Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Don't despise criticism. Despise the absence of it.

Take six months, he said. Enroll in some grammar classes. Start fresh and relearn the craft. My fiction writing had creativity. And humor. And timing. What it didn't have yet, he said, was the technical chops to be taken seriously.

Yeah. That hurt.

This was an assessment I received years ago after a New York Times best-selling author critiqued a few pages from one of my initial manuscripts. The advice put me back five years in publishing my first fiction novel. It caused me to second guess every sentence I wrote. It made me paranoid about comma usage. It created doubt about my talent. It unearthed serious insecurities about my career choice.

Man, I owe him.

The war on words.

Telling the hard truth isn't popular these days. Nor is questioning certain sacred cows. There are people, ideas, even opinions in our culture that are not to be criticized or tested. Doing so is borderline illegal. Unless you're in Canada and question Islam, then there is no borderline. It's just plain illegal.

Welcome to the age of settled science, hate speech, and safe spaces: all terms used conveniently to silence all questions, doubt, and opposing opinions.

I don't know where this idea started that certain people, ideas, and beliefs couldn't be questioned. Who decided which ones get coddled? And which don't? What makes these people, ideas, and beliefs so fragile they can't survive doubt? And wouldn't treating them like a namby-pamby be considered soft criticism?

Someone needs to issue a public apology. Stat.

Desperately seeking adulthood. 

I don't think I grew up in a bubble, but maybe I did. In my formative years, the one thing you didn't want was to be treated like a child. Not even when you were one.

That meant accepting constructive criticism, instruction, even punishment and correction with emotional maturity. It also meant dealing with different viewpoints, not always getting your way, never being a sore loser, and, yes, having your ideas and beliefs questioned.

This was the normal path to adulthood.

And we're not talking Medieval Times here people. It was the 80s. Earning respect meant you had to have the gumption and strength to withstand criticism, even when it wasn't constructive.

Tough words are for the tough.

My author friend, the one with the harsh rebuke, actually paid me the ultimate compliment. He treated me like an equal.

He didn't pander, pat me consolingly on the head, and lie about keeping up the good work so I'd feel accepted.

Instead, he questioned me where I needed questioned and challenged me where I didn't know I needed challenged. His words weren't easy, but they were respectful. He knew my fortitude was, or would have to be, strong enough to withstand being questioned and criticized.

Appeasement would have been an insult; rebuke gave me dignity.  

If I were a Muslim in Canada, I'd be so offended right now.


Anonymous said...

my rambling thoughts as I read this...
I too got hung up on comma usage. Until one day, I saw a quote from John Muir on the wall of the Smithsonian. I had memorized the comma usage in the original, very long sentences just weeks before (because I was so afraid I had not learned to properly use them). Only to discover that the Smithsonian had not bothered to use commas in the same place he had at all. Still hate commas.
Another thought conjured by your article:
This is why I seek the (sometime intricate) structures of ancient poetic forms. We live in an age where we feel answerable to no one but ourselves. "Throwing off restraint" as the bible declares it. Meter, rhyme scheme, and other tools are forsaken as "outdated." Everyone has the freedom to write what that want and how dare anyone say it is not good poetry.
Anyone can throw paint on a canvas and call it art. In order to create a masterpiece, there must be structure and intent.
We must keep living and learning. Coo-dos to you for surrounding yourself with greatness. I certainly could do with some great people in my life.

Tara Lynn Thompson said...

This was such a great comment. Share your ramblings anytime.

You're right about structure. We think true freedom is having no limitations when, in fact, it's learning how to thrive and succeed within them. Limitations, obstacles, they make everything so much harder and the rough edges are what build strength beyond anything we thought capable.
Here's an incredible example for you:
Tonight, I sat at a local skateboard park interviewing a guy who started a ministry to skateboarders. While chatting with one of those skateboarders, a man who explains how this ministry and this sport has brought slowly gotten the ghetto out of him - his words, not mine - he described a certain jump I asked about. In his description, he said it's one of the hardest things to do. When you first attempt it, it's impossible. The second time is impossible, too. And the third, fourth, fifth, on and on and on. But if you don't give up, if you accept the jump is hard to learn but you keep at it anyway, you'll eventually get it.
After he finally mastered the jump, you want to know what he told me?
"It showed me I can do anything. If I put my mind to it, I can do anything I want. I know I'm capable of more now."

Powerful stuff, these limitations.