By: Cassandra Robbins
Several years ago, my half-Italian mother wanted to make my brother and me a traditional Thanksgiving dinner like she had growing up, with one massive lasagna. She got up early and started combining tomato and spice to make sauce, letting it simmer slow, thick and heavy and red until the house bloomed with the smell of oregano and garlic. Later that afternoon, she had begun layering the pasta and sauce with ricotta until it stacked over the pan, then topped it with mozzarella, Romano and Parmesan. It baked for hours and it tantalized us with its golden crusted cheese. My brother and I peaked into the oven to see when it would be ready, and Mom swatted us away with the sauce spoon to have a look. Finally, it was done.
She set the lasagna between the plates on the table and let it cool. We whined until she deemed it ready to cut. She served my brother first, a thick slice on his plate. He took up a bite, contemplated, and said, “I like the one you get at the store better.”
Criticism is hard. I think we’ve all been at some point where we’ve spilled our guts into something to have it crumble—and writing is no different. What do you do when your work isn’t perfect? When a poem just isn’t working, or a draft doesn’t have the necessary components that leave readers questioning your main character—or worse—your ability as a writer? What happens then?
Listen. As tough as it is, your peers know what they’re talking about most of the time. Sometimes it’s hard to see your own work objectively without a special sentiment. Another reader doesn’t share that same feeling.
Get another opinion. Like science, you’ll get more consistent results the more feedback you receive. If the results show a correlation… well, maybe consider changing the things that aren’t working.
Ask questions. These should deal with the craft, and rarely ever the content of the piece. For example, Did you guys see that I was using the black hat to develop Brian’s character as a bad person? is a not a question a writer should ask, but What did you all think the theme of this story was? is a question that leaves an open-ended discussion of the critic’s thoughts.
Don’t defend. If you have to explain your poem or prose to a reader, it isn’t working.
Get mad if you want to. It’s okay—just do it in private when no one is watching. Scream into a pillow. Go for a run. You’re allowed to do these things. Writers are sort of human too, aren’t they? Just don’t take it out on the critic.
Take a break. After you’ve received criticism, give it a few days before looking back at the piece. You’ll notice that the language feels different. You may even notice where the piece is weaker in some areas than others; or even that the critic was right.
Work for it. Use that negative energy to write something better and improve the work. Revise it. Do it again and again until it’s done, and the negative comments will start turning into positive ones. But most importantly, stick with it. Like anything in life, no one does it perfectly the first time around.
Always remember why you started writing in the first place: because you like it and you want to be read. Write this down. Put it above your laptop every time you write and live by it. Now what are you waiting for?