In a previous post, I shared thoughts I’ve had about my novel being critiqued by my critique group.
One post is nowhere near enough words to cover my insights on this process, which is still in progress.
One particular insight has taken me all the way back to the 1990s.
For the majority of this decade, there was a sitcom I used to watch called Home Improvement.
Starring comedian Tim Allen, the show was about emotionally immature but well-meaning handyman Tim Taylor—a Detroit resident and family man who loved cars, tools, sports, and many other such “man’s man” pursuits, even if he wasn’t always very skilled at them.
Tim was also the host of a cable TV home improvement show call “Tool Time” (a parody of real-life handyman and TV host Bob Vila’s “This Old House”).
On this meta show-within-a-show, Tim and his long-suffering co-host Al would feature tools, perform renovation projects (which often ended in disaster due to Tim’s overconfident, accident-prone ways), and feature guest stars (including Bob Vila himself—Tim’s in-show nemesis).
Tim also used the show as a vehicle for boosting his (slowly) growing self-awareness and empathy toward others as a man.
“It’s not just about home improvement,” Tim would say, “it’s about male improvement.”
Decades after this show’s finale, this saying of Tim’s has stuck with me, seeming to bear much similarity to my experiences with having my novel critiqued.
I follow a number of writing/author blogs and social media posts, and have seen it mentioned more than once that the critique process can be devastating for new writers, to the point that they sometimes wind up paralyzed with doubt and quit writing altogether.
Some of the more extreme of these posts even go so far as to advise against critique groups or critique partners.
I disagree strongly with the underlying sentiment of this position—that one can improve their writing in the absence of external feedback.
I really don’t think this is possible—in any discipline or pursuit, least of all writing. DIY really will only take a person so far, and in writing, the effect often shows.
That being said, I do believe that critique—even when constructive and courteous—can be overwhelming and upsetting. I’ve experienced this first-hand during my own critique process.
As I mentioned before, I thought I was ready to be critiqued. I thought I’d easily handle the emotional toll of being told my work was lacking.
(I also thought that my work was much less lacking than it is, but that’s another matter for yet another post.)
I thought wrong.
What I couldn’t initially handle—what I still dread having to face yet again each week, and what I suspect writers who end up quitting after critique can’t handle—was the requirement to not interpret judgements on the quality of the work as a judgement of me as a person.
When receiving negative feedback that I agree with, there’s a whole spectrum of emotional responses that I often go through before finally being able to engage with the feedback on an intellectual level.
A lot of these emotions are inward-facing:
“I’m such an idiot to have written that.”
“I can’t believe I thought that was good writing.”
“I wish I’d never written that part.”
“This is so embarrassing.”
“I bet my CPs are secretly judging me.”
“They’re probably laughing at me.”
“They think I suck.”
“Maybe I do suck.”
“I don’t have what it takes to be an effective writer.”
Critique as a writing teacher
This is a challenging headspace to be in, and I can see how someone who’s not a firm believer in their writing abilities—even if the writing in question isn’t the best representation of said abilities—could fall prey to this kind of negative self-talk.
The very act of writing requires a show of extreme egoism. For an unpublished writer, this further precedes any validation that anyone cares about what you have to say.
To be a writer, you have to believe you can write, even when you don’t yet know how to write at all. For some people, this can be extremely difficult.
Because of this, in the vein of Tim Taylor, critique is not just about improving your novel; it’s about improving yourself as a writer. As a person.
It’s about building your resilience, your persistence, your belief that you can achieve something that may not bear fruit for a long time to come.
It’s about forgiving yourself for your current writing flaws and shortcomings as you slowly learn from your mistakes.
At the same time, it’s about reaffirming your vision for your story. About learning when to say yes to suggested revisions and when to say no. About learning to master your emotions and marshal them to make constructive changes in your story.
At the other end of my emotional spectrum of writerly despair and self-loathing, the place I inevitably manage to land—sometimes a harder landing than others—is more along the lines of “That’s a different interpretation”; ”Oops—I forgot about that”; “I never would have noticed/thought of that on my own.”
Which is exactly the kind of feedback that I need.
How has critique made you a better writer/better person?