I came across an article in today’s New York Times, “Learning to Love Criticism” by a writer named Tara Mohr. She is meditating on a study that found that in performance reviews on the job, women receive many more (and more personal) criticisms than do men. The column discusses strategies for defusing the debilitating pain of such challenges to a person’s sense of self-worth and to the value of her work. It occurred to me as I read that some of her points might apply to writers of all genders, in particular this passage.
Women [and others faced with negative reactions from critics of their work] can also benefit from interpreting feedback as providing information about the preferences and point of view of the person giving the feedback, rather than information about themselves. In other words, a negative reaction from five investors doesn’t tell a woman anything about the quality of her business idea or her aptitude for entrepreneurship; it just tells her something about what those investors are looking for.
And if those five investors love her pitch? That also doesn’t tell her about her merit as an entrepreneur; it tells her about what they are looking for in an investment. In other words, feedback is useful because it provides insight about the people we want to reach, influence and engage. With that reframing, women can filter which feedback they need to incorporate to achieve their aims, without the taxing emotional highs and lows.
I like here the idea that criticism allows us to classify the different audiences we’re reaching, to determine whether there is an audience for what we’re doing, and to make practical decisions based on those assessments. For example, if I dare open a chapter with a line of reflection by a character, one member of my group, trained in an action-action-only-action school, always crosses it out. The advice above allows me to recognize that I’m not writing the kind of book he’s ever likely to read. When others don’t attack the offending sentence, I can assume there are other audiences with other philosophies of effective prose.
Yet there are dangers. This strategy invites me too easily to assume that critics are just people who don’t “get” my particular genius, who are looking for something dumber and more pedestrian than the gems I provide. (I really never have thought of myself as a genius, but I do confess to having been really amazed that some critic so totally misread what to me made perfect sense.) As one who struggles to rely on scenes rather than prolonged interior monologues to do the work, I have found that among the values of a writing group is my ability to see who agrees with the pronouncements of my action-oriented colleague. But I suppose, in a way, that’s the point of the advice above. There is a range of audiences in my group. When so many different readers looking for so many different things come together on a point of critique, that’s valuable information about audiences, in the plural, and not about me.
And the other great value of group critiques, even negative ones, is the chance they provide to get at the why and what questions: Why don’t you like that character? What makes that scene sound contrived? In my view, face-to-face is the best way to get these valuable answers, even if–because of the basic limitations of writing groups I wrote about earlier (see 9/22)–your colleagues can’t tell you whether the clues you planted on page 48 of your mystery novel really point logically to your big reveal on page 325. Getting that feedback, and doing something useful with it, is really hard.