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Whenever your work is critiqued, keep an open mind, but protect your heart. ⤺ Tweet This!
I was invited to be a guest of honor at this premiereWriter’s Retreat of San Buenas by Ezekiel Tyrus, author of one of my favorite novels of recent years, Eli, Ely, and the forthcoming follow-up My Dirty Books, which I’ve read and likewise vouch for.
While I’m quite flattered, I also feel ready to take on the challenge. The only part about it that bothers me is the actual traveling. The rest of it will be relatively simple, and fun.
The reason for this is I am a writer myself, and have been for most of my life. While I consider myself a professional, I have no formal education. I’m essentially self-taught. The curriculum won't be of an academic nature. And it’s not meant to be.
Zeke and I discussed the overall objective of the workshops, and agreed they should be focused on inspiration, not promotion. That comes much later. Right now, it's all about getting in touch with one’s unique sense of self, and finding a way to express that to the world in ways that are relatable, possibly commercial, but always honest.
This isn’t as easy as it seems. Take it from me. Though truthfully, I’m one of those people that have a hard time shutting up about themselves, even the private stuff. My life is the main source of material for my books, filtered through my various pop culture obsessions. It is literally an open book.
But that’s just me. My goal in Costa Rica (other than not to sweat to death) is to help these aspiring authors reach within and discover their own angels and demons, and then mate them with whatever muse best suits their sensibilities.
For many, the tropical flora and fauna of Costa Rica, along with its villages and beaches, will provide inspiration in and of themselves. A writer’s physical environment is always essential to the artistic process, I believe.
But things like emotional authenticity and conveying universal experiences via a personalized prism require a lot of hard work, both as a writer, and as a person.
Providing a positive atmosphere is crucial to maintaining a positive attitude. People respond more productively to kindness than hostility. It's human nature. The key is to encourage experimentation, and not allow disappointment to turn into discouragement.
A workshop should be an informal, casual laboratory, not a torture dungeon. Assignments are more appreciated, and ultimately more effective, when they are treated as exercises, not necessarily “tests.” One's limitations should be challenged, but not one's determination.
From my perspective, the student should be made to feel proud of his or her achievements, however modest, not to wallow in their perceived failures. If I had given into my own insecurities or heeded naysaying voices, I’d have quit a long time ago. And then I wouldn’t be going to Costa Rica. (Though I will miss Seattle, but only for a week).
While informed critiques can be very useful and are often necessary in the development of talent, they should never be condescending. It doesn’t matter whether the comments are coming from a professor, a reviewer, an agent, an editor, a publisher. If their words aren’t meant to help, they’re only going to hurt.
There’s no need for that, ever.
Cruel To Be Kind?
When absorbing criticism of your work, consider the source, and if you trust it, take it to heart, but if down deep you disagree with it, or have doubts about the sincerity of the critic, simply disregard it. Follow your own instincts first and foremost, but never let your own pride or ego bog down your progress.
If you’re wrong, or if you just plain suck, you’ll find out soon enough. Your audience will let you know. After a while, your own creative conscience will keep you in line too, if you let it. It all depends on your agenda.
Of course, you can circumvent the risk of alienating readers with amateurish work by following the advice of others, if it is coming from someone that is not only more experienced than you are, but has your best interests in mind.
Authors with more experience doesn’t mean they’re more talented, just like being older doesn't automatically make one wiser. It just means they’ve polished and honed their own skills, and are simply passing that knowledge on to you, ideally free of charge. This is a good thing. You should take advantage of it if you want to improve your own chances of success by fully realizing your own potential.
If you’re taking a formal course and are concerned with your grade, as you should be, you will probably want to acquiesce to the learned wisdom of your teacher, at least for the sake of your academic career. But if your teacher berates you, either publicly or privately, my advice frankly would be to walk out of the classroom, and not look back. No price is worth the sacrifice of your dignity as a human being.
The same goes for online trolls trying to boost their own self-esteem by destroying yours. Your best defense is not to engage them at all, but to totally ignore them. Unless you live in an oppressive regime, the only power people have over you is the power you give them. Deny them that satisfaction, and they will quickly run out of fuel for their unfriendly fire.
Self-respect is something that has to be earned, just like any type of respect. But once you have it, you'll realize its worth going forward. It's one of the most potent pieces of an author’s armor, especially in the indie industry.
Confidence and arrogance are not the same things, either. Your writing career, like life itself, is a continuous learning experience. Keep an open mind, but protect your heart.
Criticism from others is an important part of this education. Cruelty is not.
There is never any excuse for anyone boasting professional credentials to belittle anyone else, especially if it's a veteran author tutoring an ambitious protégé.
History is filled with examples of classic literature (and movies, art, music, etc.) that was initially dissed or altogether dismissed by critics and self-proclaimed “experts” at the time of its release, only to be vindicated by the ultimate authority on the subject: time itself.
So if you get a one star review on Amazon, or an agent responds to your query suggesting you don’t have what it takes to make it, or your creative writing instructor gives your latest paper a failing grade, take it in stride, chalk it up to experience, and move on.
But even if it momentarily trips you up, which is a perfectly natural reaction, don’t let it cripple your spirit. I know. I’ve had my spirits crushed more times than I can count, in a wide variety of ways, and I'm still picking up the pieces, some of which I'll never recover. And I’m okay with that. But the point is, I'm still standing. Well, sitting at the moment, but typing these words. And getting paid for them.
The wisest among us will always listen and learn, but that doesn’t always mean every piece of advice should be heeded, especially if it comes with an insult. That type of negativity says a lot more about the critic than it does about you.
PHOTO: RAMONA FORCELLA
New Orleans, LA