Getting used to Criticism...
I was talking to a friend the other day, and he mentioned he had just finished a manuscript of a novel from an acquaintance that was outstanding but probably would never be published because the author could not muster the courage to face rejection or criticism. He told me he was surprised by her decision, but I wasn't.
I felt the same way at one time. A bad experience with a crooked agent ( I just got another restitution check for a whopping $1.76!) took my courage away. I paid for my lack of research and learned some valuable lessons about the industry. I did not "try again" until almost five years later, after two more drafted stories. The result was a better, more organized me as a submitter. I was ready for my form rejection letters I would keep in a file to prove to myself that at least I gave it a shot.
I understood the writer friend of my friend. I understand her fear even more, now, two books into this experience and contemplating a full re-write/revision of book three and plans for book four. The fear is still there, but it has morphed into a less daunting version. I have learned through my publishing experience that I am now part of a small but dedicated and skilled family of writers and thinkers; honest folk who care about story and good writing and do their utmost to nurture and encourage.
I have landed myself smack-dab in the middle of the critical world, and I am absolutely in love with the whole process. I find it both unnerving and affirming at the same time, and even as I write this I realize I am just repeating what others have already said much more eloquently. But that is the fantastic part about it all: it IS a universal truth for all of us and yet the nuances, the intrinsic identifiers are different for everyone. I think that is why I find words so attractive. We all use the same ones but with such variety and innovation! I grieve for the friend of my friend, who for fear dooms herself to always wondering. There is a delicious kind of uncertainty about what the published author does, but what is certain is they confront their fear directly and advance bravely into the breach as though they were one of Henry's happy battle brothers.
I've begun interacting with writers this year as a published author, and during my first intense moments at Norwescon I found myself empathizing with the folks submitting their works for scrutiny. I have described that experience previous, but I return to it now for this post because I recall feeling a little sheepish picking apart their work. How was I any better or more qualified? What set me on the other side of the table besides a happy accident? I admired their courage in participating in the workshop. I found myself wanting to cheer them on even as comments from around the table became more critical and exposing. But they did it! They submitted and listened and learned! They taught me a valuable lesson in courage. And that lesson returned to me tenfold in the parking lot of a local golf course when my friend told me of his friend's fear and reluctance.
There are too many truths that fail still-born or subsumed through want of courage and conviction. This industry is HARD on people. It is both the great hope for truth and at the same time can be truths greatest enemy. The artistic expression is such a strange marketplace. The variables can get seedy, ego a little too needy, value a little too literal... What hope for ART then?
The key is criticism--both the giving and receiving. If I had not first offered up a story, then faced and then found a way to make my editor's heartfelt criticism work, then King's Gambit would never have achieved its final shape. The Poets of Pevana would have remained a hot little mess of a draft desparate for courage and nurturing, grafting and pruning...
A little success, a few kind words, a positive review from a stranger are all part of a magical spell we cast on ourselves when we do our homework and commit to criticism, when we trust to our stars and lick the stamp or push send on the file. I am glad I did. I hope that friend of my friend can find hers.
Happy reading, and writing!