Critiques are rarely welcomed with open arms. This seems especially true for writers—at least, it’s especially true for me. For many years I saw serious critiques about plot holes, characterization, and theme as signals that my stories were unlikable and uninteresting. It didn’t matter if a person told me the news in the kindest way possible or if they offered practical advice for how to solve the problem; all I heard when I came away from the conversation was “your story is broken,” which eventually devolved into “your ability to write well is broken.”
How silly of me! In hindsight I can see what a leap of logic it took to think that. But wounded pride has a way of bypassing all logic, and immaturity doesn’t help it either. Sensitivity to critiques is something that all people seem to struggle with, and the only cure to that struggle also seems to be the passage of time. I’m nowhere near being an artist long enough to claim I’ve conquered the beast, so to speak. Nevertheless, the topic of critiques has been on my mind lately, prompted by a writing conference I attended a few weeks ago, and it seems for the first time that I fully realize how vital critiques are to the creative process.
I’ve attended multiple writing conferences over the years. In all cases except one, the highlight of those events has always critique groups (which testifies either to my overriding love of helping others brainstorm their stories or my stubbornness to keep trying to share my work despite being sensitive to criticism). This year was perhaps the best critique group of them all—our personalities meshed from the first day despite writing such vastly different stories, everyone was good-natured about mistakes (we laughed a lot), and criticisms were given with grace and the intention to help each other. In short, it was everything one could hope for in a critique group. But what struck me the most was that I came home excited about the flaws that people pointed out in my writing. Not just tolerant of them, not simply resigned to the imperfections, not outwardly grateful but inwardly embarrassed that others saw the mistakes, but genuinely happy that I received critiques. My brain was (and still is) spinning from all the new ideas for solutions to fix the problems. Two years ago, I was part of another great critique group, full of people with interesting stories, good senses of humor, and humility in giving constructive criticism, but I did not come home from that conference with that level of energy. I had to ask myself: what had changed? The obvious answer: me.
I naturally expected that two years should change me and my writing in a marked way. In the time between the two critique groups, my story morphed from a sci-fi dystopian “adventure” to a sci-fi murder mystery with much, much, much better characterization. I did not naturally expect to see my sensitivity to critiques about my writing diminish so rapidly, however, considering how I hadn’t seen such a change between any of the other years I went to conferences. And, even though I’ve thought about it, I can’t quite figure out all the causes of the inward change. It might just be time working its magic. It might be an active attempt on my part to change my perfectionist tendencies from passive feelings to active tools. It might be that my story finally is something that’s objectively good, despite not being fully polished yet. It doesn’t really matter—the critique group, aside from being a place to get practical writing help, serves as a vivid marker of growth as an artist. The perfectionism that used to make me feel awful has been transformed, in part, into something that propels me instead of inhibits me. This was the first conference where the joys of critique groups were untainted.
We all know that we aren’t perfect, but we like to believe that we’re perfect enough that things can stay the way they are. We don’t like it when our flaws, known and unknown, are dragged out into the light and put on display. Who likes to be told that the scene they really like is, in fact, confusing, dry, or overly wordy? Who likes to be told that someone dislikes a favorite character? Who likes to be told that the main conflict of your story makes no sense? But how do we hope to mend those flaws if we don’t acknowledge them? Stomaching this process takes a lot of detachment, a lot of practice, and a lot of accepting that it’s unpleasant. It also, I think, takes a lot of moments of joy when you finally solve a plot hole, write a paragraph that sings with beautiful prose but is also comprehensible to a reader, or create a character that everyone loves as much as you do. It means realizing that affirmation and criticism can exist together in the same batch of feedback. For me, there’s so much satisfaction in polishing and sharpening my story—so much joy in my story as a whole—that any discomfort or embarrassment I feel over writing mistakes pales in comparison. Focusing on the love of creating makes the fear of failure dissolve. That, in turn, has made me grow to love critiques. Deriving joy from critiques is a sensation that I never want to lose—not only for the sake of my emotions, which need not be so attached to the art I create, but because critiques are so very important to growth. I don’t want to settle for an decent story when I have the tools to make it spectacular.