The Coward’s Editor
I have always taken pride in being tough; pain is more likely to elicit laughter from me than tears. I can take constructive criticism in my painting, my personal life, and at my day job in a call center (where I get more than my fair share of criticism from unhappy callers). The one area of my life where I am -- and have always been -- a delicate, weepy, crushed-petal, baby flower, is my writing. Writing is the way that I give voice to my innermost self, the “me-est me” as it were, and she is very fragile. Like frost on a windowpane, “Writer Sierra” may seem icy, fierce, and unafraid to make space for herself, but she absolutely cannot take the heat.
Even in college, a note of critique left in the margins on a returned essay would cleave my heart in two. Rationally, I knew that whatever professor already-forgot-his-name had to say about my writing should not have a lasting impact on me. But it would. The shorthand “awk” to indicate an awkwardly worded sentence would ruin my whole weekend.
As I got older, I redirected my career path and my graduate education towards writing in earnest. I began producing content of greater significance, but my intolerance for criticism remained the same.
Then, one semester, in my Creative Nonfiction MFA, I wrote my final essay for my Telling Contemporary Women's Stories class about a toxic relationship I had with a college roommate. I ended up letting her control my life because I felt (irrationally) responsible for the time she was sexually assaulted.
The essay was a reflection on the influence of guilt, on sexual assault, on PTSD from sexual trauma, on female empowerment, and on escaping from controlling relationships. It was the first time I had written about it and the process was painful. I had to relive one of the worst years of my life every day for a week as I slowly hammered out one emotionally charged paragraph after another. When it was finished, I was nervous to turn it in, so I sent it to my editing team for review first.
Now, I am not proud of this, but I must tell you a little bit about my "editing team" for you to understand exactly what was going on. In my fragile, critique-averse state I had assembled this particular group of people because they all have two things in common: they are smart, well-read critical thinkers, AND they all happen to be insanely biased toward me and think my writing is brilliant.
I had successfully convinced myself that because the former attribute was true, the latter wasn't stopping them from being critical of my work. But deep down I think I knew better. I didn't pick these women to proofread my writing because they are adept editors, I had picked them because I knew they would stroke my ego.
In retrospect, I have learned to refer to them as what they really are: my hype team.
They all read my essay and loved it. They praised it excessively and had no edits at all. They said things like, "I know I should give you constructive feedback, but it's literally perfect." Hello ego! It gave me just enough courage to turn the essay in.
And, my professor…
She had LOADS of feedback. Absolute MOUNTAINS of it.
I was livid. Not at my friends for giving me false confidence, and not at myself for turning in what was effectively a rough draft (that I was unwilling to edit for excellence because the sloppy ramblings had personal significance to me). I was mad at my professor for not knowing "good writing." My knee jerk response was to revel in some very pompous anger that was rooted in hurt feelings that surpassed anything I had felt in those undergrad gen ed classes. This wasn't some paper I had pulled out of my butt at the last minute, this was the essence of myself poured on the page. I had relived trauma to tell this story and my professor's largest (and cruelest) critique had me storming around the house in a blind rage.
"What's your point?" she had asked at the end of the essay.
I spluttered and fumed and yelled to my boyfriend, "If she doesn't get the point, then she obviously doesn't know how to read!" He gently reminded me that she was an expert in her field and may have some suggestions worth considering. I reminded him to shut up and take my side. It was decided. I wasn't even going to acknowledge her feedback.
But after about two days of being really mad, the overachiever in me -- and the persistent nudges from my annoyingly rational boyfriend (that traitor) -- drug me back to my computer to make the edits. Not, in my mind, because they were good, but because I wanted the points back on my grade. I told myself it was fine to just do the edits and "ruin the essay" for the sake of getting an A.
I went back through and reread her comments. I meditated on them for another day, mulling them over until I no longer viscerally reacted when considering her suggestions. Then I sat down to rewrite.
I admitted to myself that the reason my professor had misinterpreted the essay was because I had not been clear enough. Some of her suggestions diluted the point I wanted to make, but I was ready to accept responsibility for her confusion. I used those notes as a springing off point to clarify my message, to use better signposting, and to write a concrete ending instead of an abstract, metaphorical one. It was less poetic, but truer. The rest of the edits I applied exactly as she suggested. By the end, the essay was almost unrecognizable.
After I finished making the changes, I sent it back to my hype team, expecting them to take my side. I had blustered and complained and fumed to them too, so they knew exactly how I felt about making those changes. But to my astonishment, every single one of them had virtually the same response, "Wow, those edits gave this piece new life. It's sharper. It's more poignant. It's more universal. It is 100% better. Your prof was right."
Their responses laid me out flat. I felt desperately wounded by them siding with my enemy! (So dramatic. Please remember that I absolutely love and respect the crap out of this professor.)
More than anything, I felt sheepish because they were right. My professor had been right. Something as vulnerable as what I had chosen to write about could never be perfect on the first draft, I was too close to it. I needed someone unattached to the story and unattached to my feelings to help me make it good, and that's exactly what my professor had done. I had been coddling myself by only sending my writing to people who agreed with me, which is the kind of short-sighted mistake that could have killed my writing career if left unchecked.
Lesson learned the hard way.
Even after that experience though, I maintain that it is okay to share your writing with people who think you can do no wrong. Sometimes we all need a little undue praise to help us feel brave enough to write something worth praising.
But you cannot use those people as your editors if you want to grow as a writer. You won't. You can't. You need someone who is going to be harsh in their analysis and push you to reach outside of yourself and your comfortable writing ruts in order to improve.
Everyone needs a harsh and merciless ego smasher who will make them slow down to sort through the shards of their self-importance in order to find their hidden potential.
However, and this is the most important takeaway, it is also still okay to be bad at receiving critique. It's okay for your feelings to be hurt or to cry when someone says, "This could be better." Good writing is an extension of the most intimate and vulnerable parts of yourself, so the feedback "not good enough" will never not feel personal.
Remember: being a writer takes courage, and brave people rise up to meet a challenge.
The pattern I have formed for myself is this:
1) Write a piece.
2) Send it to a brutally honest editor for feedback.
3) Nervously await their response.
4) Allow myself to be very angry and very hurt by their feedback. It's a reaction I now know I can't help, so I indulge it. But for no more than 48 hours.
5) Suck it up and try the edits. Force myself to remember that my editor is qualified, probably right, and that they criticize me from a place of wanting my writing to get better.
6) Acknowledge that the piece is better because of their input.
7) Write the next piece.
The painful and nerve wracking nature of receiving constructive criticism never gets easier for my proud yet delicate heart. However, knowing that about myself, and carrying on anyway, somehow makes me more ready to receive it.
As a very brilliant writing mentor of mine often says, writing is a career full of nerves. In his four decades of experience, he has never stopped getting nervous. He describes the feeling he gets before profiling someone as, “knocking on the door for a first date over and over and over again for your entire career." I agree.
And I think the metaphor applies to other areas of the work as well -- it applies to sending your writing out to be edited, to be accepted (or rejected), to be read and reviewed and loved and hated and ignored. And sometimes it feels like your highly anticipated metaphorical date opens the door only to kick you in your metaphorical balls, and close the door again. But that doesn't mean you don't keep knocking. Because to be a writer is to open your innermost self to derision and praise, to challenge and growth, and to always come back for more. Something as little (albeit sometimes all-consuming) as hurt feelings, cannot stand in your way.