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.