Oh Sweet Criticism

There is a fine line between valid, constructive criticism and hurtful negativity. Learning to discern the two is an important life skill to master.

“Every human being is entitled to courtesy and consideration. Constructive criticism is not only to be expected but sought.”

~Margaret Chase Smith

The musical jingle of my iPhone’s marimba ringtone cheerfully clangs in my pocket. As usual these days, I sigh a little and roll my eyes, then fish for the phone in my pocket. From my caller ID, I see that it’s an older lesbian friend of mine — we’ll call her Tanya — who is also a writer. I had recently sent her my first Medium article, “Fundamentalism Kills”, and was looking forward to her response.

“Tanya! Hey…Yeah, I’d love to hear what you thought of my article!” I trilled cheerfully.

“What did I think? What did I think?” Tanya was clearly revved up and off to the races before I even had a chance to draw a breath. “Daniel, I don’t even know how to put this. Your writing is terrible,” she screeched. “Did you even try? Did you even put in any effort at all when you were writing this article?”

I took a deep breath. Count to ten. Don’t take what she’s saying personally. Remember she’s been through a lot in her life too.

“Tanya, you know — I wrote this from a place of telling a heartfelt story. The purpose of the article was to share my horrific experience coming out in a fundamentalist Christian cult and how that lead to my family completely abandoning me and putting me in a life-threatening situation. That’s really it. It wasn’t intended to be a Nobel laureate-winning piece.”

“Well good, because it definitely was NOT!” she bellowed. “Daniel, I am a member of Gotham Writer’s Workshop. I think you need to get to Gotham immediately for some classes. It’s just — where to begin?”

None of this was remotely the response I had been expecting. I held my tongue and allowed her to continue.

“What I really want to know is, where is the anger, Daniel. Where is the passion?” she squawked. “Because this is weak sauce. Your family did horrendous things to you. You should be roasting them like a steak in your articles.”

“Tanya, I…here’s the thing,” I said. “I agree with you, they were completely and totally s — tty toward me. To this day, nothing has really changed on that front.

But I’ve put in years of work to process that anger, hardcore. Whether that’s through therapy or journaling or meditation and my spiritual practice. That’s basically what my entire 20s were about. I don’t want to crank out a blog full of vitriol. That’s not what I started writing professionally to do — generate a bunch of shrill, angry pieces,” I tried to reason with her.

“The thing that I wonder is,” Tanya continued, “did you write this because you sincerely wanted to tell your story, or did you write it for the views?

Again, I was taken aback. I did an intake of breath.

“Tanya, I honestly never in my wildest dreams thought that my first article on Medium would rack up 10,000 views and counting,” I said. “It’s given me somewhat of a platform to write professionally and inspired me to, if anything, take my writing much more seriously. But I wrote the article because I wanted to get a message out there. It’s really that simple. I had no idea my first article would go viral.”

“You kids and your — ” Tanya coughed mockingly, “modern writing. Meditate on this. Gwyneth Paltrow steam my p****y with that,” she railed. “It’s a bunch of choppy, shortened-attention-span Millennial garbage. If you decide to get serious about your writing and want to do something besides churn out this crap — call me.”

And just as abruptly as it had begun, the terse phone call was ended. Tanya had hung up with a click.

This conversation set me thinking about criticism, of the constructive and, well, not so constructive varieties.

As my online presence grows, I receive hundreds of comments on my posts, e-mails and other social media feedback every single day. The overwhelming majority of the responses I get are lovely, edifying and help me continue the uphill climb doing what I’m doing.

When we open ourselves up to the analysis of others, it’s important to use discernment so that if a critique is being offered in the spirit of constructive feedback, we can mine any truth out of what’s being offered and use that to improve upon our work. If, however, something just doesn’t sit well, if it’s being offered in a spirit of negativity or condemnation, or even just plain bullying or trolling — then it’s time to chuck that baby out with the wash.

When evaluating criticism, attempt to focus on the central message being shared. This method helps keep the speaker’s message more clear. Remaining centered will assist you in dealing with the main issue, as opposed to becoming distracted through random tangents and potentially triggering but unrelated sideshows the speaker is creating for us.

Recognize the speaker’s point of view. As you tune in, you may start to differ internally and anxiously anticipate your opportunity to react. Be that as it may, try to put yourself in her position. We each have our flaws and weaknesses. Respect her position and the fact that she cared enough to bring matters to your attention.

Refrain from escalation. When talking about our work and projects we are personally invested in, the potential for pressures to rise is present. At the point when we feel excessively censured or misjudged, it feels normal to raise past issues and bring up old wounds. This isn’t an ideal opportunity to show all your cards, though. It’s smarter to concentrate on the current issue and hold any lingering worries for a later time, unless they directly pertain to the issue at hand.

Finally, discern what it is you should be taking to heart — and which parts should be left with a grain of salt. The ability to tolerate feedback and receive constructive criticism from others is the sign of an open-minded, mature adult. By shifting your outlook when needed, you can become a progressively more compelling writer, painter, dancer, life partner, martial arts instructor…or whatever your life is calling you to do.

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