You know how some people say they want criticism because it will make them better writers or artists or people? I think I have said it about writing. I also think I don’t mean it, even though I suspect I need it.
One of my favorite things that Ann Patchett said in her how-to-write novella The Getaway Car is that one of her teachers told her early on that she was talented but shallow. It seemed to make quite an impression on her, and she took that criticism and let it inform her writing. The result? She’s a stunning novelist, and she ain’t shallow.
I face, then, a dilemma. I hate to be criticized because it feels like it will KILL me (thanks, alcoholism, for that fun legacy), which is ironic, because I tend to assume all the time that I am being criticized. Or I am about to be criticized. Or I should be criticized. And if the good people in my life are too slow or unobservant to criticize me, then believe me, I will do it myself. Why outsource when I am such a good self-critic?
The problem is that self-criticism is like masturbating alone in hopes of making a baby. It doesn’t produce a baby and it usually inhibits me from sharing with Jeff, which is the only way to make a baby. (I just realized that this sounds like I masturbate a lot to avoid Jeff and making babies. I don’t. I mean, it’s none of your business if I do, and it’s not that kind of blog, so forget I mentioned masturbation all. I refuse to strike this paragraph, though, because the analogy is perfect.) (Hi, Grandma, this is just an analogy.)
Ask Jeff how fun it is to offer me any feedback at all, about absolutely anything. He will roll his eyes and tell you how futile it is because I can’t hear human language without thinking it’s somehow criticism of me. Now that I think about it, Jeff doesn’t have to talk at all. If he empties the dishwasher, he’s trying to let me know he thinks I am lazy for not doing it. If he takes the kids to the park while I sleep in, of course he’s communicating that he thinks I am a horrible mother. If he doesn’t agree with me, then naturally he’s really trying to say that he thinks I am stupid and regrets procreating with me. Right?
Can’t you hear the criticism here:
Me: Did you know Barney Frank’s husband is 30 years his junior?
Me: Why do you hate me?
Jeff: Wait. I thought we were talking about Senator Frank’s new husband?
Me: Fine. If you want to change the subject. Why can’t you admit you hate me and everything I stand for? Is it my father issues? You hate me because I have father issues like Senator Frank’s husband?
* * *
And that’s the magic of my brain. I need feedback, but when I get it, I have a huge Girl Interrupted drama about it and cycle through about 10 waves of shame that are best handled by professional 911 operators. I know I can’t have a career in writing if I can’t take criticism. It also might be nice for my marriage to be able to have a conversation without flipping the fuck out just because Jeff asks me what the plan for the day is.
Do you take criticism well? Do you hear it everywhere even if no one is criticizing you? What’s the most helpful criticism you ever received?