Friday, July 15, 2016

Letting Go of Poor, Harsh, or Flawed Criticism


I’m reading along in my manuscript, making edits based on the criticisms I received at this year’s Jackson Hole Writers Conference. As I said previously, three out of four critiques were extremely useful. One, not so much.

Her critique wasn’t mean or extra negative, she didn’t tear me apart or put me down, and when I left I was initially filled with a lack of reaction, focused mainly on making my next meeting. I looked back on the experience and had a few eye roll moments, but it didn’t anger me.

Until it did.

As I read the beginning pages (yet once again), the words inspired memories of what was actually said. By the end of the critique I had started to think that she had hastily skimmed it for basic writing rule “errors” and other easy comments. I knew science fiction was completely unfamiliar territory—that much was obvious even from our limited time together—and that she was an outlier in the extreme extent of her confusion (and the way she was confused) so I pretty early on dismissed it as an overall useless critique with one or two helpful comments and went about my day.

So you think, knowing that the critique’s quality was poor due to circumstance, it would have been forgotten quickly. Yet, as I comb through, I keep finding myself growing more and more agitated.

One of the things she implied was that the wastelands weren’t very well described, if the deadlands were dry, if it was hot, etc. She wasn't organized in her thoughts, rambling in her wording, and I wasn’t always clear on what she was telling me, but it seemed she didn’t understand what the deadlands were or looked like. As she said it, I remembered several passages that should have explained it, but decided I had unknowingly cut them in the new version of the first chapter.

I am finding now as I look at it, they weren’t:

“One year ago, Raiden had ripped through those wastes stopping for nothing. No signs of life, of people, or of humanity’s improvement, he kept on, thinking eventually he’d see the end of the world. Or, at least, the highway.”

“The sun bore down on them, the walls and foliage of the community too far to give them shade.”

“Somehow the cult had found and carried in healthy top soil to cover up the gray that made the rest of the planet. The brown ground extended far to his right, reaching the flat brick platform in the middle of nowhere. Beyond that, the dirt darkened to a soft, loose ash.”

“Some homes had their tall, white-brick walls and gardens to block out the ghastly sight of the dead horizon, but the remote outpost of the cult stood open, easy to stroll in or out of from any direction.”

“He’d had driven for days, meeting only parched dirt and a bleached out sky.”

“The dusty stink of the deadlands disappeared into the tangy whiff of plant-life and he knew from that first moment this place was different.”

“‘Can’t make water,’ he said. ‘Doesn’t rain without the terraformers.’

‘It will rain when He forgives.’

‘It will rain when someone figures out how to make it rain. It doesn’t rain over the Foundation. You think it just appears randomly in a bucket?’”

The chapter is filled with descriptions of the deadlands, the heat of the day, the sweat rolling off their faces—even with the above passages alone her questions were answered, but there were far more descriptions and clues. I suppose I can see how she could miss it, and in truth I don’t blame her for that. I tend to skim when I read myself. But I also am aware that I do it and critique accordingly, and considering it wasn’t her only question already answered by the manuscript, that it wasn’t the only time she wrongly assumed I had made a mistake when really she just didn’t agree with the direction, and that she continually announced with disapproval that she didn’t know what some common, self-explanatory science fiction terms meant, it only feeds into my theory that she wasn’t actually reading. And if you know you’re just skimming, why trust your own judgment with such vigor? Even curbing the critique with, “I might’ve missed it, but…” would have saved face enough that I would accepted that the details might need to be more obvious. But stating like something’s a fact (interspersed with don’t use adverbs and Star Wars doesn’t have backstory in the first act) puts any person on edge, right or not. And what if I had just said, “Okay,” and started to force in more obvious passages? It would be easy to error on redundancy and belittling the reader.

A part of me, I realize, doesn’t trust the possibility that maybe it really was just a bad critique. A part of me insists that it’s my ego talking, that I am too obtuse to realize what a jerk I was being.

So I fixate. I constantly try to prove myself wrong. I focus on the negative, the problems, what went wrong. Even though I know people who I can count on having a good word about working with me, who feel listened to, encouraged, and seek me out for one-on-one reads, even though there are a good number of peers and friends and experts I like working with, even though I have fun workshopping, hearing feedback, it usually brightens my day going to a writers group or meeting, even though I often leave laughing, even when they don’t love the work itself, I can't help but continuing to run through an undesirable situation searching for my mistakes.

A lot of people do this. So, instead of sweeping it under the rug, let's discuss it. You will have a critique gone wrong and you will still blame yourself even when it’s just a difference of opinion, a mean person, a poor connection, or even someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about. And then we have to keep with our vanity and pretend like it never happens... or look like the egotistical ass we're afraid of.

I tend to run through the same conversations in every spare moment (if not the Meow Mix song) until I figure out a way to solve the problem. This enhances my skills at dialogue, but it can also get frustrating, even eat away at me for long periods of time. The same feelings are invoked again and again, a sense of helpless can start to overwhelm me if I can’t come to some sort of answer. Isn't some layer of hell about experiencing the same pain, unsolvable, getting your proverbial liver eaten out by an eagle at each sunrise? Mine would be having the same argument with a different person everyday. Sort of like the internet.

I think, how can I react in a more effective way in the future? Was there anything I said that caused her to speak to me in the way she did? I spend a lot of my time frustrated, tense, flipping back and forth from shaming myself to blaming the other person and feeling guilty and childish for doing both.

