavy-duty criticism — a lengthy, detailed critique of the story, the grammar, everything.

From the way he described it, it could have been a body blow. It could have finished off his writing aspirations permanently. Instead, though, he’s started rewriting. Clearly this fellow I barely know has strength and character.

This got me thinking about criticism. By criticism I mean ideas and judgement flowing into your work/creative space. It can come from a spouse, a friend, a hired professional, a bystander, your boss, a teacher, a journalist. It can come from yourself.

Criticism can really suck. It can hurt, but it can also teach, and it can also make the difference between mediocre and great work. And it is inevitable. And being able to weather criticism and grow from it is an essential skill.

Consider the When

Criticism has different effects depending on when it is delivered in the creative process. Early on, when I’m just starting out on something, I find that I can be completely derailed by almost any criticism. Often at the start of projects people will point out the difficulties, your deficiencies — all the things that you’ll possibly run into before you’ve even begun. Some of this might be very valid, but at the start of things it tends to suck all the energy out. Instead of the joy of beginning, I find I’m looking at reasons to give up.

Later in a project, I tend to me more open to ideas and critiques, and I’m most open to it at the end, as the project is closer to its final state, perhaps because at this point the project is firm enough that most of what can be said about it will at least be germane to it.

Depending on the project, there are also points where a good bit of advice is exactly what is needed to get you through a creative block.

In general, I’m really wary of any sort of comments or criticism early on in my process, and then as things firm up and I feel more sure of what I’m doing I’ll seek criticism out. It’s like the fontanelle, the soft spot of a baby’s head. You don’t want people pressing down and denting Jr’s skull or brain. Give the baby a chance to harden and build some identity.

Consider the Who

People have different expertise, different beside manners. Take all this into account when seeking out critical feedback, and take it into account when it is unbidden.

It can be great to have a mindless sort of cheerleader in your corner, who loves everything you do, but there is little to learn from them. It’s good for energy, bad for improvement.

It can be great to work with a really sharp bastard of an expert who tears everything apart, finds everything wrong, and is unflinching in delivery of the bad news. The opportunity to learn and improve is immense, but you will feel like shit. Maybe hang out and get a beer with your mindless cheerleader after a day with the really sharp bastard.

There are the clueless self-centered, who tell you how they would do it. They have their ideas, which trump your ideas, and you need to hear about their ideas while your right in the middle of executing your ideas. A clueless self-centered might be useful if they’re also highly competent. I’d be ok with Picasso telling me how he’d do — I’m sure he would, too. But I’ve also found that often people are critical in reverse proportion to ability. A certain world leader comes to mind. I was rehearsing with a band years ago, and a friend of the bass player — a girl who was a singer and I guess he had a thing for her — stopped by and proceeded to tell us what to do, what to play, change these words, do this, don’t do that and on and on. She ended her litany by saying, “I would have told the Beatles what to do.” Fuckin’ Cathy. What an idiot.

I have many tribe members, who understand my work, understand my soft spots, and have a desire to see me improve. These people are essential to what I do. My brother, my friend Cathryn the designer and artist, Kerry the musician, Joe, Mike, Andrew, Michelle, Colm — there are a bunch that I rely on for the right words at the right time.

Totally useful is a coach. A coach is a cross between a mindless cheerleader and a sharp bastard, with the mindlessness toned down and the bastard aspect toned down as well. A coach is tough but also has a sense of when to lay off. A coach knows their stuff, but they might not actually be better at it then you. Often singers and actors have coaches that aren’t great performers themselves but see where the problems lie in others. Perhaps it is knowledge of their own flaws that make this possible. Regardless, a coach you can work with will take you further than you could ever go on your own. Of course, you have to be coachable to work well with a coach. That is another problem.

One of the best sources of critique I’ve ever encountered was a professor in grad school, Peter, who always seemed to know exactly what to say to me at any stage of the process. He was encouraging at the start, specific and very helpful in the middle, and enthusiastic and positive at the ending. He had a knack for getting me to look at my own work differently, seemingly without even a touch of his own judgement.

Perhaps Peter got so adept at critique because his own professor once said to him, “You are simply incapable of making a beautiful mark.” That could have been the torpedo that sank Peter’s ship. Good thing he was made of tougher stuff, and good thing he let the experience change him positively. And good thing I was so lucky to have him as a mentor.

Consider the What and the Where

On what is the criticism focused? What in your work needs criticism? Where are things strong? Where are you weak? Where are you secure? Where are you sensitive

There’s a difference between ideas and execution, a difference between concept and technique. We tend to be sensitive more about our ideas than the way we execute those ideas. A great idea for a song isn’t going to be diminished if the criticism is, “You’re out of tune.” A story that is working will survive having crappy sentence structure pointed out.

“You’re out of tune,” is going to be a knife in the neck of a singer that is struggling with pitch issues, though. And pointing out grammar errors to someone who has a false sense of their writing prowess is going to be unpleasant.

Often I’m really specific about the criticism I’m looking for when discussing projects. Sometimes things are set in stone and it’s a waste of time to discuss them. If you’re putting on Peter Pan and someone advises you to cut the Captain Hook part, well… that’s rather unhelpful, isn’t it?

It’s good to establish the boundaries marking out what you need, and what will be useful.

Let’s say I’m picking photographs, and I’ve narrowed it down to ten, and I need to pick the best five. And I’ve been working on the damn project for four months and I’m sick of the whole thing and I don’t even think any of the work is good anymore… and along comes a friend, and I ask for his opinion, and he looks at the ten for a while, chews his lip, and then says, “Can I see the other 350 things you shot?”

NOOOOOO!!!!! Pick five out of the ten. That is what I need to do. I don’t need a re-evaluation of the whole damn thing. I’m ready to die. Pick ten or I swear to god I’ll get a D20 rollplaying die and pick things that way.

When are you sensitive? When are you tough?

Do you have a sharp bastard? A few cheerleaders? Who can you add to your tribe? Can you find a coach?

Consider Relationship

There’s a song, You Always Hurt the One You Love. Yep. The closer you are to someone (or some thing) the more care and forethought required when criticism or creative work is in the picture. A stranger walks by and says, “That painting sucks.” You get a bunch of anonymous hate mail regarding your project. Seriously, who cares.

Your spouse raises an eyebrow and says, “Really? That’s it?”

ZING! Knife in the throat.

Be careful about who from the innermost circle has admin credentials to the criticism machine. You’ll have to weigh this out for yourself, but I really clampdown on who gets access to what I’m doing, especially early on. And I almost always play the role of the mindless cheerleader for members of my family or close friends, unless they are really specific in terms of what sort of critique they are looking for. Depending on the project, especially as it gets to the end and the final form of it is somewhat inevitable, I refrain from any criticism at all and strictly cheerlead.

Be careful regarding the relationship you have to your work. It is easy to confuse time spent with value of. I learned this in the recording studio making records. Every now and again some part would get tracked, a guitar overdub let’s say, and it would take an inordinate amount of time. Come mix time, sometimes that labored track would suck and really not work. It would become terribly hard to simply self-criticize, know that the track had to go, and cut it from the final mix. I gradually learned to love my work, but not to fall in love with it. Be ok with that which you know is wrong. Peel it off like you do a band-aid — one quick jerk. And then move on.

With criticism in general: find the value, if any, dump the rest, and then move on. You have work to do.

Speaking of, it’s 6:02pm. This is done. There are some parts I like, but overall it is all over the place. It will get better. Things to learn, things to improve. Onward!

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