Guest post: “The Critique Masochist” by Frances Pauli

The Critique Masochist

by Frances Pauli

 

As an art school veteran, I am no stranger to criticism. When I create something, I not only expect critique, I immediately crave it. Critique is necessary, it’s useful, it is required. And the more brutal the better. In essence, I have become a critique masochist. How could this have happened? Let me explain.

Art majors at the college level spend their week something like this… Monday through Thursday are filled with studio classes–three hour sessions of drawing and/or painting in the classroom. Sometimes, it’s a clever arrangement of old knickknacks, vases, and Styrofoam balls and sometimes an assortment of nude models which is not nearly as exciting as you might imagine when you’re trying to get the lines right.

Friday, however, is critique day. On Friday, you gather your week’s work, tack it to a wall, and wait for the guns to start firing at you. You learn to love Fridays or you aren’t going to be in art school very long. Freshmen feared the week’s end. Those with tenuous egos invented reasons to be ill on Friday. You could try to dodge, but no matter how clever you were, eventually, it was your work on the wall.

There were only two rules in a peer critique and they are very good ones. First, you must remain absolutely silent while your work is being trashed–er, examined. Second, a critic may not say “I like it” or “I don’t like it” unless the statement is immediately followed by a detailed explanation of “WHY”.

Fridays were fun days in the school of art. If someone wasn’t crying in the halls between classes, it wasn’t Friday. I’m serious. People fled critique day, people sobbed. Some stomped straight to administration and switched majors. But, no matter how you look at it, Friday was a good day. It was Friday that turned me into a critique masochist.

So, back to writing…and critique. Critique is a good thing. It is the single most vital tool to becoming the best at any creative endeavor. We cannot be our own critic. We can try, and please do try. It’s required, you HAVE to learn to look at your work objectively. On the flip side, you will never, ever be as objective as your reader in Connecticut who’s never met you. Seek out the guns. Please. As you do, remember a few things to nurse a happy relationship with criticism. It will find you eventually anyway. If not before publication, then after.

DETACH: Your work may be your baby, but it’s not your baby. Any discussion of your work is not a personal attack. It is not your job to protect it. It is your job to let it be ripped to shreds and reassembled into something better, and golden, and closer to perfect.

EGO AWAY: Put it in a box, lock it in its room, whatever. Your ego will be needed later (when the rejections roll in and make you want to quit) but while receiving and giving criticism, it’s dead weight and will only botch up the whole process.

LISTEN: With both ears and the whole mind. Listen and consider the slim possibility that the critic may be right. Don’t waste time disagreeing or mentally arguing, listen. Listen and pretend they’re a genius–just for now.

SALT: When you have listened, considered and absorbed, THEN remember the grain of salt. This is an opinion–one person’s opinion or a whole class’ opinion, but still an opinion. Do you agree with it? Try. If not, stick to your guns and trust that you know your own goals. Don’t ever think that a suggestion is a rule, that you must change and adapt to every criticism or you will never stop fixing and changing things back and forth. Do change what you agree with. Do give serious thought to any suggestion that comes up more than once, or over and over again from different sources. But in the end, you decide.

Remember the two rules–they are good ones. Don’t interrupt. Never argue during the critique. If anyone ever says, “I like it” or “I don’t like it” insist on a detailed “why.” Embrace the horror–that is, the process– and learn to love it. Laugh at your mistakes and yourself often. Eventually, you might find yourself craving it, needing it. Personally, I’m suspicious of anyone who reads my work and doesn’t pick it apart, at least a little. Don’t trust the “I loved it” or the “It’s great” without further discussion! With a little practice, you too can be a critique masochist.

 

This post first appeared on Speculative Friction.

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