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Not Taking it Personally

Categories: MFA Confidential Blog.

One of the best parts of receiving an MFA is the steady feedback you get about your work from both teachers and classmates. This feedback is often invaluable in the rewrite process, and when you’ve been working on a chapter or story for so long, and you’ve been thinking about it so deeply, sometimes you need an outside source—someone outside your own head—to take a look at it and tell you what’s missing.

That said, it’s hard not to take criticism personally. Usually, my program at Columbia does a great job of asking us, in workshop discussion, to emphasize the positive over the negative. We try not to talk about our personal likes and dislikes in someone’s pieces, only what’s working, and what we still have questions about. Criticism, both positive and negative, always has to be specific and rooted in identifiable aspects of story, things like internal perceptions, narrative distance, existence of scene, ability to “see” characters, pacing, etc. That’s because, understandably our art is very close to our hearts. It’s personal.

I’ll never forget the first writing workshop I ever took, back when I was getting my education degree. We were discussing one of my stories and a guy in my class leaned back, looking terribly bored and apathetic, and sighed, “Yeah…..your ending was kinda lame.” I was 22 and sharing my work for the very first time, and I was both humiliated and enraged. I still remember what the guy was wearing: a hideous button-down shirt with flowers on it. I think he was going for the ironic seventies look. I remember mocking it in my head because that’s about all I was capable of retorting with.

In hindsight, the guy was right: my ending was lame. But his feedback was hurtful and lazy, and more importantly, it didn’t help me to understand how to make my ending better. And although a comment like that wouldn’t fly in a Columbia workshop, it still hasn’t become any easier when your peers criticize, or even reject, a piece that you’ve written. Sometimes it’s harder to take criticism from your classmates than it is from an authority figure (a magazine, contest, or even professor) because in theory, your classmates should be on the same playing field as you are. Thus, when you’re criticized by them, it adds a whole new level of self-doubt to a writer’s process.

So my question for this week: how do you handle criticism graciously? How do you take it and use it to your advantage? How do you tamp down the inevitable defensiveness that occurs when someone in your class says that your piece isn’t strong enough? How do you learn not to take it personally?

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3 Responses to Not Taking it Personally

  1. Jessie Morrion says:

    Thanks for the advice, guys. And Ashleigh, i feel the same way–my writing is my heart and soul. When people criticize it, I feel like they’re crticizing me. I have to do a better job of trying to separate the work from myself, and not taking things so personally.

  2. Ashleigh says:

    Self-doubt plagues me everytime I sit to write, so criticism can, at times, crumble my resolve to follow my writing dreams. What I found works best to deal with the necessary evil that is criticim, is to first and foremost, separate myself from the piece. Because I feel like so much of me goes into my writing, sharing it feels like I’m bearing my heart and soul. So when my piece is criticised or even rejected, it feels almost as though I am the one being criticised or rejected. Now when I share a piece, I disconnect from it by either giving myself time after writing it before sharing it or by putting my mind to work on something new.

    Also, it helps to remind myself that even though criticism can be really helpful, that everyone has their own opinion, their own perspective, and their own idea as to what works and what does not. I try to bear in mind when considering another’s advice on writing, my own personal voice and style, and ask myself before following or just altogether discrediting another’s opinion: ‘is it a valid criticism?’ and ‘if I make the change, will it no longer sound like my writing’.

  3. Ivan says:

    How do you handle criticism graciously?
    Keeping in mind that any given criticism could be a combination of three things. One, good and accurate judgment. Two, well intentioned, but bad assessment of the piece. Three, forced bad assessments, in the sense that in those criticism sessions all people is looking for something that "does not work of fails"in the story. But we could have a written piece that works well already but, they feel they "fail" if they don’t find the failure or shortcoming in the piece. So they force one.
    I ignore the tone they used in their criticism, and weight the value of it, and determine in what category the above three their criticism belongs to.

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