If you are your own worst critic, you may be hanging out with the wrong people.
There’s this television show called American Idol. You’ve probably heard of it, but let me explain it to you, just in case you’ve been on Mars for the last ten years or so. It’s like a talent show where everybody sings. And there’s this team of judges – not like Judge Judy, but just as opinionated. What makes this show so entertaining is that these judges travel the country listening to people sing – people who’ve been told all their lives by their moms that they sing well – but most of them really stink at it! They make complete fools of themselves on national television. Now, I might be a bit of a sadist, but I think it’s really funny when some young man begins to sob or some young lady goes into a profanity-laced tirade when told he or she just can’t sing. Hello! Mama’s been-a lyin’ to ya! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!
As a writer, I’m always looking for people to read my work and tell me what they think. And I really hate it when some well-meaning friend or family member wastes my time by telling me they didn’t find anything wrong. Seriously? You’re telling me I just created a perfect work of art? I don’t even think that’s possible.
See, I’m an artist. And you might say true artists take criticism well, but you’d only be partly right. True artists don’t just take criticism well, we seek it. Tell me you didn’t like it. Tell me it stinks. Tell me it’s the worst thing you’ve ever read. Just tell me why, so I can fix it – or at least make it better. I don’t need you to tell me it’s perfect. I have a mom to do that.
I’ve been in many writers groups where people sit around a table and read one another’s work aloud and then take turns commenting on what they’ve heard. (If you’re a writer, then you know the drill.) Some of these groups sound like mutual admiration societies. All they do is talk about how wonderful the work is. And if you say something critical, you get anything from glares to an invitation to leave. That’s an invitation I gladly accept. I don’t have time to waste with people who think art is supposed to be easy. And I definitely don’t have time for people who can’t handle criticism. Go back to your mom! (Sheesh!)
Now, if something about a piece I’ve written is truly good, then sure, I want to know. Not so I can bask your flattery (I don’t have time for that, either), but rather so I know enough to leave it alone. If it ain’t broke, I don’t need to fix it. But what I really want to know is what’s wrong with it. Go ahead. I can take it. I’m an artist. I have thick skin.
Of course, there are those among us (and you know whom you are) who strive to make themselves feel superior by tearing down the work of others. If they don’t see something in the work that’s bad enough to sustain heavy criticism, they make something up. But those people are always easy to read and their input is generally ignored (which is a bit of a shame because they occasionally say something really smart … occasionally). But for the most part, a true artist wants to hear the criticism that others can offer.
When I’m writing, I know exactly what I’m trying to do, what I’m trying to say, where I’m trying to take my audience – and I rarely fail to accomplish that in my head. But I never know whether I’ve done it on the page – where it matters – until I’ve received the feedback of other people who haven’t spent hour upon hour for weeks or months completely immersed in research, notes, and multiple drafts. Only someone who is seeing the piece by itself, without all the work that’s gone into it, (and usually for the first time) can tell if it stands on its own. Typically, it falls on its face – or at least stumbles around a bit – and needs more work.
I like writing in solitude. One reason, of course, is that there are fewer distractions. But another is that I like to frequently read the piece aloud, in character, to hear how things are working as I go. That makes me feel a silly enough when I’m alone. When I’m not, well you can imagine the looks I get. But I must come out of hiding from time to time and share my work-in-progress with others, soliciting their criticism. If I don’t, the work will suffer. I’m not so vain as to believe that I can write a play or a story and present it complete and at its best without listening to that criticism. No one can.
I’ll say it again. No one can.
I’m pretty hard on my own work, but I can never be as hard on myself as I need to be. I’m too attached to it. I don’t see it objectively. I can’t. I need people who are willing to look at my work from the outside and tell me candidly what they really think – no matter how bad it might be. I can’t be my own worst critic because I need critics who are much harder than I can possibly be on my own work.
A true artist seeks criticism. The rest make fools of themselves.