In college I had a creative writing teacher who told us the first week of class that his job wasn’t to encourage us, or in his words ‘blow sunshine up our ass’, but instead he was there to make us better writers by exposing the flaws in our work.
We called him Mr. Sunshine.
Instead of immediately walking down to the registration office to get an add/drop slip as I probably should have done, I decided to stay in the class figuring that it couldn’t possibly be as bad as it seemed.
Looking back now, I learned two important things in that class. First, that teaching makes some people incredibly mean and bitter. Second, I learned how to take a punch in the ego when it came to people criticizing my writing.
Maybe you’ve been there too.
Maybe you took a creative writing, fine arts, or design class where weekly critiques of your work were the norm. Is so, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
If you never had the pleasure of having your work ripped to shreds in a classroom setting like this, then you may have had attended an art show or perhaps an adjudicated creative writing contest where your creative work was eviscerated in front of your very eyes.
Satan my creative writing professor was right after all. Maybe all of that pain constructive criticism was well-deserved and maybe it has made me a better writer as a result. I’m still not convinced that this little sadistic character building exercise was worth it, but I can tell you that along the way I learned that there is a right way and a wrong way to take a critical punch.
First of all, you have to be willing to show up and listen.
If all you really want is a pat on the back and a “great job”, then you’re probably better off just showing your creative work to Grandma and skip putting it out there where other people can see and comment on it.
Let’s face it, everyone is not going to like everything that you do.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that your work sucks, it just means that some people are going to like and some people won’t. So you can either keep your creative work hidden away in your basement, or you can let it out and expose it to potential criticism.
To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing. ~Elbert Hubbard
In other words, if you decide to put your creative work out there, you’re going to get both positive and negative feedback along the way. You don’t have to have to agree with it, but you should be willing to listen to what they have to say and see what you can potentially learn from it.
Also when you are listening to creative feedback, make sure you get specifics and find out what exactly they liked and didn’t like about your work. Nothing irritated me more during these classroom critiques than when someone said they just didn’t like the ‘overall theme’ or that it just didn’t ‘feel right’.
It’s not about you, it’s about your work.
As much as we tend to identify with our creative work, it’s not our child and it’s not a part of us. It’s just a product or our imagination and not a piece of our creative soul. We need to find a safe distance from our creative work in order to not feel personally attacked when they tell us that for whatever reason it just doesn’t work for them.
So instead of sitting there plotting your revenge for when it’s their turn to be critiqued, make an effort to really listen to what they’re saying and realize that it’s not really about you but this thing that you created.
Does this mean that you’ll enjoy these creative critiques? Probably not, but at least you can put on your big kid pants and listen to what they have to say.
I realize that it’s easy to get defensive when someone is criticizing something that you’ve spent a great deal of time and effort creating, but you also need to keep it in perspective.
Also keep in mind that all of this only applies to actual constructive criticism from your fellow creative artists and not the random angry rantings of the internet trolls.
While even the most jaded classroom has established rules for creative critiques, the internet unfortunately has no such safeguards.
It’s one thing when someone sitting across from you in class starts talking about your creative work, it’s completely different when some anonymous angry troll shows up one day on your website or Facebook and unleashes some venomous tirade that has nothing to do with you or your actual work.
Don’t waste your time or energy trying to defend yourself from this type of troll-ian criticism because they’re not really interested in having a discussion with you anyway. They just wanted to go off on someone and you happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Finally, keep in mind that no matter what you do, your work is never going to be loved by everyone.
People are going to criticize your creative work, but that’s okay because your work will eventually define your audience. Those who like it will stick around and wait for you to create something else, while those who don’t like what you doing, will wander off towards their next adventure.
So how do you respond after getting punched in the face with criticism of your creative work?
Take a moment to share your thoughts (and horror stories) with us in the comment section below.
Writer, teacher, and head custodian of the Skinny Artist community. His book "Getting Creative: Developing Creative Habits that Work" is all about finding the time (and energy) to live a more creative life.