Being Perfect, Accepting Criticism, and Generally Getting Over Myself

IMG_2703I was in elementary school when I got my first C on a test. It was probably math, because back then I thought I hated math. I got home from school, and sobbed because a C was clearly the end of the world. And my mom sat me down and explained that I didn’t have to be perfect.

I can’t count the number of times she told me that, but it never quite sank in.

I used to be a poor sport, throwing a quiet temper tantrum if I lost a game. Oh, I thought I was holding in my temper quite well, but everyone else knew I was being a big baby. (This was in my 20s.) Still, I’m generally good at everything, so people kept playing with me because I didn’t lose all that often.

Any criticism, even the mild kind, could make me fume for weeks. Because if someone criticized me, clearly they hated me and everything about me, right? The flip side of that is that if I said or did something I perceived as “wrong,” I could obsess over it for weeks as well.

One day, I was getting ready to go play games with my friends, and I thought back to the last time we played. I remembered eating and drinking, making silly jokes and laughing a lot. I remembered who was there and what we played. But no matter how hard I thought, I couldn’t remember who won.

And that was eye-opening for me.

I didn’t get over myself overnight, but that realization started the slow process. Whenever I started to take something too seriously or get upset about it, I’d just ask myself, “Will I even remember this in a month?” If the answer was no, I made myself move on.

Then I started participating in online critiques of my writing, and the old feelings resurfaced. I made myself put the critiques aside for a day or two before responding. And I found that as long as I didn’t respond right away, I could get over my hurt and see that much of the critique was helpful. Not all of it, of course. Sometimes criticism is just a difference of opinion, and I didn’t have to go with it. But if I assumed that everyone who criticized me was coming from a place of genuinely wanting to help me, it made the criticism easier to take.

I know that not everyone wants to help, and that criticism can be malicious. But it’s not my job to sort out other people’s emotions. I just assume everyone has my best interests at heart, and move on. Other people’s negativity doesn’t have to affect me, unless I let it.

It wasn’t until I was in grad school to be a counselor that I realized how much progress I’d made. We all had to tape ourselves doing “counseling sessions” with other students, and then get feedback from our professor in front of the whole class. I really respected this professor, and desperately wanted her praise. But when she saw my video, she picked out all the areas where I could improve.

I felt myself turning red, and those old feelings of having to be perfect wanted to come to the surface. But I told myself to pay attention to what she was saying, really listen, and think about it later when I had time to decide how to feel, and if it was helpful.

When she was done ripping my counseling session to shreds (that’s how it felt, though it probably wasn’t reality because she is a genuinely good human being), one of the other students said, “Wow, that was really amazing. How could you just sit there and take all that criticism? I’d be in tears.”

I took a deep breath and said, “Well, this is where we’re supposed to mess up, right? I’ll learn more from my mistakes than my successes. This way, when I get into the real world, I won’t hurt anyone, and I’ll do it right.” And that tight ball of tension inside me dissolved, because I realized that I meant it.

Criticism is still hard to handle sometimes. And of course, I love praise for a job well done. But regularly attending a writer’s group and having consistent critiques has been a wonderful asset to working on this aspect of myself.  That criticism doesn’t hurt, most of the time. Sure, once in awhile, if I’m having a bad day and feeling emotional, those old feelings try to struggle to the surface.

But I mostly tell them to shut up.

If I’m really having a bad day, I know who I can text to rescue me from negative thoughts. And I also try to write compliments and positive feedback into my journal, so if I’m struggling with negative thoughts, I read over the things people said to me that made me feel good.

And I remind myself not to take it all so seriously. It’s just life, right?

How do you handle criticism?

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Open Letter to The Writer Who Left My Group

IMG_8652Dear Writer Who Left My Writer’s Group,

I was sad when you dropped out of our writer’s group. You had good input, and I really liked your story.

I felt bad about it, like it might be partly my fault. See, at our last group, you got a tough review from another writer. And you also got a tough review from me. I don’t think I remembered to tell you how much I liked your story, and I should have. Maybe that would have helped.

See, I’ve been there. Two months into my writer’s group, I got a tough review from the same person. I fought tears during group, trying to put on a brave face, like it didn’t bother me. I thought I did a good job, but other people could probably tell how upset I was. I know I could tell how upset you were.

After that group, I thought about just giving up. Not writing anymore. It seemed pointless. I mean, I’ve been doing this for awhile, and if I’m not where I want to be, then why bother? I almost dropped out of group.

Then, I got together with a friend, who said all the things I needed to hear at that moment. That the critiquer was just trashing my work because he was jealous of how awesome I am. That he didn’t know what he was talking about. That obviously he was just an idiot with no taste. I mean, my friend was wrong. But it got me out of that funk I was in.

See, the problem was that my critiquer was right, and I knew he was right. That’s why it stung so badly. He wasn’t right about everything, of course. But he was right about enough that I knew I needed to take a good hard look at my writing.

I’m going to confess; I’ve been a lazy writer. I haven’t always worked as hard on a piece as I could. And should. My anger inspired me to be a better writer.

My critiquer is now a good friend. And I really count on his input, because I know he won’t sugar-coat anything. It still stings from time to time, but I don’t take it personally anymore.

So back to you, writer who left. I was going to tell you all this. I wanted to contact you after group and let you know that we’ve all been there, that I like your story, and encourage you to keep going.

But your profile on Meetup didn’t allow me to send you a message, or give me any way to contact you. And then you left our group, so now I really can’t get in touch.

