Wednesday, July 26, 2006

On Criticism.

For some unknown reason, a completely unrelated event today gave me a flashback to my college days.

It was my last writing tutorial before graduation. As my writing course was marked purely on coursework, meaning no final exams, that last tutorial was just a chance to sit back, chat and reminisce about the college experience. All work has been handed in. All we had to do was wait for the results to come in, in a few months time.

At the end of the tutorial, my tutor gave a bit of a speech. Forgive me for paraphrasing a little, this was over 5 years ago, but it went something like this:

“I don’t say this to every class I’ve taught, but it’s truly been a privilege to teach you all. Trust me, it’s depressing to see you all go, because I’ve never taught a group of people like you before, and chances are I never will again.

I’m not saying you’re all the most talented writers I’ve ever taught, although all of you are talented and some of you I see going a long way. No, the reason this group is so remarkable is the way you all give and handle criticism.

I’ve watched you tear each other’s work to pieces, point out every single flaw, no matter how minor… and the person on the receiving end has taken it with a smile and took notes. I’ve watched one person tell another that they’ve hated their work, and then that person has simply gushed at how great the other person’s is.

I’ve been teaching since I was a couple years older than you, and every writing class I’ve ever taught or attended have gone one of two ways, either they’ve broken up or been tension filled the entire time, because one person said something less than complimentary about another’s work…or they’ve turned into mutual appreciation societies, where people gush over each other’s work because they’ve worked out that if they give praise, they receive it. It’s infant school stuff…”I like yours, do you like mine?”

You people actually get it. You know what it’s all about. If you write something and absolutely love it, but everyone else hates it, you go back to the drawing board. You know that by listening to your critics and learning from it, it improves your work. You don’t tell someone you love their writing because they said they loved yours, and you don’t rip someone’s work to shreds because they said yours was crap..

Every seminar, when you come into this classroom, you leave your egos at the door. That’s rare, especially among writers, and I want to thank you for that experience.

Now get the hell out of my classroom.”

That speech has stuck with me for two reasons. One, my writing teacher was very miserly with his praise, so that speech stood out because it was unusual, and two, it just made so much sense.

I like to think of myself as a creative person. I always have been. I play music, I like to write, draw and make things. However, what’s the point in being creative if you can’t share what you’ve created?

Think about this. When you were a kid, and you painted a picture, what’s the first thing you wanted to do when it was done? Show it to someone of course!

The simplest way I can put it is that being creative is giving a gift. When you’re creative, you’re not doing it just for you. You’re doing it for other people. Otherwise, you might as well finish your novel or put the finishing touches to your masterpiece, no matter what it may be…then lock it up or destroy it. For example, I enjoy writing, but if I wrote this blog purely for my own benefit, or like a lot of bloggers, responded to a negative comment with a “Fuck off, this is just for me, I don’t care what you think”… why am I bothering to publish on the World Wide Web?

If you write “just for you”, don’t care what other people think or care if they like it or not, why put it out there for people to read? Why not just write it in a notebook and lock it in your desk?

People who respond to criticism with the “It’s just for me” response, actually mean “I’m only interested in what you think, if you’re telling me how great I am.” The unfortunate reality is that this tends to work, because there are thousands of other people out there who will blindly praise bad work, because they know it’ll get them a bit of praise in return.

Another way to think about this is if creativity isn’t a gift for other people, why did DaVinci bother to paint anything? He could already see his paintings in his head, so why go to the effort of putting them on canvas?

This problem only occurs with creative activities, because in this area what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is purely subjective. Whereas a runner can accurately gauge his skill by where he places in a race, we can only really judge how good we are at something like writing by what other people think of our work…and again, it’s really easy to ignore anything negative when there are other people out there who will tell you you’re great in return for a pat on the head.

So for this reason, you should want your work to truly be the best it can possibly be, and the only way to do this is by listening to criticism.

I’m not saying become a complete and utter slave to your critics, but the simple truth is if you love something, but everyone else you show it to doesn’t like it, there’s probably something about it that can be improved.

For example, my drawings that I’ve been blathering on about for the past couple of posts are posted on deviantart, a website designed for artists to get feedback. I’ve read a couple comments, and they’ve really helped me improve. Tips and tricks on composition. This is wrong because that should be there. The perspective on this doesn’t match that. If you’re shading this like that, then this needs to be shaded like this.

