On praise, criticism, and the continuum

“Works of art are of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is so useless as criticism. Only love can touch and hold them and be fair to them. Always trust yourself and your own feeling… if it turns out that you are wrong, then the natural growth of your inner life will eventually guide you to other insights.” — Rainer Maria Rilke

I got some loving, insightful, critical feedback recently on something I’d written. There is an art to handling critical feedback, just as much as in creation itself. This time, my friend’s comments had me feeling neither resentful nor crushed. I’m deeply appreciative of her compassion and intelligence; her feedback will ultimately make me a better writer. One thing critique can show us is how we respond when we rub up against other people, because that’s ultimately what it is — an interaction between your deepest mind (which, if you’ve tried, your work should reflect) and another mind which is not yours.

When I’ve written something I like, I get excited about it. I want to share it with everyone, because I think it is so awesome and fantastic! (I mean, that’s why I blog, right?) And the writing is awesome and fantastic — for me. Doing our own best work, and recognizing it as such, generates a high. There’s a giddiness there, like falling in love, and sometimes we’re so enamored of ourselves that we forget love makes us vulnerable. Even when critical feedback is helpful, it still has a dampening effect. It’s like someone pointing out that the object of your affections is actually cross-eyed and pigeon-toed. You still love them, but there’s a little comedown when you realize, “Oh, not everyone feels the way I do.” Critical feedback says to you: “This may be the best thing you’ve ever written, but it’s not the best thing anyone has ever written, and in fact it’s not even the best thing I’ve ever read.” The I-did-great-work high dissipates… sometimes a little bit, or — if the critique is given too harshly or too soon — forever.

I remember some critical feedback I gave recently on a friend’s autobiographical poem. This friend is a very talented and evocative writer, and this story was about an especially difficult episode of her life. It brought tears to my eyes. But I also felt, critically, that the story could be better —  in fact, I felt the story was important enough that it deserved to be better. My friend said her gut feeling was that the story still needed something. I agreed, “Yes… I think it could be better.” Then I looked at her face. I don’t know whether she was already making a scrunchy face, or whether my words caused her to make that face, but it suddenly occurred to me that I might have sounded harsh. So I tried to say, “The story is really touching,” but she said, “No, I know,” and we both said (I repeated): “But it could be better.” I know my friend is a good enough writer and wise enough person to deal with critique, but I’ve definitely thought about this moment many times since.

When people talk about telling the truth, they sometimes advise that we should “say exactly what we think.” But what we think is always a continuum, isn’t it? I had to look up continuum to make sure I was using it right, but the definition was even better than I’d imagined: “A continuous… whole, no part of which can be distinguished from neighboring parts except by arbitrary division.”* You could say that all thoughts are part of a continuum, but feedback is particularly dangerous because we’re asking not to hear the whole continuum. We want the barbs as pure and sharp and incisive as possible, not padded and muffled with cushions.

The danger about critique is in mistaking the single thought for the continuum. When my friend gave me her critique, it was a comedown for me, but she was so thoughtful and kind and generous that I knew there was support behind the critical remarks. And when I gave my critique on my other friend’s poem, I hope she recognized that “your story could be better” was only part of a continuum that also includes “because you can do it,” and “because this story has the potential to be so moving, so powerful, that to publish it now would be to do all of us a disservice,” and, ultimately, “because I love you.”

This mistaking the single thought for the continuum is also what makes praise highly dangerous, though we don’t talk about that end of things as much. We spend a lot of time learning how to cope with criticism, but I really believe that praise is just as volatile and should be treated with as much caution. Not only does praise tie us to the giver of praise (because we tend to keep on seeking approval from those who’ve been known to give it), but it lulls us into turning off our critical faculties. It’s not that we shouldn’t appreciate praise when we get it, but we need to take it with the same grain of salt with which we take critique. I think a lot of experienced artists know this, and that’s why they’re humble when people shower them with compliments. It’s not false modesty; it’s their earnest attempt not to get sucked into their own hype, because they know that would be the death of their art.

*The American Heritage College Dictionary, third edition. Purchased in my sophomore year of high school after Mr Stephan drilled into us that even the best of us could benefit from a good dictionary. Thank you, Mr Stephan.