Sunday, December 5, 2010

criticism and art

In graduate school, during my "closing conversation" (thesis defense), one professor who had not once commented on any of the drafts of my novella suggested there, on my last day in graduate school, that I delete the first 100 pages of the book. 

That's about when, embarrassingly enough, I started to cry. To this day, that remains one of the more humiliating experiences of my life so far (and there have been many), sitting with my throat closing up in a small room with four professors, two of them, after that, desperately trying to shore up my sad, deflated little ego. 

Art is freeing, liberating, wondrous, expansive, simply fun.  It also, like any interaction with the world, makes you vulnerable when you let the world in on it.  You pour your soul out, and someone, off the cuff, says, eh, not my thing, she could do better, boring, yawn, bleh, pedestrian, unoriginal, poorly executed, off-key, too light, too dark, too rigid, too unstructured, too serious, too abstract, too little or too much whatever.  Or they move on to grandiose commentaries your character and moral fiber (for a zippy example of that, check out Not Fan Mail).  Even minor comments can feel very, very major when people are sticking pins in your baby.

The thing is: it's easy.  I've been the executioner as well.  To this day, I feel bad about telling someone in a workshop ten years ago to make his character "less of an asshole."  To me, his character was aggressively an asshole - he hated women with a disturbing venom and kicked a cat in the story.  But what I didn't know was that there was this whole back history to that character that the author knew (and hadn't included) that made him infinitely more palatable and sympathetic.  Rejection of a character can feel much like rejection of self, a hard place to go.  And sometimes, simply trying to identify your own tastes can lead you into uninformed criticism of other people's work.

When I think about my closing conversation in graduate school, I think sometimes maybe it was karma, that my thoughtlessly worded comment years before was coming back to haunt me.  I hope that guy kept on writing, but I know he missed a lot more classes in that workshop after that piece.  I know that my writing stalled for many years after graduate school and that I still haven't finished the book that evolved from that novella.  I can't and don't blame that one one day or one comment, anymore than I think my one comment could completely kill off a desire to write, but when I hear critical voices in my head, the nasty kind that cramp your creativity, that professor's voice is certainly there among the others. 

This part of art, of putting yourself out there, is something all artists struggle with, some of us more than others.  A lot of life is, essentially, confidence, and confidence (oddly) has little relationship with talent. There are fantastic artists hidden out there because they crumble in the face of comparatively mild comments.  There are others who plug onward in the face of harsh criticism that dissuades them not one bit.  Any press is good press, they say, and move on. The Goldilocks path is to perhaps be able to select the useful information that echos what you already know about the strengths and weaknesses of your work and clarifies it.  Most criticism is not constructive, but even random comments have kernels of usefulness if we can get over the pinpricks of discomfort.

The rule of thumb they tell you in graduate school is you need to send a story out 100 times before publication.  Like looking for work, there is an element that is strictly a numbers game, that your story or resume lands on someone's desk at the right time.  If you're writing about baseball the day he gets tickets to the World Series, well then, you're more interesting. If you're writing about a conflicted drug dealer with a heart of gold the day his son gets shot by Captain Cocaine, your reviewer's reading will likely be less sympathetic. 

In the end, it's a crap shoot.  You put things out, you edit, you repaint, you redesign, and eventually you let go and say, well, it's good enough for right now.  The painting gets signed and goes on the wall, the story goes in the mail, you say, go ahead, accept me, reject me, flay me out whatever way you want.  Or at least, that is what I am trying to tell myself, as I go back to old work and say, huh, having only sent out a handful of stories a handful of times, maybe it's time to invest in the editing, invest in the stamps, start working the numbers and seeing what I can make happen.  I'll stall out again, I'm sure.  But I'm also sure I'll get up and get moving again.  Color me Goldilocks.

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