Not Taking it Personally

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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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