Taking criticism is challenging for everybody. In the writing business, it’s a given that you’re going to get some; in the process of learning to write, it’s completely unavoidable. Personally, I was lucky enough to write with such single-minded obsession and singularity of vision for the first part of my life that I got virtually no negative feedback on my writing – adults in my life just sort of stared and said, “Um,” which led me to believe that I was some sort of genius. That kept me writing.
Then I enrolled in creative writing seminars at U.C. Santa Cruz, and somewhere in the mountain lair of mad scientist Dr. Critic, this saturnine villain rubbed his razor-nailed hands together and said, “Exxxxcellent. Finally we can end this meddlesome crusader’s pathetic scribbling once and for all — Release The Flying Monkeys!”
Do you know the Flying Monkeys? Dr. Critic keeps them locked up in his mountain lair behind roll-up doors marked “Danger! Helpful Feedback” and “Constructive Criticism: Stay Back 40 Feet!” These flying monkeys are the Doc’s secret weapon in the quest for world domination; they are gene-spliced in subterranean laboratories out of the pilfered tissue of creative writing professors, Stephen King fans, mutant sociologists and people who think every book should be as good as As I Lay Dying or Atlas Shrugged – or, at least, incessantly compared to them.
Said Flying Monkeys may have had a go at you before, or they might just haunt your nightmares. They carry garden shears and find your main character unsympathetic; they swing baseball bats at your head and think you have too much exposition; they wear steel-toed boots and think your most poetic prose is uninspired; they throw their own excrement in great disgusting globules and consider your use of the present tense to be annoying and pretentious. I could go on; the flying monkeys have a million weapons, always ones you don’t expect. They have a billion pieces of “constructive criticism,” a trillion “suggestions” and a quadrillion “observations.”
If you’ve ever handed over a treasured piece of prose – or, worse yet, one you’re feeling insecure about – to a lover, teacher, friend, class or critique group, you may have gotten the Flying Monkey Treatment. And let me tell you: once those flying monkeys have a go at you, it’s tough to sit up straight for a while – maybe ever.
What they said is not important – or, rather, it’s not what this post as about. Their criticisms might be true; they might be false. No writer is perfect, and let’s face it, your writing might suck. But even if you’re a brilliant writer, the story in question might suck; everybody misses the mark once in a while. Some of us more often than not. It doesn’t mean you’re not good. The flying monkeys could conceivably be telling you something you need to hear.
But the flying monkeys don’t have to sit down and write the next story, and the next one, and the next one. Dr. Critic in his mountain lair with his infernal servants, his I.Q. of 260 and his improbable tinfoil headdress does not have to continue the novel after being told the first three chapters are mediocre at best. Your well-meaning friends and teachers don’t have to sit down in front of a blank screen and think, “What story do I want to tell today,” and come up with one. If you’re someone who writes, who has to write, then you do. And maybe your friends and teachers, if they’re also writers, do that too. But they don’t have to write your story. That’s your job.
And once you’ve been kicked in the balls by flying monkeys, that job can be goddamn hard to do.
How is it done?
Other writers will tell you they know; I will tell you I do not. Other writers, and other writing teachers, may be able to give you the most helpful feedback of all — how to survive “helpful feedback.” I cannot.
Because while I know I should welcome constructive criticism – and in fact, to this day I occasionally claim I welcome constructive criticism, I do not and never did. I just thought I was supposed to.
Unlike Peter Lorre in the Maltese Falcon, I never learned to “take it and like it.” I take it; I don’t like it. I will never like it. But after years of letting the monkeys have a go at me, I learned one thing that, to me, has been helpful, and I hope it can be helpful to you.
Your stories are not perfect. They do not need to be. They may not even be good. Hear me: They do not fucking need to be.
In the best case scenario, the point of constructive criticism is to make your writing better in terms of structure, prose, sensual detail, character development, inventiveness, plot, and all those other things that make good fiction a pleasure to read.
But the point of writing fiction is to write. In my view it is not, I repeat not, to write well.
“Writing well” is an admirable goal, and I strongly support it. But if you dropped dead three seconds after your last keystroke, would you rather have told a tale someone else enjoyed, or enjoyed the telling of it yourself?
Ideally, you don’t have to choose; everyone will love your writing, you included, and you’ll be signing options with Scorsese and jet-skiing in the Bahamas this time next year, or better yet having your self-published chapbook lauded by grad students in 100 years.
But when you sit in front of the blank screen and wonder if what you write will be good enough for the flying monkeys: Remember. You can never write well enough for the flying monkeys. And you don’t have to. Just write well enough to create that ecstatic sense of thunder on the keyboard, the rush of living large that comes from telling a story told with passion, not perfection.
That keyboard thunder, that rage as you tear through a story with bliss and compassion and pathos and energy?
It scares the flying monkeys. It scares them. It makes them cry big monkey tears.
It’s why they hate you in the first place.