Being Open to Criticism

I used to despise writing workshops.

When I first started grad school, I was so afraid of group critiques and workshops. The whole environment, culture, and practices of writers in general were foreign to me. As you saw in my first post, I didn’t have the English or writing background that most of my classmates did. Workshops were normal to them. They even seemed comfortable sharing their work with each other and having everyone discuss the good and bad in a group while they just sat there.

Me? I can think of a few choice words, but I’ll go with – no. Just no.

Being part of this terrified me to my core, more than watching The Strangers (I’m deathly terrified of scary movies). And at that point, when I started grad school, I hadn’t shared any of my pieces with anyone except for a few close friends. Now I had to share with 15 strangers? While we gathered in a group to talk about it? Like talk about it openly while they all stared at me?

Again, no. Just no.

But there I was, sitting at my desk preparing for my first workshop, my story in everyone’s hands, ready to be torn apart.

Aside from this being my first time and the normal nerves that come with trying new things, that’s what I was most afraid of – being torn apart. That my story wasn’t good. That it wasn’t mind-blowing. That the writing fell flat and wasn’t a good reflection of the level I was supposed to be at.

I was a grad student. There are expectations that accompany being a grad student. And I was one in an introductory creative writing course with undergrads.

The pressure was too much, and I couldn’t breathe – like I was diving head first to the bottom of the ocean without scuba gear.

But I sat there, my hands folded in my lap trying to keep each other from trembling. Trying to keep myself busy so I wouldn’t run down the hall and all the way home screaming with failure.

My professor opened it up to the class, ready to get the workshop going, and to my surprise – it went well.

Like really well.

The feeling of relief similar to finding out the water wasn’t as deep as I thought, and I didn’t need scuba gear after all.

It wasn’t as glamorous as the featured image above suggests – we were in the oldest building on campus, half of the classrooms of which didn’t have a projector or a SMART board like the rest of campus, and it was a night class so no sunshine for positive energy – but to me, it was glamorous.

I felt like a real writer for the first time.

Having my work shared like this with classmates and other writers – I finally felt like I was in the right place.

I received positive feedback from many students and my professor. But even better, there were many suggestions as to how I could improve. My reaction to these comments was even more unexpected.

I enjoyed receiving that constructive criticism.

I enjoyed the suggestions to develop the character and to expand on the image of the girl running away from the church in her wedding dress.

That night changed things for me. By the end of the workshop, I was giddy, ready to burst out the door with my fists pumping the air. By the end, I couldn’t wait to take their suggestions and revise my story.

To improve.

That’s what I liked the most about this experience – I not only had the opportunity to revise, but I knew how to approach it and what direction to take. I got reactions from real readers to help me move forward with my story and improve it.

I enjoyed the first workshop so much that I looked forward to them from then on. Sure, I had the jitters, because at the end of the day, of course we all want others to this our creative work just perfect, for everyone to smile and congratulate us on being so amazing and, how do we do it?

But I knew there were things I needed to work on. The workshops pointed me in the right direction to get started. People brought things to my attention during these workshops that I never would’ve caught on my own.

Receiving this critique really opened me up to making the necessary improvements to make me a more effective writer.

Writing is in fact a process, much like fitness or climbing the corporate ladder, and it strives on revisions (which still applies to fitness and business, just in a different sense). Workshops (or the equivalent) are such a good place to begin revisions. Because many times, we know there are changes to be made but don’t know where to begin.

So don’t be afraid of constructive criticism – let me emphasize constructive because I know all too well from personal experience and social media that not all criticism will be constructive. You have to learn to separate the two. Some criticism is just spiteful and hateful to keep you down. When people say – and I’ll use writing here as an example because duh, that’s what I do – “I didn’t like your story because it was stupid,” that’s NOT constructive.

But saying, “I couldn’t understand your character because their actions are constantly contradictory,” IS constructive. It’s specific and directly describes why the reader had a certain experience.

The specific, constructive comments inspired me to revise that story, a story I remember well not only because it was the first short story I had workshopped in my new life as a writer, but it was one that was later published in Journey, SEMO’s literary magazine.

I wouldn’t have been able to polish it up enough for publication had it not been for that workshop. I wouldn’t have been able to revise it had I let my fear and anxiety over being critiqued get in my way.

So even though criticism can be hard to take sometimes, listen with an open heart. It could help you improve in the area you’re focused on. It could help get you out of your creative funk or help you understand why you keep missing a step in that hip-hop dance routine.

Listen to those who want to help you succeed. They’re not critiquing you to be mean or hateful or to tear you apart. They want you to succeed, so let them be part of your journey.

Constructive criticism helps us move forward in our journey, if only we’re open to it.

6 thoughts on “Being Open to Criticism

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