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When Critiques Wound

I tell the following story in support of Amy Sundberg’s post “You’re Not a Weenie if a Critique Makes You Cry” because I have cried at critiques, and what I did afterward is the reason it didn’t make me a weenie.

I was invited to join a writer’s group during the summer of 2007. I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to, writing had always been a solo venture for me, but my good friend wanted me in the group and I wondered what it would be like, so I agreed to give it a try. At the time I had one professional story story sale and a small pile of drafted stories. The group included one novelist with several novel sales under his belt (who later went on to be a New York Times best seller), one multi-sale short story writer (who went on to win a Nebula), one novelist with several novels finished (who later was nominated for the Campbell award), my friend (who has since sold a novel and at the time had written 5 novels), a couple of wise readers, and me. The awards and amazing credits came later, but I knew before showing up for the first meeting what caliber of writers I was going to critique and be critiqued by. It was a little like jumping into the deep end of the pool after only a few swimming lessons.

The first meeting arrived. I had a story critiqued and while the process was difficult, the other folks in the group knew how to deliver a critique kindly. They said things and I could suddenly see gaping holes in my story. Equally important, they pointed out what was working in the story and why it worked well. When I offered my critiques of their chapters, I got to see enlightened looks in response. It all went very well, which is why I was so surprised that the first thing I did on arriving home was go to my husband and cry. The whole experience had been emotionally wringing. The fact that things went well did not change the fact that I had emotionally braced for it to go very badly. I’d been terrified that my critiques would be useless, that I would have nothing to add. I’d been afraid that they would see nothing of value in the work I submitted. I was still sorting out the social mix of people. I was trying to figure out when I could tease and when I needed to play things straight. I didn’t know what social landmines were buried in the group and I was terrified of stepping on one. I really wanted to be friends with these people because they were fun and because I knew I had tons to learn from them. My husband held me tight, stood me up straight again, and told me I had to go back the next week. So I did.

The second week was when I put my foot squarely on one of those social landmines. My story was being critiqued and I liked the new ideas that the critique was sparking. I was feeling more relaxed with the group and ready for further discussion. I responded to the critique with a mild defense of what I’d written, explaining what I’d really meant. I did not know that ‘arguing with a critique’ was a hot button for the most experienced novelist there. As soon as critique comments on my story were done, he called me on it. Looking back, his actual words were a mild reminder, a setting out of ground rules for this new group we were all building. Unfortunately I was in such an emotionally heightened and fragile place that I felt slapped down. I folded inward both emotionally and physically. My mind raced as I re-examined every single thing I’d said that evening and the week before, trying to figure out what other stupid newbie mistakes I had made. I was suddenly certain that I was only present on sufferance, that everyone else in the group wondered why on earth I’d been invited to join. The thoughts were not rational, but at that point I was completely unable to be rational. The group moved on to the next piece to be critiqued. I tried to swallow the lump in my throat. Then I tried to blink back my tears. Then I pulled my long hair from it’s ponytail so it could fall forward to hide my face. About the third time I sneaked a hand up to wipe away a tear I knew I was fooling no one and I fled to the bathroom.

I sat in that bathroom and cried. I cried as silently as I could, because the living room full of writers was a mere 15 feet and one door away. Sobbing can be done silently if you’re careful. The front door of the condo was also about 15 feet and one door away. I seriously considered slipping out. What did they think of me? I could hear their voices rumbling, they’d continued onward rather than waiting for me to return. I was grateful that my weakness had not derailed the evening for everyone. I could not face them. It was mortifying with the emphasis on “mort”, the Latin root meaning death. Adults don’t run to the bathroom and cry. Professional writers don’t hide behind their hair when given a critique, not even if it is a critique of how to behave during critiques. Minutes stretched in that bathroom and I slowly filled the trash can with wadded damp toilet paper.

This is the hard truth about critiques which rarely gets mentioned: If the critique hits one of your writing insecurities, or if you’re uncertain about the relationship with the person critiquing you, then the process can be emotionally injurious. And the writer is not the only one at risk, the critiquer is taking a risk as well. People can get hurt. I got hurt.

My plan to flee faltered on two points 1. I’d left my car keys in the living room with everyone else and 2. if I left I did not know how I would ever be able to come back. Not only that, but I would see these people at almost every local convention and event. I would have to face them at some point or flee from writing speculative fiction completely. I splashed water on my face and took a deep breath. I repeated that process several times until I’d achieved a state where everyone could quietly pretend to not notice how red my face and eyes were. Then I walked out the door and across 15 feet to rejoin the group. I sat down in my abandoned chair and proceeded to participate as if nothing had happened. There was a momentary pause when I entered, but then everyone followed my lead. We had a useful and productive critique session. I even managed to keep the waterworks closed down by focusing on the subject at hand.

