Even One Word

The Blog of Nathan St. Pierre


Accepting Criticism Wednesday, June 11, 2014

I can think of no better way to begin this post than to point out that there is a simple truth to being a creative person: you are not your preferences, your ideals or your philosophy. You are what you create. You are, in essence, defined by the things you bring into this world. With that thought in mind, let's visit a great quote:

The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism. --Norman Vincent Peale

What you create is special to you. It has to be, in some way, otherwise why did you create it? Ultimately, it is something with which you'll always have this kind of weird relationship.

You are a human. You create things, including other humans. But here's the thing: other people see what you create. And as the popular quote goes: "opinions are like assholes. Everyone has one. And they usually stink."

Creating what is right... to you

It is impossible to please everybody. Please yourself first.

I know, the above fortune cookie quote can be taken out of context, or with the "... in bed" fortune. But bear with me for ten seconds and get your head out of the gutter, internet.

The truth is that no matter how much you may want to create something that everyone loves, you will ultimately find very smart, thoughtful people who hate what you do.

As an open-minded, creative person, you will find this difficult to deal with. Their criticism is somehow valid, no matter how remarkably bluntly they may have phrased it. So how do you deal with it? In the age of the internet, how do you accept your faults and grow beyond them, and yet not yield to the pressures of people who have never met you?

Very simple.

Be yourself: everything else comes naturally.

The obligatory explanation of an over-simplified truism

If you're like me, this thought is nice and inspiring but far from helpful. How the hell are you supposed to know when someone has found a legitimate critique of what you have created (indicating a weakness you need to address) and when someone is just spouting hatred (indicating a weakness they need to address, specifically jealousy, or perhaps their immediate need for therapy)? You're not going to like the answer any more than the question, but here it is:

Be completely honest, with yourself and with everyone around you

Chances are, some part of you immediately felt defensive when someone told you that your grasp of anatomy was (at best) tenuous when you drew something completely impossible for a human to do in your latest art project. There's a really good chance that when someone critiqued your grammar, they were doing so objectively because they couldn't understand what the hell you just wrote. But no matter how true you may know this to be, your first instinct (as a good, normal human) is to assume they are wrong.

This is gonna be remarkably painful, but you're going to need to go ahead and let that go. Truth is, they probably are wrong on some level, maybe every one. But that doesn't make you immune to the truth. Step back, forget who said it, and ask yourself honestly: are you right? Is this good? Did you create something great? You'll know the truth in about ten seconds, that's easy. The hard part is accepting "maybe this totally does come across as self-reflective and mindless. Maybe even writing a blog is an exercise in mental masturbation." Wow. Things just got a little meta here. Moving on...

You know the truth. Accept it.

One of the most beautiful parts of being someone who creates things is this knowledge that there is great beauty in truth. Sometimes there is also great chaos and ugliness in truth: but therein lies the beauty. What you've created is flawed, beautiful, and horrible, just like you. The trick isn't finding it. I know you have someone in your life who is better than you at what you do. You've probably asked them for input on what you've created. If they really love you, they've broken your heart and told you the horrible truth about what you've created. Now the question is: what do you do?

Make some lemonade, dude!

Alright, you've had some time. You've drunk copious amounts of alcohol (or whatever your preferred coping mechanism, we can't all be Hemmingway). Ideally, get out in the world. Consume whatever it is you create: find some live concerts. Read a ton of books. Hit up some open mics and find comics and musicians who haven't made it, and see how they handle failure. Now you need to get back to work. You've had some time, it's time to be honest: what do you think? It's okay to think you suck.

Dude, sucking at something is the first step to being kind of okay at something.

You're gonna suck for awhile. The only difference between people like you and Stephen King is that he learned how to deal with rejection at an early age and worked a part-time job for years while submitting his stuff to publishing houses. If what you have to create is truly great, it'll keep getting better as long as you're honest with yourself.

Are you being honest with yourself?

If you truly are an artist, then you are your worst critic. You have ripped up more sheets of paper than you've ever shared with other people. You've written more blog posts and then deleted the file than you've actually managed to publish. This is because your taste improves constantly, and your skill takes a lot longer to catch up. You know how much you suck long before you think you're good. And as soon as you think you're good, you find someone who makes you realize you still suck.

If you're seeing a lot of "haters" tell you that your work is terrible, you might just be a human being who has to deal with other jealous human beings, and that's something you need to learn how to deal with. But there's also a chance that some of those douchebags have a point.

But should I venture into the hellmouth that is the comments section?

I promise you: the second you read a critique that makes you cry, it's because there's something true there. Maybe the truth is that the person who wrote it is a horrible person, and if that's the case move on. But if you're crying because they made you realize your worst fear or doubt, you just got a great piece of advice. Now you know you're not the only one, and you have a call to action. Work harder! Get better! Make more things! Because in the end, the only thing that separates you and burnt out husks of human detritus who comment on things is that all they can create is hatred of things. You make things.

And as long as you live, you can keep creating them.

So keep doing it! You'll get better, I promise. And if you need feedback, I'm always one of the jerks who will give it. Just remember I love you, and I'm not trying to destroy you. I just want to help you get better, even if the path between horrible and awesome contains great pain.