Friday, November 11, 2016

Taking Criticism

In my Creative Writing class, we have workshops. And the point of workshops is to get feedback, which often comes in the form of criticism. Most of the time, it’s just little things -- I didn’t really understand this, this seems out of character, etc. etc., but there is one critique I’ve gotten over and over from the same person that I just don’t know how to take.

Why should I read your writing?

Yes, that is the proper reaction face
Now let me straighten something out. This is not a blog post to bash on this henceforth and forever unnamed person. For what it’s worth, Unnamed, if you’re reading this, I like your writing and I think you’re a pretty cool person. However, I am going to bash on the question.

What does that even mean? “Why should I read your writing?” I suppose you should read it because you were assigned it in class. I guess you should read it if you find it interesting. If it resonates with you. If that’s not the case, then...well, what the heck? Why are you still reading it? I know from my workshop that it’s not just my professor and I who like it; other people like it too. My friend likes it. I haven’t tried to get it published, so maybe they wouldn’t like it. I don’t know. I don’t actually care. This is a first draft. (Am I doing workshops wrong? Should I not be bringing first drafts?) If it doesn’t resonate with you, then, well...I’m sorry?

This is a very interesting question because it’s simultaneously legitimate and not legitimate. Let’s look at the legitimate part first.

“Why should I read your writing?” If you’re writing for an audience, yes, this is very important. You want your readers to have a reason for continuing. If there’s not one, then they are totally justified in putting down the book. If you aren’t connecting with your intended audience, then you need to sit down with them, listen to their critiques with an open ear, and do your best to get to know them.

A word to the intended audience, though. In this case, please try to come up with a more specific question than “Why?” It’s not going to help anyone. Tell the author exactly what is not connecting with you. That’s helpful. Obviously this does not apply to agents and publishers etc...they don’t have time for that. But in a workshop? Heck yeah. It matters.

Now for the illegitimate part. (Is that how you say it? It makes the question sound like an out-of-wedlock child. Weird.)

Why should I read your writing? I...really don’t care. One of the problems with workshops is that the people you’re working with may not be part of your intended audience at all. When I write, I generally write for people who are very in tune with their emotions and pick up on the smallest amount of distress without it being explicitly stated. I haven’t gotten more specific than that because...well, I’m not actively trying to be published yet. I write for me and anyone else who happens to align with that. So if one specific person doesn’t connect, I have no problem with that. I can’t respond to that sort of criticism because it doesn’t matter. I’m writing for me right now. Why you should read it has nothing to do with it.

Am I getting the point of workshops wrong? Should I be making my fellow workshoppers my audience?

Secondly, the question is flat out hurtful. It preys on the deepest fears of every writer -- that they aren’t worth reading. That there isn’t any reason for people to take a look at their hearts and souls. And before I dig myself into a hole, I am quite aware that this was not the critiquer’s intention. She’s just trying to get me to look more deeply into the story. But look at what? That’s what I’m not getting. How am I supposed to make it more in tune to you? I hardly know you!

You could justify this by saying that the writing world is tough and we need to get used to having our feelings wounded, but I really don’t think the workshop is the place to do that. Plus when my feelings get hurt, I tend to raise my voice and get really snarky and may bite your ears off. Just a warning.

Actual picture of an emotionally charged workshop
Thirdly, the question is mindbogglingly subjective. It all depends on Why You Read. And every person reads for a different reason. I personally read for emotion. I’m kind of an emotion junkie. There’s probably a sci-fi story in that. But anyway, I can read a story where nothing really spectacular happens (aka Catcher in the Rye) and still love it because of the distress and internal conflict of the character. Even though Han Nolan’s CRAZY was just a bunch of kids going to therapy when it came down to it, I still loved it because the characters really resonated with me. Do those books have unique elements that make them stand out? Yeah! Would I probably have enjoyed them even if they didn’t? Well, maybe not so much, but if the internal conflict was basically the same then I probably would have.

Other people are different. Some people need huge external conflicts like wars or life-and-death situations to catch their interest. Some read to find earth-shattering insight. Some read for sex. (Hey, I’m just saying.) We’re all different and the question “Why should I read your writing?” just doesn’t capture your intended critique. It might sound like a cool, short way to get your point across, but it’s really not.

I did get a chance to talk with Unnamed a bit today, and we’re still not on equal footing, but I understand a bit more of what she meant now. Her real problem was that she thought my main character was bland and I was portraying her trauma due to blindness incorrectly. I can get that. My question is…

So if you take away anything from this blog post...BE SPECIFIC and SAY WHAT YOU MEAN. Especially if you’re critiquing. If you’re the one being critiqued, then take a deep breath, talk to the person about it, cry, watch a movie, rant online, and then sort through the critique for something helpful.

My questions for y’all are: What sort of criticism irks you the most? What do you find most helpful? Thoughts on writing workshops?

Thanks for reading, and hopefully I’ll see you around soon!

(Disclaimers: Written quickly. Highly emotional author. Memes are not my own. Title picture is mine. Faith out.)

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