Friday, May 6, 2011

Learning to take criticism

by Heather Justesen

When I was in ninth grade, I had an English teacher who used to go over all of my articles for the school yearbook with me. I'd hand it to her after hours (because my yearbook staff met after school--yeah, I was one of those nerds), and she'd sit me next to her and mark it up, telling me why things worked and why they didn't. I remember her saying that she wasn't sure that criticism could really be constructive.

Mrs. Philips, I have to say, I still disagree with you--and more now than I did all those years ago.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of spending the afternoon at the first day of the LDStorymakers writer's conference. We call it boot camp--and it can be the first critique session many of the attendees have ever experienced. It's a stressful thing for everyone the first time they allow strangers to read and pick apart their writing--I know it was for me! I remember getting madder and madder as I flipped through the first professional edit I paid for (by the talented Josi Kilpack). It wasn't that she was wrong, or even that I thought was was wrong at the time, it was mostly that I knew she was right about the things she pointed out.

Was my frustration and bits of anger a normal reaction--I'd have to say yeah, they were. Of course I thought my baby was beautiful when I sent it off to her--I just wanted someone to point out the little minor details I'd missed and let me put a pretty shine on it before I resubmitted it. But the truth was, my book needed a great deal more work than I'd expected--because despite having a BA in English lit, I hadn't really been studying what make books work, and how others crafted their stories. I'd avoided writing classes because, heck, I wasn't going to be a writer, so what did I need those creative writing classes for, anyway. (I know, famous last words--I didn't need any journalism classes, either, because I wasn't going to work for the media, and then I became a newspaper copy editor. Oy vey!)

It took me a while before I made the suggested revisions and resubmitted that first manuscript to the publisher, and though they still didn't pick it up, that first experience of getting critiques was invaluable in my growth as a writer because she not only pointed out what was wrong with the specific manuscript, but also showed me where my writing was weak, and directed me to specific resources to help me improve.

Because of that direction, reapplying myself to my writing, and getting more helpful feedback from other writers (which I also hated, but agreed with), the second book I sent for professional edits received a contract.

Now I've been part of my own critique group for three years and the sting of criticism has disappeared from the feedback I get (mostly). I still get a tad nervous when I read out loud to them (though more when they have family members wandering through the next room).

To be honest, the people at my table yesterday took their critiques from everyone else like pros--even if they disagreed with what they were being told from time to time. This is a huge step in the right direction for any writer, because none of us can exist inside a vacuum. We all need editing, constructive feedback (aka criticism) and support, because this writing thing can be a difficult, harrowing experience, but if we work and grow and become better, it can be so worth it.

Someday I'm going to see these books in print--I can't wait for that day, because anyone who brings that kind of attitude to the table and willingness to learn is bound to succeed.