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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.”
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…