This is the second part in a two-part post about criticism. You can read Part I here.
I had a lot of fun putting this little thing together. Well. Is fun the right word? Maybe not. More that it was useful, personally. It was even sort of soothing. It was like having cups of tea with lots of wise people. I hope it might be useful and soothing to other people too.
I am really grateful to everyone who responded.
Sean Donnelly, musician
I write songs. Sometimes good ones. Mostly bad or indifferent ones.
I think that scar tissue tends to build up around criticism. When the time comes, and there always comes a time, I will take a secret gulp and put on my best ‘couldn’t give a shit’ face.
Not too early though. Hide the little ones away. The spidery constructions that start out barely there . . . ‘Shut up, I’m trying to listen to the still small voice of god.’ I alone must protect them as I’m the only one who can see them. If somebody opens my door at the wrong time they tend to collapse and crumple as reality blows in . . .
Criticism. Most of the time, if it’s from a friend, it tends to smart a little. A bit like an acupuncture needle going in – you don’t know if it’s going to do you any good, but you’ve got to go through it on the off-chance it will make you better.
So many songs made better, though . . . and so many casualties.
I tend to think there’s always a better version of something floating around in the ether. Criticism can be that very necessary provocation – a little zap when energy is flagging – to renew one’s resolve to find that better version. Generally speaking it’s hard for people to criticise another’s work – and that hard-won honesty can potentially bring work to life again. It’s heartening to know that they believe in you enough to inflict a little pain.
Some folks are always critical, though. I don’t have too much to say about them. If they’re not dead to me, then they’re, at least, a little transparent around the edges.
But by far the worst critics tend to be the unconscious ones.
Firstly, the blurters. The pricks that pop your bubble with an unguarded remark or comparison. Bang. Gone in a flash. How can you hold it against them though? Doesn’t that innocent honesty encapsulate all that you want your art to be? To puncture pomposity and pretension with an easy profundity. Just smile through the pain. Revel in that perfect humiliating moment of clarity.
Secondly. Worstly. Those who just go silent, wander off, change the subject or politely ignore the growing stench of desperation. Was it just OK? Was it an abomination? Was it cheesy, sloppy, unresolved?? Too arcane? Or merely not to their taste? The silent critic has put a hex on you. Sometimes the only way for that hex to lose its power is to beg for its removal – then, just maybe, the truth might set you free….but quite often too late for that song, melody, lyric or whatever . . .
The song you loved despite itself dies a painful death . . .
. . . nothing to do but write another in its honour.
Rosabel Tan, writer and editor
Good criticism is an act of empathy. I think our capacity to absorb negative feedback is huge if it’s coming from people we trust: people who understand what we’re striving for and who speak with that in mind. I remember working on this short story for weeks and weeks before nervously showing a friend. Problem is, there wasn’t any plot. It was recognisably autobiographical and it whimpered with self-pity. The term he used was ‘fleeting and underdeveloped’. Those words stung like hell. I was working near the hospital at the time, and I remember walking over to the domain and sitting on the grass for an hour, staring glumly at a group of people doing lunchtime aerobics. Being told your fiction isn’t working inevitably feels like an attack of some essential part of your character, and there are all sorts of decisions – not least of all why we make things in the first place – that make this true. I’m not sure I would have taken the comment seriously if it’d been anyone else, but ultimately I knew he was right. I’d been serving my own aching ego more than I’d been serving the story I was trying to write, and I hadn’t developed the distance to see that. Some stories need to be written so they can be thrown away.
We sometimes get criticised for work that’s been published (or not published) on The Pantograph Punch. Sometimes it’s totally warranted, and the conversations and changes it sparks are essential to becoming a better publication. Sometimes it’s more mean-spirited, and it’s impossible not to feel anxious and bruised. But it also comes back to intent: only some elements of a nasty review are ever truly for you. The rest of it’s for the readers, for the clicks, or it’s ego-building stuff (I’ve certainly been guilty of the latter two in the past). All that being said: it doesn’t get easier. So you learn what you can, you remind myself why you do what you do, you try to be decent and you have a pizza in bed.
Pip Adam, short story writer and novelist
I think my brain, like that rational part of me, can process criticism pretty well, like I can read it and think, ‘Oh yeah, fair enough.’ Especially when I’m getting criticism from people I trust and respect – like in a workshop or conversation, I often feel a strong sense of, ‘These people know what this needs to be and they are helping me make it the best it can be at that.’ But I often get this real, um, physical response to public criticism, like I feel it really acutely in my body. It feels like shame. Like that hardcore shame that feels like it stems from a moment in prehistory when if your herd thought you’d done something wrong you’d die. I also often feel quite sick, like physically ill. I can be thinking, ‘Okay, this is cool,’ but my body is freaking out. I remember the first reviews I got of my short stories, like public reviews, and I was so ashamed and I felt really guilty – like I’d brought this horrendous, upsetting thing with not much value into the world, and was parading it round. It’s such an odd feeling, like you get undressed at home – take off all your clothes, and you think ‘I know this doesn’t look great but hey, it’s okay, right? Everyone has all these bits in some kind of order,’ so you go to the shops, and then, like only a couple of metres from your house, someone starts shouting from the other side of the street – ‘Argh! That’s hideous! That is so NOT okay!’
I know the healthy thing is detachment – the work is not me, like I know that logically but I think it’s always tricky because I often write very close to my own experience. So when people say things like ‘depressive’ or ‘cheerless’ or ‘bleak’ or ‘Do Catherine and her friend really have to be as degraded as Pip Adam makes them?’, I’m often forced to think about my own life choices again and relive some of my own baggage and feel slightly at odds or not quite welcome in society again until I re-orientate myself. I guess I often write to make sense of things in my life. Public reviews feed into that sense-making process even though, again, I know logically I shouldn’t let them. So yeah, I do know I’m super-sensitive but I try to deny it and I’m probably cultivating a stomach ulcer in the process – baha.
Last year I got what I think was the harshest review I’ve ever had from a writer who I thought very highly of and yeah, it was sort of the first time I’d had trouble starting to write again. Most of what someone says is in my head already: ‘No one else would publish this work’ brings up ‘You think you’re smart, but you’re not’, which invites ‘You’re crazy if you think the world is like this’ to the party. It was all put there a long time ago and over the years I’ve found strategies to ignore these thoughts so I can just carry on in spite of them, but there was something about this one review that really stopped me. To be honest I think it was the last thing in a long line of things that were slowly wearing me down. I got this intense feeling every time I went to write that someone, well quite a few people, were shouting ‘SHUT UP! STOP WRITING! WE DON’T WANT TO HEAR IT ANYMORE!’ I couldn’t quite hear myself or any of my strategies or any of my friends or any of the supportive things people have said over the top of this very loud shouting.
And then there was this really odd moment when I suddenly realised I was by myself, in my house in front of my computer and no matter how loud they shouted they couldn’t stop me from writing. Maybe they could stop me from being read, but they couldn’t stop me from writing and suddenly the writing felt a bit like a subversive act, like it always does really, like everyone is saying, ‘BE QUIET!’ ‘WE DON’T WANT TO LOOK AT THAT!’ and I’m like, ‘Um. No.’ And I think that is how I ‘shrug it off’, by remembering – and I say this a lot – all that other shit, that takes place in another room. I get to write in this room and what happens in that other room I don’t even have to go into. I can invite the people I want into this room, and I have so many people who I trust and who are supportive and often when I invite them into this room they bring some of their work and we celebrate and get excited about the work, and it’s great. I can shut the door and just get that weird kind of fulfilment that I get out of writing.