5 Positive Things Critique Can Do For You

I finished the 4th draft of my new play, and in spite of as much focused and deep work as I’ve done on a play and a group of characters, still missed the goal by a mile.  (Well, maybe more like a half-mile, but still.)  Not that there are not some good things about the play–there are–but on the whole, it is deeply flawed, especially as it relates to one character and her action, experience, and choices. Fortunately for me, I have professional friends and colleagues who are not afraid to look me in the eye and tell me, “This is wrong.”

It’s hard to swallow, but if you’re going to grow as an artist (and as a person), you have to listen.  There are times when the critics are wrong, and you just suck it up and move on, sticking to your guns. And there are times when the critics are dead right, and you know it in a flash.    Choices then follow, and how you respond will go a long way toward finding the kind of result (and by result, I mean the quality of the work) you’re looking for.

Here are five positive things that strong, you-blew-it-this-time critique can do for you.

  1. Gives you practice in humility.   My mistakes in the play run in two directions.  One deals with playwriting and character, the other with human understanding especially as it relates to culturally located skin color issues.   Funny…I often say to people that if I could ask God for one quality to acquire, model, and live out, it would be humility.   And I often do ask God for just that.    Well, these days, God seems more than happy to oblige me with opportunity to practice.
  2. Gives you practice in listening through the fog of emotion.    It’s hard to hear that you’ve just directed the most “tedious play I’ve ever seen.” (A directing mentor years ago.)  Or that your writing is “facile.”  (The Seattle Times. Ouch.)  Or that “I couldn’t find anything in that play that I liked.”  (A friend about a musical I wrote years ago.)  In each moment, for me at least, the brain sort of blows up, and the next few minutes are chaotic, as I try to make sense of whatever the person across from me is saying.   The amygdala hijack, some call it.   But when you ask people to explain what they mean by whatever it is you’ve said, you have to listen carefully to make sense of it.
  3. Forces your creativity to another level.   Frankly, once I became aware of the flaw, I was incredibly discouraged for a couple of days, wracking my brain trying to figure how to fix things.  Nothing came.   I went to bed Tuesday night thinking I might just have to chuck the thing, and told my subconscious mind to get to work on it, and then I went to sleep.   Then, Wednesday,  I had a very strong critique session with a good friend, who pulled no punches, and with clarity and passion, was enormously instructive.   When the friend left, I seriously considered giving up writing altogether (not really, but you know what I mean), but about a half-hour later, after telling at least two people on the phone I wasn’t going think about it for awhile, a very credible solution rose up in my mind, so much so that I immediately got to work fleshing it out.   Whether I can make it work this time around, who knows?  But the point is, without that deep critique, the new answer–which is clearly much better for about a thousand reasons–would not have occurred to me.
  4. Demonstrates in real time who cares about your work.   Don’t get me wrong, you don’t have to take someone to the cleaners to prove you care about their work (all my friend are now lining up to have their turn), but when someone is willing to walk through that fire with you, risking who knows what (they have no idea how you’ll really respond, and sometimes there’s heavy cost), pay attention.   The person who is coming at you hardest may be the one person you need most to listen to, because they’re the ones who aren’t going to be satisfied with “good enough.”
  5. Gives you an opportunity to model a process that every body likes to talk about, but few like to practice.   I believe in the process of critique, but it’s hard to put into practice. Lots of times, my sense is that we just lie to each other to keep up appearances, and figure that the standards that identify good artistic work from not as good are squishy, hard to define, and just end up costing us friends and feelings.  What’s weird is that lots of times, that’s just fine.   We get by, and maybe never get to the kind of quality of work we wanted just because we never hear these good words:  “You can do better.”
Critique can also be devastating.   After my friend’s comment on my musical years ago, it was about six months before I wrote anything again.   Sure…you get gunshy.  But it’s a war, according to Pressfield, and good critique is not resistance.  Your response to it might be, if you let it stop the work.   But truth is, even if it is devastating, we really only have two choices.  We can quit, or go on.   Quitting was taken off the list of options a long time ago.   Now it’s just about getting down to work.

By the way, I wrote this blog by creating the title, and then figuring out 5 things that might make sense.   Am I wrong?  Tell me about it.   Or give me some more positives about receiving critique well. There are probably a hundred.

“Here what’s wrong with this post…”  Go…

5 Comments

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  1. I really like #3. I’ve just started a blog and I can see how much further I need to stretch, but it’s actually fun and rewarding to “suffer” through it. I’ve only written 2 posts and haven’t been critiqued yet, so I don’t have anything to add to your list! ha Great post!
    http://andreaburk.com/

  2. Is there a difference between asking God for humility and humbling yourself before Him so that He can lift you up?

    • I hope you don’t mind me saying something but I can’t help myself. What I have found been a Christian over 30 years that when we ask God to help us to be humility and humble ourselves it is actually finding our true Identity in Christ. I believe our true identity is living by God’s example ‘imitating God’s Character’. Ephesians 5

  3. I so needed to read this right now. I know that criticism is hard to take and I always want to cry when criticized but I know that I need to listen…need to listen to the emotion attachéd to to it and hear what is real about that criticism. So hard but so growing.

  4. Hi Jeff, I am really glad I found your blog, I been searching google because very recent like a day ago I was really criticised about my blog by a really good close friend. She said my blog is too personal and that it did not make sense. This really upset me and I ask a friend to read my blog she actually said it was brilliant. My blog is for God’s glory not mine, I write what God places on my heart which is usually my brokenness life experiences.. One good friend said too me when the criticism happened – “Put it through your God filter and what is of God will come through and what is not of God will bounce off. We need to have people in our lives to sharpen us and keep us on track but they are not always right.’ Well I step back reflect over what my friend said, I put God’s filter on and I believe what my close friend said about my blog is not of God. Because I know God inspires my writing. So I am at the stage of bouncing of what’s not God. This is so hard to bounce of this criticism. I been the best way to bounce it off is be inspired again and write on my blog. Obviously my friend is jealous.

    Another wise friend has said to me in a different way – “Your friend does not know what he/she is talking about. One of the things through which we overcome the devil is “the word of our testimony” (Rev 12:11). Jesus told a demoniac He had healed, “Go home to thy friends, and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee, and hath had compassion on thee” (Mark 5:19). Keep talking. You glorifying God in doing so. Your friend has criticized you because he/she has been convicted by what you have said. She probably is. That is the negative response of conviction does. . . . negative response that conviction produces.”

    Once again thank you!

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