On the other hand, I’ve got criticism that I don’t agree with. For example, one person said that some of the anatomy in my drawings is way off, specifically that the waist on one of my characters was too wide. The comment came from a cartoonist who draws very exaggerated curves, whereas I’m opting for a more ‘realistic’ approach. (The supposed ‘perfect’ waist to hips ratio is 80% for women, his drawings are more 40-50%). So in that case, I thanked the guy for his advice, but chose to disregard it.

This is what I mean. I received criticism, evaluated it, and chose what to reject and what to assimilate. Some advice and criticism is rock solid, others are a simple style choice. The trick is to be able to differentiate between the two.

At the end of the day, however, if everyone tells you your work is crap, it’s crap. If half the people tell you your work is good, and half tell you it’s crap, there’s probably room for improvement. If 100% of the people tell you your work is great…wake up, because you’re dreaming.

As a great example on how not to receive criticism comes from and experience I had a few years back.

I’d joined an online writers group. Someone had published the first few chapters of a story, and I don’t want to be mean, but it was absolutely awful. The idea was good, but the writer simply had no clue about the technical side of writing. For example, in the space of two paragraphs, he switched from third person, to first person and back to third again. Also punctuation was non-existent.

It was like “Bob Johnson walked up to his door I walked into my apartment and checked my messages there weren’t any so he sat down on his couch and tried to turn on the TV as I picked up the remote it didn’t work so I threw it at the screen,.”

Obviously, I didn’t just tell him it was crap. I also got the feeling he was a young writer, so I offered some advice. I think I said something along the lines of “Good work, the idea is excellent, but you need to fix some of the technical errors. You keep switching from first the third person, and it gets confusing.”

The reply? I didn’t know what I was talking about. Who do I think I am criticizing his work when he’s been a member for two years and I was still new…and I obviously didn’t understand his ‘style’ and it was none of my business.

I never replied to it, but you honestly have to think…if it was none of my business, why the hell was he posting work in a forum designed solely for people to get feedback to improve their work?

In simplest possible term, the quality of anything you create isn’t quantified by how much you like it, but how much other people like it. I could say I’m a better writer than Stephen King, but that’ll only be true when more people choose to read my writing than his.

So why do I think this topic is important and worth writing about?

Take the guy I mentioned above as a prime example. I’ve listened to my critics and changed the way I write accordingly. I know that my writing today is better than it was a year ago.

If that guy kept that same attitude, his writing is no better today than it was back then.


Because every time someone offered him a way to improve his work, he ignored them because taking their advice would be admitting he wasn’t as good as he thought he was…then went back to his circle of sycophants and they exchanged pats on the head and talked about how great the all are.

At the end of the day, if you’re doing something creative and are already convinced that your work is perfect and can’t be improved in any way, you might as well just burn your work every time you finish a new piece.


mistyforeverlost said...

I agree. No, really...I agree.

When I was in HS, I took a creative writing class and thought I had the bomb of a short story. My CW teacher read it out loud (correct voicing and all..impressive) and first offered this:

"Great idea."

then asked me this:

"Why the hell did you give away the ending halfway through and if your bored with the story, choose something different because you ended it way to quick."

Now..when I write, I remember those words. Way more then I remember "great idea."

Critisms is hard when it comes at you in negative nasty ways. When it comes at you with truth, it can do wonders for your work.

MC Etcher said...

Well said! Good criticism is vital to the creative process, and really hard to come by.

Many times, people will complain about an element that's intentional on the artist's part - without wondering why the artist chose to create the detail in that manner.

The worst part of having friends critique your stuff is when they put it down, smile excitedly at you and say "I love it!" and then are unable to give any useful input.

Paulius said...

Unfortunately that habit is very hard to break.

That's why I often find myself pointing out the flaws in your invention ideas, Etcher.

Three years of writing studies just trained me to do that. Compliments are great, but they don't teach anyone anything. In my writing class, you assumed that if a particular element didn't get commented on, it was fine.

University is also the reaon I can't watch a movie without analysing it a ripping it to pieces.

MC Etcher said...

Ha ha! Keep the criticism coming - I can take it.