A couple weeks ago a friend of mine emailed me to suggest I make a different decision than one I had made. That same day, another friend sent a text correcting me on a couple mistakes I’d made (mistakes that represented a pattern). A couple days later a person pulled me aside for a heart to heart conversation about some criticism of me he’d heard.
Don’t you just love it when people tell you you’re wrong? And in stereo, too!
I’d planned to spend that week writing. Instead I spent it mostly apologizing for overreacting to criticisms. I sent long texts, back and forth, persevering even when we seemed to entirely misunderstand one another, and met for a two hour breakfast, apologizing, trying to hear. I want my friends to tell me the truth. I told them, “Sometimes I will overreact at first. I’m sorry. I’m trying.”
Receiving criticism is not my favorite thing. I excuse it by saying, “I’m so hard on myself; I don’t need others to be hard on me, too,” but I wonder if that’s true…
Two Wednesdays ago I took a plane to Minnesota to attend a writing workshop at a place I’d never been with people I’d never met. We gathered by a lake in a beautiful mid-century building. We sat in a circle, a square really, at tables covered in white tablecloths, a wall of windows to our side, trees and lake, mosquitoes, loons. There we shared our work. We opened our hearts, pulled out 15 pages of writing, and prepared for surgery, cutting open the sentences and paragraphs, ideas and metaphors leaking out. We observed and affirmed, corrected and reworked.
When one’s turn rolled around (we edited three pieces per day, 30 minutes per piece) the author was forbidden from speaking. You could introduce your work. You could even say some things after the workshopping concluded. But during the process, you served as silent observer--your only words the words on the page. The group gave feedback and you raced to write it all down.
My hand cramped up.
People have asked me again and again since I got home, Were you nervous? How did it feel to sit there while people poked at something you made, something so personal?
The truth? I wasn’t nervous. Wasn’t at all. And, honestly, it felt wonderful. Here’s why:
I want to be a better writer. Too often I write alone in an office in an empty house, no people around to tell me when the words don’t work. I’ve devoted my life to writing, given up an awful lot to do it. I’ve studied it. I’ve practiced it. And I want to know when I’m doing it right and when I’m doing it wrong. I was excited for weeks about the criticism I’d receive at this workshop, criticism from other people working in the field, people trained and practicing, people with sharp eyes for seeing error.
After our group workshop sessions we each received some time with a professional editor. I spent days trying to decide how I’d use this precious 20 minutes. I ended up picking three questions I wanted her to consider--all rooted in a desire to see what was broken in my work. During the meeting, every time she’d praise something, I’d quickly say, Thank you, but what about… rushing to to get to the criticism I craved.
Looking back on this week and the week before, I wonder why I was so eager for criticism of my writing from strangers and so hesitant to accept criticism of my character from friends. I wonder if perhaps I’m more eager to be a good writer than I am to be a good person. Or perhaps I just want my friends to think I’m already a perfect person.
I looked up synonyms for the word “criticize” and they read like a list of torture methods:
blame, blast, bash, blister
castigate, censure, clobber, chastise, chide. condemn
excoriate, fustigate, hit, knock, lambaste, pan
reprehend, reprobate, rip, roast
scorch, skin, slam
Criticism doesn’t have to be painful, despite what the synonyms say. Sometimes it comes wrapped in love.
Like my writing workshop. Before anyone offered a single piece of negative feedback, we all gathered around the writing with celebration and affirmation. People pointed out what they loved, which words gave them goosebumps, how well the sentences varied between short and long to speed up or slow down the reader. And then later when we approached with the red pen, we didn’t switch from loving to critical. The criticism overflowed from a desire to bless and help. We wanted to make each other better.
That’s why my friend messaged me about the decision I’d made. And it’s the same reason the other friend pulled me aside to talk about the criticism he’d heard. Their criticism came wrapped in love. And that made it easier, if not easy, to take.
I like that my friends want more for me than what I currently have and who I currently am. I remind myself of this when they bravely confront me with correction
The Sagatagan Lake beach bustled with the sounds of Saturday. I swam out away from shore looking back at people and towels and canoes, all candy colored confetti on the sand. I dropped down underwater into the quiet and rose up to the melody of laughter.
Just in front of me a swim platform floated, a rising and falling dock crammed with kids and parents. I swam over, climbed the ladder, found a spot to sit and let my legs dangle in lake. I placed open palms on bent knees. I waited for a word.
Beside me a father taught his family to dive. Two children, a nephew and his wife. All five family members standing, toes at the edge, taking turns propelling themselves headfirst into the cold water. After each dive every waiting, smiling diver cheered,
Way to go!
That was better!
Your legs were straighter that time!
And as they swam back to the dock, feedback--
Don’t duck your head!
Don’t be afraid!
Each diver dove again and again, celebration and helpful criticism poured out freely after each courageous attempt, everyone empowered, empowering.
The father looked over to see me sitting in my yoga prayer pose, obviously eavesdropping on their joy, and said, “I’m sorry if we’re disturbing you.”
“No!” I said, too much earnest in my voice. “I’m delighted!”
As if to prove it, I stood up, word received, and dove in.