Years ago, a friend of mine said to me kindly, “Cybele, you don’t take criticism very well.” My face flushed, and when I sputtered a defensive response, he simply said, “See?”
I just had to laugh.
Jeff was right. I didn’t like criticism at all. I think it went back to all those times I felt unfairly judged by teachers growing up, like the high school English teacher who gave me a poor grade on a short story I wrote. Then there was the music teacher who told me I had no ability whatsoever to play the flute and should probably give it up. (Oh, yes, he did!)
I was young and impressionable at the time, so those judgments hurt. Of course they would. Those critics were adults, my teachers! They knew best, right?
I believed that, so I took their comments to heart. I gave up the flute and actually never played another musical instrument again. And as much as I loved writing, I didn’t write again for years, until I was in college.
Too bad I didn’t know then what I know now. Today I know those teachers who judged me were actually saying nothing about me or my abilities and everything about themselves. Did they have insecurities they were projecting onto me or were they just bad teachers? I don’t know. Maybe they were just having a rotten day. Whatever the reason, it had nothing to do with me.
Of course, those are two pretty extreme examples of when ignoring criticism is an excellent idea. But of course not all criticism is bad. The good kind, the kind we all should be open to, can further your personal or professional growth. It always rings true, even if comes with a blow to the ego, and it is likely delivered by someone you trust, like a friend, loved one or therapist, who cares about you and has your best interests at heart.
In the years since Jeff made that comment to me, I have actually learned to welcome criticism, even when it is harsh. Take my work, for example. As any writer knows, feedback is essential. It makes our stories better; it makes us better writers.
But I am selective about whom I get it from. When I first began showing drafts of Dead Lies to others, I basically showed it to anyone who expressed interest. I was not discriminating at all. And I felt frustrated and hurt when they inevitably criticized my writing style (i.e. “It’s not literary enough!”), sometimes to the point that I doubted whether I was on the right path at all.
Then I wised up. My book is a mystery novel. It is very mainstream and accessible. It is not literary fiction and was never intended to be. So I began showing it only to people who enjoyed commercial mysteries.
Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner!
The criticism I received from that point on was invaluable because those readers understood the genre. They got what I was doing and could offer constructive ideas within the specific framework I had chosen.
I also welcome criticism from industry professionals, like agents, editors and reviewers. That’s because they are professionals judging my work as a commercial product, as something they can buy, sell or endorse; there is nothing personal there.
And while I will happily show my work to other writers (they are the ones who deeply understand the challenges, after all), I will not show it to a writer with any hint of competitiveness toward me. That’s just asking for trouble.
I’ve learned that being open to criticism is brave and necessary; being open to just anyone’s criticism is a mistake I won’t make again.
What’s the best criticism you ever received? How did it help you? Share your stories of criticism here!