Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Quick Word... On Critics

Tomorrow I go to my first writing workshop session with uni, and someone will formally critique the short story I wrote for the course, Wild Heart, which will then be open to the class to comment on as they wish. I'm sure the experience will be valuable, but to be honest I'm scared. It's perhaps the first time I have been up for criticism so openly - 21 people all with their chance to say whatever they like about my work.

To be honest though, you've got to be ready for your critics, and it's good training, because sooner or later someone is going to challenge your work. No matter how great a writer you are, there is not a single book in the world that is universally loved. Even the ones that get close have vehement haters lurking around them. Someday, whether it's true or not, you're going to be told you suck. And you have to be prepared to take the criticism and not let it get in the way of your dream.

I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies. My posture is consciously congruent to the shape of my hard chair. This is a cold room in University Administration, wood-walled, Remington-hung, double-windowed against the November heat, insulated from Administrative sounds by the reception area outside, at which Uncle Charles, Mr. deLint and I were lately received.

I am in here.

Three faces have resolved into place above summer-weight sportcoats and half-Windsors across a polished pine conference table shiny with the spidered light of an Arizona noon. These are three Deans - of Admissions, Academic Affairs, Athletic Affairs. I do not know which face belongs to whom.

I believe I appear neutral, maybe even pleasant, though I've been coached to err on the side of neutrality and not attempt what would feel to me like a pleasant expression or smile.

I have committed to crossing my legs I hope carefully, ankle on knee, hands together in the lap of my slacks. My fingers are mated into a mirrored series of what manifests, to me, as the letter X. The interview room's other personnel include: the University's Director of Composition, its varsity tennis coach, and Academy prorector Mr. A. deLint. C.T. is beside me; the others sit, stand and stand, respectively, at the periphery of my focus. The tennis coach jingles pocket-change. There is something vaguely digestive about the room's odor. The high-traction sole of my complimentary Nike sneaker runs parallel to the wobbling loafer of my mother's half-brother, here in his capacity as Headmaster, sitting in the chair to what I hope is my immediate right, also facing Deans.

The Dean at left, a lean yellowish man whose fixed smile nevertheless has the impermanent quality of something stamped into uncooperative material, is a personality-type I've come lately to appreciate, the type who delays need of any response from me by relating my side of the story for me, to me. Passed a packet of computer sheets by the shaggy lion of a Dean at center, he is peaking more or less to these pages, smiling down.
What you may or may not have noticed, depending on your own reading tastes, is that this is actually the first page of David Foster-Wallace's magnum opus Infinite Jest, named by Time Magazine as one of the last century's 'hundred greatest novels'. Whether you picked it or not, the people of Google Answers didn't. What is now being called 'The Internet Vs. Infinite Jest" is humbling but devastating reading. The most popular answer, as voted by users?

"You know your story needs more work, so you don't need me to tell you what you already know."

Other comments are just as cutting. "I frankly do not care where each person is sitting... If you took out all the unnecessary details you'd be left with about seven words."

My favourite is: "I recommend that you check out William Strunk and E.B. White's Elements of Style... That should clear a few things up."


You are always going to have your critics, no matter how good you are. That is an important message for both writing and life. If you truly believe in the quality of your work and the power of your story, chances are that sooner or later you'll find someone else who believes in it too. Learn to take feedback without feeling bound to it. People are entitled to feel and say whatever the hell they want about a text; that is the reader's right.

But you know what? It's a writer's right too.

So if you have to, fight for it.

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