I struggle to talk to others about it. A confession, I’m not used to people agreeing with me. It’s changed as I’ve gotten older, mostly from learning how to better articulate my thoughts.
And then I wonder, am I deliberately forming my sentences and ideas in a way that I know people will agree with me? If they agree with me, is it because I tricked them?

Even though I try not to do that, thinking hard about neutral wording and give credit to the opposition in many circumstances, I'm still not sure I can trust myself. (You can tell when that goes out the window because “jackass” gets thrown around a lot.) I focus on telling the story honestly without having people shut down. I think and think and think about how to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and end up randomly going on about boring details or refusing to leave out unnecessary parts.

There’s a psychological concept of the Impostor’s Syndrome in which a person believes that when they achieve success, it doesn’t really count for whatever reason. “I published a short story, but I’m not really a published author because it wasn’t a novel.” “I published a novel, but I’m not a real author because it wasn’t one of the Big Five.” “I published with the Big Five, but it was just a fluke.”

The “impostor” believes that they tricked people into thinking she’s better than she is.

In some ways, when it comes to people agreeing with me, especially in situations where I start to be suspicious that it was someone else messing up and not me, I tend to feel like I’ve tricked them, manipulated their understanding of the situation. It couldn’t possibly be that someone might just agree with me. Is that condescending? Probably, knowing me.

Just like anything in life, critique partners may be naïve, mistaken, or abnormal in their opinions. Just like authors, they may step with their ego first and be unable to listen and respect the other person. They may use criticism as a means to empower themselves, they may talk down to people, belittle or berate them instead of finding other, more useful ways to talk about their ideas. While in most cases it takes two to tango, there will be times where there was nothing you could have done.

As I go through, her comments, even ones forgotten, keep popping up in my mind.

I would be telling the audience the protagonist isn’t paying attention—“His eyes remained forward, but stayed unfocussed.”—and she would tell me in exasperation, “But that makes it sound like he’s not paying attention.”

I would make a joke…

“And my mother made it all about you, like I was gaga over you and that’s why I didn’t want to go. She thinks I’m an idiot.”

“Keep in mind her first impression of you was you pooping everywhere. First impressions are hard to let go of.”

She’d say, “That is not a mother’s first impression!”

It all comes down to a lack of faith, it seems. Her absolute assumption of my inability. I struggle with swallowing my perception of her. How could you not even consider, even briefly, that maybe at least a few of my choices were intentional? I mean, I get sometimes sarcasm is hard to pick up on in the best situations, but how on Earth could you ever think a character actually means a statement like that? Especially when the girl’s reaction was to laugh?

I mean, Jesus Christ, lady.

The more assured I am that her confusion was due to her expectation that I was a hack—she has the lowest reading comprehension of anyone who had read any of my work to date, but especially this section—the angrier I get. When I did finally vent to my friends, the more disgusted they were with her, the more riled up I became. I wasn’t feeling validated; I was feeling enraged. The more I find proof her questions were answered, evidence she was being intentionally obtuse, the worse I get. I could let it go initially, but now that I know her thinking was flawed, it’s very much worse.

I looked up online how to let things go. I have been struggling with pent up frustration and resentment recently for other personal experiences (men hitting on me in callous ways), and Sensory Processing Sensitivity came up. Turns out that my food, social, and sound avoidance along with my constant self-reflection is actually a researched type of mental process that not everyone experiences. It might be that I have an atypical and heightened response to everyday, external stimuli making me more sensitive and more likely to fixate on conflict.

Some sites discussed ways to cope, and the one option that caught me was on projection. I have long known that humans as a whole tend to be harsher on flaws and decisions that are similar to our own, and the suggestion that maybe I was angry due to seeing myself in them tripped me up.

But I try, I told myself. I try to listen. I try to consider others’ needs. I try to think about my mistakes and what I could have done differently. I force myself to mentally admit when I was wrong. I would never give a critique like she gave me. Not after years of experience anyway. I would never begrudge a guy for trying to politely tell me he’s not interested, laugh in his face and pretend I wasn’t hitting on him. I always try to give people an out, the benefit of the doubt, freedom to make their own decisions. I haven't made those mistakes in years.

Not for years.

And then I started to realize.

Obtuseness makes me angry. People making poor choices due to inexperience. People forcing me to be mean when I don’t want to hurt anyone. People who refuse to hear my side of the story, judging me for it. People who I come to for help and brush me aside. People who approach me, demanding my attention and acceptance while simultaneously writing off my perception as wrong. People pushing me to anger and judgment.

People whose ego makes others miserable.

I spend so much time thinking—thinking, thinking, thinking—so much time editing, so much time getting feedback, so much time debating how to make other people comfortable, so much time understanding what people think, understanding writing philosophies and stubbornness, so much time fighting my own ego, that when I see someone who is unwilling to put their opinion or wants aside for a moment and actually hear me and what I think or feel, it’s not that they think I’m wrong; it incites a deep lingering fear in me.

What if, even after all of this effort to be kind, to listen, to seek the truth beyond what I want to hear, I’m really making an ass of myself and am completely unaware of it? What if I’m like the mystery writer who asserted ridiculous statements about Star Wars and adverbs and I am the one sitting here blaming others because I am too obtuse to see it?

Every time I see a sentence that proves her so absolutely wrong, it doesn’t validate me, it just reminds me how certain you can be that something is so absolutely wrong and yet so absolutely disagree with someone else.


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