The critiques were done, everyone relaxed a bit and began to enjoy the purely social part of the evening. I still felt unsettled though. I could not pretend my crying jag out of existence, so I turned to the writer who’d scolded me and deliberately laid open the subject of arguing with critiques. I apologized for my weakness. He apologized in return, he had not intended to be harsh. What followed was a very good group discussion on critiquing. By the time I left, I felt more comfortable with the group and I knew I would be back the next week. Of course, I cried more when I got home and told my husband the story, but then I dried up the tears and went back to work.

What matters most about this story is not “suck it up and get back on the horse” what matters is that I faced the hurt straight on, I addressed it with the other people involved, and through it we all came to a greater understanding of each other. Critiques require trust and an intention to help. This event proved to me that I had a stellar group who was willing to accept me despite my obvious human failings. They would not judge me as a person even if my writing was awful or if I fled to the bathroom in tears. This is imperative in a critique group. It is why that group was so invaluable to me and why I am still good friends with everyone who was there. When I had to leave the group six months later, due to scheduling conflicts, I was honestly grieved to no longer be a part of it.

Are you going to cry or be depressed because of critiques or reviews? Yes. That is normal and it is human. What matters is what you do afterward.

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14 comments to When Critiques Wound

  • Great blog post, Sandra. I’ve had critiques that have torn me in half before, but they were almost universally the kind of things that made me a better writer later on.

  • You wrote,

    I could not face them. It was mortifying with the emphasis on “mort”, the Latin root meaning death. Adults don’t run to the bathroom and cry.

    And I nearly started crying right then. I have been there, and it sucks worse than an army of Hoovers. Not just the hurt that causes the crying, but also that little voice planted in the back of all our heads that says “Grow up, act your age, if you were a real mature adult you wouldn’t let them get to you, you’d just let it go, there must be something wrong with you that you let this get under your skin.”

    “Adults don’t run to the bathroom and cry.” Gods, I wish this piece of social conditioning would BE DESTROYED IN ALL THE FIRES.

    Its just one more piece of “Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me” and “if you just ignored them, they’d leave you alone” that we get told as kids when we’re bullied. It’s victim blaming then, and it teaches us, as adults, to blame ourselves now.

    The truth is, being an adult confers no immunity against being hurt, and other people can hurt us so easily — sometimes by accident, sometimes on purpose. Sometimes it only takes one off-hand comment to ruin a person’s day. Some people do it for fun.

    I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. I’m just venting, because it resonated with me on all my frequencies. I’m so glad you wrote this, and that Amy Sundberg wrote her piece too.

    • Thank you. I’m glad you decided to vent here where I can read it. Sympathetic agreement is a good thing.

      I’m right with you on “ignore them and they’ll leave you alone” being useless. What I like to do is help my kids deconstruct the social situation so they can analyze what hidden emotional needs drive bullying behavior. Then the kids can learn how to disrupt the feedback loop which keeps bullying going. I wish more schools taught this, but I don’t think many adults know how to do it either.

  • Amy

    Oh, Sandra, this piece has really touched me. How brave you were to rejoin the group and open discussion!

    I think you’ve got it right on. If you cry or are otherwise hurt or upset because of critique, who cares? It’s fine; it’s human. What matters is what you make of it, whether that be opening dialogue around it, or going on to learn useful lessons from what was said and improving your writing, or merely continuing to write instead of giving up. Also, through difficult conversation sometimes the closest and most rewarding relationships are formed.

    Thank you for the reminder.

  • Sandra, I was very glad you came back and participated in the group that night and in subsequent weeks. Your comments were always insightful and I’ve always liked your writing.

    • Thank you Eric. I still miss that group. It was such a great group of friends. Now those people are spread across 3 different writing groups (that I know of). Some day I’ll have time to submit to a writing group again. Right now I’m just reading for others.

  • Great post. That really touched me. You handled that very well. And good for you for going back in there! I have had enough embarrassing crying moments in my life to know how hard that would be.

  • Alex Gordy

    I write poetry and whether fortunately or unfortunately, I think all of the comment or critique on my work has been positive. I don’t know if that’s made me a stronger writer, but it has encouraged me to write more and more. I eventually worked up to reading a piece publicly. I wrote a poem after attending my Great Grandmother’s visitation and subsequently read it at her funeral and I cried. I cried while reading it in front of my family, I let the minister read a stanza and then read the final one. It was hard and I was a little afraid and nervous that somebody might not like it and given the subject matter and the event and the reason for reading it, such news would have hurt, but I did it and I hope I’m stronger for doing so.
    I’m glad you went back into that group and faced the people inside. It can be hard to face difficulties, especially concerning your own work, but I personally think it’s always best to go through with it.

    • Positive critiques of the “keep going” type are essential no matter how experienced the writer may be. A really good critique points out good things as much or more than things which could be improved. I’m glad you had the courage to read the poem aloud. Doing scary things makes us stronger.

  • This is a wonderful post.

    Connie Willis once said that if you haven’t had critiques hurt or cause an emotional response, you’re doing it wrong. The it being the writing. If the critiques cause an emotional response then you’re really putting yourself into your work, and that’s one of the things that makes great fiction :).