I’m sad you left, but I have to remember that the world doesn’t revolve around me. Maybe it really went down the way I think it did, or maybe you had to leave for a completely unrelated reason.

Either way, know that I’m thinking of you, and I’m hoping I see the best version of your story out there someday.

And know that next time, I’ll make sure I tell other writers that I like their work, try to end on a positive note. Because maybe you would have left anyway. But if I had said that it was good work, and then you left, I wouldn’t feel bad.

I’d just figure you weren’t ready.

Best of luck, wherever you are.

Doree

P.S. This comic has been stuck in my mind, so I thought I’d share it.

What I Learned in 2014

In Vancouver, Canada Photo Credit: Doree Weller

In Vancouver, Canada
Photo Credit: Doree Weller

Odd numbered years tend to be better for me than even numbered years.  And while 2014 wasn’t awful, it wasn’t great either.  That being said, 2014 was full of learning experiences, and I have to be grateful for those.  Perhaps, like literary fiction, 2014 will be better in review than it was while living it.

I learned that I needed to remember how much I love poetry and quotes.  When I was a teenager, I kept a notebook where I dutifully copied poetry and quotes that I loved.  I still have that notebook somewhere.  As I got older, I started saving things I liked in folders in my email, and promptly forgot them.  For years, I’ve loved upcycled notebooks and bought them, but then didn’t write anything in them.  Well, I now have an awesome poetry and quotes book.  I copy things down and doodle in it.  Writing things I love in there is more immediate than saving them on my computer, and it feels more personal.

Journaling is fun and therapeutic.  I’ve been a sporadic journaler for a few years, and even when I was doing more of it, it was mostly stuff about what I did during the day; nothing exciting. Recently I turned my journal into a place where I jot down all my thoughts.  Things about stories, reflections on my day, positive things that people have said to me.  And you know what?  Just like that, not only do I enjoy journaling again, but I find that it’s a good way to process my day or my feelings on something.

Colored pens make everything better.  Okay, they don’t cure world hunger or addiction, but if I’m having a bad day, doodling in my journal in colored pens makes me smile.  It doesn’t matter if I can’t draw; as long as it’s in color, it looks great.

I learned that no matter how many friends I have, there’s always room for more.  I’m an introvert, so in my mind, I only need so many friends.  I mean, there’s only so much time in life.  Despite my intentions, I ended up making a new friend this year, someone who will undoubtedly be around for the rest of my life.

Books aren’t written; they’re rewritten.  I know this, but I still have to learn it over and over again.  I just have to keep editing until I get it right, and every time, it will be a little better than it was last time.  That’s okay.  The best things in life take time.

Criticism hurts, but it won’t kill me.  I joined a fantastic writer’s group, and got some feedback that really stung.  After I got over licking my wounds and eating 41 pints of ice cream, I took an objective look at the criticism I received.  Some of it, I still disagreed with, so I filed it away and decided not to edit anything based on that.  Other parts of the criticism were spot on, and I made some changes based on that.  Once I got over tripping on my own ego, I realized that I was presented with a unique opportunity to improve.

I strive to be a lifelong learner, and I’m very excited to see what’s going to happen in 2015.  What, if anything, did you learn in 2014?

 

U is for Unbelievable

I like writing cross genre, and most of the things I write require some suspension of disbelief.  Now, I’m the perfect audience in both books and movies.  As long as the unbelievableness makes sense in the context of the universe created, I’ll buy it.  I can suspend disbelief and get totally into it.  On the other hand, I’m horrible to watch with when it doesn’t quite make sense in context.  I’ll comment, I’ll yell at the movie (or my book).  I won’t stop watching or reading (unless it’s so bad I can’t continue); I’ll just annoy everyone around me.

I had someone critique one of my works in progress (WIP).  In the WIP, the main character learns she is from a different world and is special, etc, etc.  The person who critiqued it said that he couldn’t believe she accepted it so fast and that it didn’t make sense.  So, being the good little receiver of criticism I was trying to be, I went back and edited.  I added in disbelief and vacillation for pages and pages.

And it slowed down the pace like crazy.

I recently re-read a Black Dagger Brotherhood book (if you haven’t read these, they’re phenomenal, BTW).  In these books, humans find out that vampires do exist.  They have trouble with belief at first, but it doesn’t go on for pages and pages.  If you really examine the reactions, it’s not realistic.  But it works.

Writing isn’t about realism, unless of course you’re writing a memoir or non-fiction.  People don’t read fiction to read about the ordinary person who gets up day after day, eats breakfast, takes a shower, goes to work, comes home, and watches TV.  Though the Sims made a killing off that, people want to read about drama and action.  They want to read about ordinary people who become special or end up in situations we’d all like to be in: falling in love, having families, saving the world.  Since most of us realize that that heady rush of falling in love comes rarely in a person’s life, if we want to relive it, we have to do it vicariously, through books and movies.  Who wants realism in that?

In the end, I went back to my WIP with a critical eye.  I remembered some of the things I’ve read about editing.  In the end, the WIP belongs to the writer.  We want readers to love it, but not every bit of criticism, no matter how well meant, is good criticism.  That’s why it’s important to develop that critical skin as writers, where we can take criticism, chew it over, think about it (without getting insulted!), then separate out the usable parts from the not-so-usable parts.

After all, I’m one of your readers, and I’ll believe anything, as long as it makes sense in your universe.