Saturday, December 6, 2008

Critique Masochist

As an art school veteran, I am no stranger to criticism.When I create something, I not only expect critique, I immediately crave it. Critique is necessary, it's useful, it is required--the more brutal the better. In essence, I have become a critique masochist, and I'll explain how this happened.
Art majors at the college level spend their week something like this: Monday through Thursday are filled with studio classes--three hour sessions of drawing and/or painting in the classroom. Sometimes, it's a clever arrangement of old knick-nacks, vases and Styrofoam balls (they cast light and shadow perfectly) and sometimes an assortment of nude models which is not nearly as exciting as you might imagine when you're trying to get the lines right.
Friday is critique day. Friday, you gather your week's work and in-home work, tack it to a wall and wait for the guns to start firing at you.You learn to love Fridays. Freshmen fear them, those with tenuous egos invent reasons to be ill on Friday, but no matter how clever you are, eventually, it's your work on the wall. Let the fun begin.
There are two rules in a peer critique, and they are good ones. First, you must remain absolutely silent while your work is being trashed--er, examined. Second, a critiquer may not say "I like it" or "I don't like it" unless the statement is immediately followed by a detailed explanation of "WHY".
Fridays were fun days in the school of art. If someone wasn't crying in the halls between classes, it wasn't Friday. I'm serious. People fled critique day, people sobbed. Some stomped straight to administration and switched majors. But, no matter how you look at it, Friday was a good day. It turned me into a critique masochist.
What does any of this have to do with writing? Well, I'll get to it. But first let's talk about Art instructors.
Art teachers are not like other teachers. A passionate and volatile group, as much so as most artists, they can be a wealth of inspiration and guidance. They can also be emotional, fragile, potentially psychotic maniacs. I've had an art teacher break into tears during a final assessment. As he sobbed away to me about his failings as a teacher and swept a hand to indicate my work (and thankfully the work of all the other students in that class that had all disappointed him) I have to tell you it was more than a little creepy. Finally he just had me leave, with my work, and I think he passed us all out of despair.
I had a painting teacher for several semesters that carried a five foot flexible bamboo rod. He would wiggle and wave it emphatically as he spoke and then spin on us in a whir of singing bamboo. Veterans of his classes took a big step back each time he turned. The freshmen were not so lucky. Most screamed and ducked. Some welted. I have personally witnessed a teacher reach over a student's shoulder, rip the drawing she was currently working on off her tablet and crumple it into a ball. As he stormed with her art to the trash bin he informed the entire class: This is shit, when you draw like this you must recognize it and stop. If you draw crap, throw it away. Art school, ah the memories.
So, back to writing...and critique. Critique is a good thing. It is the single most vital tool to becoming the best at any creative endeavor. We cannot be our own critic. We can try, and please do try. It's required, you HAVE to learn to look at your work objectively. On the flip side, you will never, ever be as objective as your reader in Connecticut whose never met you. Seek out the guns. Please. As you do, remember a few things to nurse a happy relationship with criticism. It will find you eventually anyway. If not before publication, then after.
DETACH: Your work is your baby, but it's not your baby. Any discussion of your work is not a personal attack. It is not your job to protect it. It is your job to let it be ripped to shreds and reassembled into something better, and golden, and closer to perfect.
EGO AWAY: Put it in a box, lock it in it's room, whatever. Your ego will be needed later (when the rejections roll in and make you want to quit) but while receiving and giving criticism, it's dead weight and will only botch up the whole process.
LISTEN: with both ears and the whole mind. Listen and consider the slim possibility that the critiquer may be right. Don't waste time disagreeing or mentally arguing, listen, listen pretend they're a genius--jut for now.
SALT: When you have listened, considered and absorbed, THEN remember the grain of salt. This is an opinion--one person's opinion or a whole class' opinion, but still an opinion. Do you agree with it? Try. If not, stick to your guns and trust that you know your own goals. Don't ever think that a suggestion is a rule, that you must change and adapt to every criticism or you will never stop fixing and changing things back and forth. Do change what you agree with. Do give serious thought to any suggestion that comes up more than once, or over and over again from different sources. But in the end, you decide.
Remember the two rules--they are good ones. Don't interrupt. Never argue during the critique. If anyone ever says, "I like it" or "I don't like it" insist on a detailed "Why" Embrace the horror--that is, the process-- and learn to love it. Laugh at your mistakes and yourself often. Eventually, you might find yourself craving it, needing it. Personally, I'm suspicious of anyone who reads my work and doesn't pick it apart, at least a little. Don't trust the "I loved it" or the "It's great" without further discussion!! (I'm sick, I know it) You too can be a critique masochist. Cheers,Frances.

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